The Hidden Cost of Social Media: Part One

The world has never been more connected than it is now. With over 3.7 billion users of social media, so many functions of the world that used to take place in person have shifted online. Through social media, users find community, build relationships with virtual strangers, and obtain jobs. In fact, social media is so widely used that it has become a popular tool for human traffickers. Social media is not authentic. Instead, social media allows users to present any version of themselves to the world, no matter how false that presentation is. Because social media allows users to hide behind the relative safety of their screens, human traffickers can use that to their advantage to recruit, control, and exploit victims.

Due to a large number of vulnerable children and teens on social media, human traffickers utilize social media sites to build relationships with potential victims. In 2017, The National Human Trafficking Hotline, which monitors human trafficking in America, received just under 1,000 calls from human trafficking victims who were recruited over social media. Of these calls, the biggest platforms for recruiting were Facebook with over 250 reports, datings apps with 120 reports, and Instagram with 80 reports. Human traffickers will identify a vulnerable victim and build a romantic relationship where the victims are coerced into prostitution or online sexual exploitation.

First contact with a victim often happens through a comment on a post or direct message, then the next stage often called, “boyfriending”, is a stage of manipulation and extreme flattery. Lastly, the human trafficker will purchase a ticket for the victim and trafficker to meet face to face. In addition to recruitment through romantic relationships, human traffickers will post fake or misleading job information online.

For example, the image above shows a typical recruitment post on Facebook based on real comments but rewritten to protect identities. These fake or exaggerated job postings demonstrate “indicators of fraud such as inflated earning potential, extreme promises regarding immigration benefits… and vague and elusive conditions regarding the job itself.” These types of posts generally attract people seeking out better wages and working conditions; however, the promises made in these posts are false and those who fall prey are tricked into forced labor.

In order to assess the cost of human trafficking to society, the costs can be split into intangible and tangible costs. As suggested by McCollister, this method enables an economist to estimate tangible costs such as crime prevention, court expenses, harm to the victim, and loss of labor, while also estimating intangible costs that traditional economics might not consider such as physiological harm to the victim. The use of social media as a form of recruitment for human trafficking has huge implications for society. The use of social media as a form of recruitment complicates the regulation and prevention of the crime leading to additional tangible costs. Due to the increased risk of using social media, there is also an increase in intangible costs in the form of decreased safety and security.

Part two in this series will post tomorrow.

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