Human trafficking is a growing crime that is part of an estimated $150 billion dollar industry. While the victims of human trafficking recruited through social media are only a small portion of the 16,000 estimated human trafficking victims in the U.S. every year, the number of victims recruited through social media is probably much higher than the confirmed cases. This is due to human trafficking victims’ unwillingness to report to authorities. Unfortunately, human traffickers are using social media not only as a recruitment method but also as a way to distribute explicit content from their victims online.
Subscription platforms like OnlyFans have made sharing explicit content online an easy source of income for traffickers. OnlyFans is a social media platform where users pay a subscription fee or one-time fee to gain access to content creators’ work, which is primarily explicit content. While OnlyFans claims it places age restrictions on the platform, child pornography continues to be distributed on the site. According to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, “in 2019 there were around a dozen children known to be missing being linked with content on OnlyFans” and this number tripled in 2020. In order to curb this exploitation, companies like OnlyFans need to take responsibility to increase the safety of their platforms.
While social media is used as a tool for connection, it is also weaponized by human traffickers. In order to limit the effectiveness of social media as a tool for human trafficking, social media platforms need better regulations. Facebook and Instagram should create systems that disable catfish profiles and stop the spread of misleading information. Moreover, OnlyFans needs to comply with child pornography laws by enabling stricter regulations on their age verification process. If corporations are not willing to make these changes, then the responsibility falls on the government to enforce stricter laws around spreading false job postings and catfishing. If there is better enforcement of regulations throughout social media, then recruitment and distribution of explicit materials will be more time-consuming and therefore more costly. Thus, decreasing the ease of recruitment and with it the supply of human trafficking.
As the number of social media users is predicted to grow significantly in the future, so will its role as a recruitment and distribution method for human traffickers. This puts the largest user groups of social media, teens and young adults at risk every time they interact on social media. It also poses a major threat to society, as human trafficking has a high cost in terms of tangible, intangible, and societal costs, namely: prevention and policing of human trafficking, the psychological toll on victims and family members, and the expense of human trafficking trials. The next time you causally scroll through social media, I urge you to think about the threat social media poses to vulnerable populations.