Media + Human Trafficking

In 1863, Abraham Link spoke the words, “All persons held as slaves within any State or designated part of a State [are] forever free.” The Emancipation Proclamation revolutionized the world by abolishing slavery through the passing of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution. Now, let us fast forward to present day America— 20.9 million and 1.2 million. Respectively, these are the International Labor Organization 2013 estimates for the amount of total people in modern day slavery and the amount of children sold into slavery each year (Clause & Lawler, 2013).

Although Abraham Lincoln intended on ending slavery forever in the world, modern day slavery, known as human trafficking, is ever-present. This has been known has a hidden crime, but in recent years, publicists are choosing to take a stand and shine some light on an issue that has been kept in the dark for way too long. Many people think that human trafficking is an issue only pertinent to the western world. However, in 2009 it was reported that 63 percent of all trafficked humans were from the United States (Clause & Lawler, 2013). Even more surprising is the significant role that media and social media platforms play in the act.

With the rise of the Internet’s popularity, perpetrators have taken cyber activity as a gateway to take their human trafficking business to the next level. Prying on people with Facebook, avid Craigslist visitors, or the former popular Myspace user are just a few levels that traffickers reach out on to take the most commonly aged 11 to 12-year-old victims. Recent research shows that these online Internet servers, bulletin board services, electronic mobile devices, and so many more are main contributors to the increase of human trafficking with the anonymity that the Internet provides. This case study will analyze news articles, blogs, and journal articles to look at various cases in which the Internet played an integral part of human trafficking.

Literature Review

This case study looks at how media plays a role in facilitating human trafficking in the general sense and specifically with Internet-driven sources: Craigslist, Backpage, cell phones, Myspace and Facebook.

Social Media as a Whole

Generally speaking, social media covers a wide variety of websites active on the Internet right now. A 2006 report shows one in seven youths had experienced unwelcomed sexual solicitation over the Internet, and most of these occurred through the use of social media (Hitz, 2014). The numbers are truly staggering when looking at how social media continues to play a greater role year by year.

For example, take the CyberTipline, the nation’s hotline for reporting sexual exploitation of children. The hotline’s 223,374 reports in 2010 doubled what they received in 2009 due to the “soaring use of social networks” giving traffickers more opportunities to prey on victims (Acohido, 2011). Even more threatening is the recent ability for some social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter, to turn on location services. This access, unbeknownst to the mobile device user, gives perpetrators an easy in to track the GPS and locate the operator easier than ever before.

Cell Phones

Location services is just one of the ways in which cell phones contribute to bringing people into slavery. Elliott and McCartan (2013) argue that the development of smart phones like Blackberry and iPhone open up a public communication that allows traffickers to get out to a large amount of people. In their qualitative study, they used random and snowball sampling to interview people in the law enforcement, NGOs, charities, and legal professionals to find out how cell phones connect with traffickers and the victims. What they found was traffickers use cell phones in order to control and manipulate their victims throughout the entirety of the trafficking process starting with abduction into the selling and even throughout the forced labor. Cell phones are also used as a means to communicate on the business side of trafficking, particularly in organized crime groups. Phones are used as a way to track and maintain relationships with the victims. Furthermore, traffickers are able to manipulate victims’ phones by making sure they only receive incoming calls, constantly checking SIM cards, etc.

Virginia Greiman and Christina Bain (2013) looked at cases surrounding cell phones as a key role in human trafficking. They found that perpetrators were able to take professional-like photos and upload them instantaneously with new locations, change online ads quickly, and send photos and other information of victims to potential customers in real time. Especially in the age of immediate gratification, this is a huge selling factor for the pimps and all those involved in the human trafficking ring.

Craigslist and Backpage

Musto and Boyd (2014) performed a qualitative study interviewing a random sample of law enforcement to better understand the role that technology plays in human trafficking. What they found was that there are two main sources of sex trafficking online: Backpage and Craigslist, both of which are online classified advertising sites. One Huffington Post Blog brought a light on the prevalence of Craigslist adult services by telling the story of Harriett, an 11-year-old sold on Craigslist for sex by a pimp. Latonero (2011) argues that although Craigslist is the most frequently referenced as a website for the section that used to be entitled “Adult Services,” it has since been shut down so the majority of the traffickers are moving over to Backpage.

Joyce Davis (2014) also stress the major role that Craigslist and Backpage play in the human trafficking world due to the ability for pimps to promote their businesses online. In Atlanta, Georgia, pimps make nearly $33,000 a week through these promotions, and whether it is discretely promoting or not, they are making sure they continue to get their name out there in whatever way possible to ensure the money keeps coming in.


Latonero (2011) looks at another example of an avidly used trafficking tool in media: Myspace. One case revolved around a runaway girl who was captured after she was told on Myspace that someone could make her a star and gave her a bus ticket from Florida to Las Vegas. Baylie Evans’ (2009) research discovered that in one case she found a teenager’s Myspace was looked at by more than 120 different registered sex offenders and thirty other people hacked onto the account through jail or another detention center. In 2009, Myspace forced 90,000 United States based users to deactivate their pages after researching that each one of them were registered sex offenders (Yun, 2012).


Facebook has become one of the current-day most popularly used social media platforms with more than one billion active users. Although Facebook attempts to set an age barrier of minimum 13-years-old to defer any criminal action on their site, it has been reported that 7.5 million children of all ages in the USA alone are Facebook users (Yun, 2012). A report by Chorley (2012) found that Facebook, along with other social media sites, create what are known as “sex parties” where the perpetrators create events on Facebook, invite children that fit into their criteria that then click “attending.” At these parties, they are drugged and given alcohol so they do not know what is happening to them, and then they are sold into slavery. Especially targeted at these parties are girls. It was reported that some girls are sometimes even taken from their local party and brought across the world to be exploited in different countries. They found that men who were taking the lead in finding these victims on Facebook ranged from age 14 to 70, although their personal pages may have not reflected their true ages.

Margie Mason (2012) looked at the first hand experiences of a 14-year-old girl that accepted a friend request from someone she did not know. They got to talking and exchanged phone numbers. They then met at a mall and decided that she wanted to meet with him again based on his smooth charm. He picked her up in his van, took her to a single room with at least five other young girls and raped and drugged her repeatedly. After a week, she was told she was being sold and shipped to Batam, Indonesia.


The research for this case study started with a quote from Sue Berelowitz, deputy children’s commissioner for England, saying, “it was ‘rare’ to find abuse cases where technology such as mobile phones and computers were not in some way connected” (Chorley, 2012). There is substantial research available that is revolved around the general topic of trafficking. However, there is little empirical data to be found on the effect that social media plays in this crime, and therefore; this research was meant to bring the connection between the two to the forefront. The National Institute of Justice stands behind the idea of research playing an invaluable role in trafficking and working to stop current efforts. More needs to happen as the government continues to focus on evidence-based practices; research is of more importance than ever to find the impact this “hidden crime” has on communities.

Between October and November of 2014, the sources used in this paper were researched in order to find the most current and up-to-date articles on the Internet. The publication date of sources ranged from as early as 2010 to as recent as 2014. In order to gather the important information regarding media’s role in human trafficking, blogs, news articles, and journal articles were the media outlets that served as the main emphasis. The sources combined to make a strong case of social media fostering human trafficking and bringing it into the 21st century. These are ways in which people can tell their story candidly and without much remorse, so this is the blunt truth about an issue that needs more attention.

Since there is not a lot of depth into the primary research realm, the research was expanded to take on social media as a whole and then as much as possible into the specific triggers in specific social media platforms. The search words also expanded past “social media,” and rather the topic of “online crime” as a whole and “cyber activity” became the main keywords to gain the information needed to formulate this case study.

The media platforms were narrowed down to the four presented in this study based on research currently formulated around them. There was a considerable amount of information based around cell phones, Myspace, Facebook, and Craigslist/Backspace versus many other social media platforms. In researching each social media site’s effect on trafficking, the focus was behind the manipulation factor they played in the crime. Although cell phones are arguably not a “social media platform,” they do possess the Internet capability that brings them up so the same caliber as the other medias researched.

The information gathered was researched on articles from across the world, not limited to one specific country. Also, the information did not tailor to any specific events. The aim was to keep the information broad as to spark conversation and future research revolved around more specific occurrences and trends in which the human trafficking crime is committed. Although many articles revolve around the laws in place to make a change, this research was centered on the actual role that social media plays in the act. The information speaks for itself through first-person story recollections, law enforcement opinion and interviews, and outside journalists’ publications to find as much information as possible to make the issues known.


Overall, the result of this case study shows a clear direction of the way that human trafficking is headed. In the past, the focus of trafficking was more local and hands on, whereas now the ease of the Internet has opened up a completely new and easily accessible world for these perpetrators to prey on victims. The stories and data presented distinctly show the direct connection that cell phones, Facebook, Myspace, Craigslist, Backpage, and social media as a whole have on human trafficking.

Marcus Felson and Lawrence Cohen developed the routine activities theory. This is a theory built upon the understanding that when there is a concurrence of three elements—a motivated offender, suitable target, and absence of a capable guardian, crime is most likely to ensue (Yar, 2012). In the literature researched, there were clear connections between the routine activities theory and human trafficking. Internet and social media are the ways in which all three of these things combine to increase the crime rate of sex trafficking as much as it has. The anonymity of the Internet allows the “target” to make their own decisions, bypassing any sort of capable guardians along the way. With children’s malleable brains and innocence in matters, they pose as perfect targets to the motivated offender of pimps and other Internet savvy traffickers. As the research showed, offenders take the time to get to know their victims through online websites. This allows them to filter out any victims that they know will be unsuitable for the human trafficking ring they are about to ensue. The hidden crime is ever true in this theory as they can manipulate and make themselves out to be whomever they want to be in order to get as many suitable targets as possible.

Another interesting note about the articles that were researched in this case study is the way that human trafficking was framed. Framing is a theory known as the media’s use of twisting a story to portray a message in a way that the viewer understands it as the source wants. Notably so, the stories each talked about social media’s effect in different ways that led to various conclusions about social media’s effect on trafficking. Of course, the effect is more often than not going to be a negative effect, but one author took it a step further by analyzing the various frames that goes into media’s trafficking stories.

Paknik (2010) analyzed trafficking articles in Slovenia and found four major frames that are also reflected in the research aforementioned: criminalization, nationalization, victimization, and regularization. The argument in this is that articles are focusing on the laws and what needs to be done moving forward instead of focusing on what is actually happening and telling the stories behind current day situations.

Criminalization frame is circled around the trafficking being a globalized criminal act. This was the way that human trafficking in social media was most commonly portrayed in the research conducted. Being that trafficking is indeed a crime that produces exploitation unto human beings, the articles emphasize the heinous nature in order to bring about a change. Interestingly enough, many of the researched pieces recollecting first or second-hand stories were portrayed in a way that the woman or girl was a white female that unbeknownst to her in the beginning, fell victim to a omnipotent criminal. Thus, the stark differences in these stories are given a greater magnitude.

The victimization frame was the second most commonly seen framing device in the articles researched. In every one of the pieces used in this paper, the person sold into slavery was a victim. These children and woman were blindsided by the perpetrators and did not see the result of their two-way communication in the beginning. The articles focus on their innocence and purity, most talking about how even laws and policies set up cannot stop these people from becoming victims to the crimes. This frame linked with criminalization is what created the most resounding stories and articles. To create the feeling of the offender being a criminal and the person on the other end being a victim evokes an emotion in the reader that cannot help but feel deepest sympathy. Additionally, these two frames work together to create a dimension of the act that media is the evil connecting the victim with the criminal.

Although many of the articles did have a nationalization frame to them, these were not used in this research. The main idea was to keep the borders open, as this is a crime that occurs everywhere, even where it is least expected. Similarly, regularization was another regularly used framing piece that was not used in this research due to its focus on the legal aspect of trafficking.


            While primary research was limited in this search, there is strong evidence that concludes the major role that social media plays as a number one recruitment tool in human trafficking. A limitation in this research is that the definition of “cybertrafficking” is still very undefined. There is a lack of case law, and therefore the majority of human trafficking prosecutions are limited, and the majority of cases are pleaded out before reaching a judge. Therefore, the information that these trials should have open to the public is left unknown. Additionally, Internet evidence brought forth in a trial is more often than not dismissed for the same reason the perpetrators are doing these acts on the internet—you can not be 100 percent sure that it is that person saying those things because anyone can post on behalf on anyone on the Internet. With the release rate of sex offenders high, in turn, the recidivism rate of these offenders is also high. Also, some victims of human trafficking have already had past confrontation with law enforcement, and therefore they are scared of bringing their stories to the police and mistrust the institutions that supposedly help victims after crime occurs so their stories remain hidden.

The social media platforms listed above are only a select few of the ways that pimps and traffickers are accessing their victims. They are continually trying to stay ahead of law enforcement by tapping into the newest social media trends. Moving forward, it is imperative that there continues to be an emphasis on keeping with the newest social media and access points that these perpetrators reach their victims. Some of the most highly trafficked days of the year are during large sporting events such as the Super Bowl or World Cup. With that information known, it is up to those who have the power to be cognizant. It is not rational to say that heightened security on social media or during events will be a guaranteed way to stop these perpetrators from reaching their victims, but it is a step. Currently, not much research is out there, so rather than the articles focusing on what laws are in place currently or are in the process of being created, more primary studies based on trafficking would be extremely beneficial.

As Felson and Cohen concluded about the routine activities theory, the middleman in the equation needs to be taken out. Although there can be much said about what law enforcement needs to do to make changes, ultimately the media has the power. Media sets the agenda for what the public sees, so when there are headlines out about a human trafficking ring, people will take notice. There are organizations out there such as Free the Slaves that are continually working to get funds and people into the understanding of the actuality behind present day slavery. However, will it ever be enough?

In all, the idea of human trafficking revolves around one major topic: high profit, low risk. With social media now more popular than ever, the low risk aspect has never been truer. No child or human should ever be for sale, and it is time to take a stand against this horrific crime. At the end of the day, it can happen to anyone; it all starts with a click…


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