New data shows Facebook is the largest online recruitment site in active U.S. sex trafficking cases. This week, Human Trafficking Institute CEO Victor Boutros said social media sites have become a dominant tool sex trafficker use to recruit victims for exploitation.
The group on Thursday published its sweeping 2020 Federal Human Trafficking Report, which found that sex trafficking and forced labour victims are rarely kidnapped by strangers off the street. Instead, the internet has become the most popular method for human traffickers to recruit victims – data shows that 30% of victims found to have been recruited in federal sex trafficking cases between 2000 and 2020 were on the internet.
And most victims were recruited on Facebook: 59% last year, to be exact. Snapchat, WeChat, and Facebook’s Instagram were also hotspots for recruitment.
“The internet has become the dominant tool that traffickers use to recruit victims, and they often recruit them on a number of very common social networking websites,” Human Trafficking Institute CEO Victor Boutros told CBSN Wednesday. “Facebook overwhelmingly is used by traffickers to recruit victims in active sex trafficking cases.”
A Facebook spokesperson told Insider: “Sex trafficking and child exploitation are abhorrent and we don’t allow them on Facebook. We have policies and technology to prevent these types of abuses and take down any content that violates our rules. We also work with safety groups, anti-trafficking organisations and other technology companies to address this and we report all apparent instances of child sexual exploitation to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.”
The report estimates that 53% of victims were identified as children, with an overwhelming majority being between the age of 14 and 17. Girls under the age of 18 are most likely to be victims in human trafficking prosecutions, according to the report, followed by women.
Active cases are defined as defendants who were charged in court. The findings were published on the 20th anniversary of the Trafficking Victims Protection Act, which made human trafficking a federal crime in the US, the report says.
The issue of child exploitation online was touched upon during Facebook’s shareholder meeting in late May. Sarah Cooper, a member of the Survivors’ Council of ECPAT-USA, an anti-child trafficking organisation, requested that Facebook’s board prepare a report for investors on the risk of child exploitation on the platform.
“Facebook needs to immediately improve age verification, increase human monitoring of content, work in tighter cooperation with law enforcement,” Cooper said. “And it should absolutely delay any encryption on its platform until it can protect children.” She cited Facebook’s acknowledgment that implementing end-to-end encryption would make it more difficult to find child sex abuse material on the platform.
The proposal ultimately lost by a vote of about 980 million to 4.7 billion. The board opposed the move, citing the company’s work to detect and fight abusive behavior.
Facebook reported in February that more than 20 million child sexual abuse images were found on its platform and Instagram in 2020. Last year saw a rise in child sex abuse online, an increase in part attributed to Covid-19 lockdowns.