Facebook is the most commonly used social media platform for human sex trafficking recruitment in the US, according to a new report published by the Human Trafficking Institute.
Last year, 59 percent of victims in active cases who were recruited through social media were found through Facebook, the report states, with 41 percent of all recruitment taking place online.
“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,” Victor Boutros, CEO of the Human Trafficking Institute, told CBS News. “Facebook overwhelmingly is used by traffickers to recruit victims in active sex trafficking cases.”
The 2020 Federal Human Trafficking Report draws its data from active federal criminal and civil human trafficking cases. Last year, there were 579 active prosecutions and 200 civil suits. Among criminal cases, there were 1,499 victims and 1,007 defendants, and 94 percent of criminal prosecutions were for sex trafficking—only 6 percent were for forced labor.
Women and girls were overwhelmingly targeted by sex traffickers, with 98 percent of criminal cases involving female victims. Most victims—91 percent—were from the US, and a majority were burdened with pre-existing vulnerabilities, chiefly substance dependency or having run away from home.
Facebook was the most common platform for child recruitment, with the report noting that “65% of child victims recruited on social media were recruited through Facebook.” Those findings run counter to trends in teen usage of Facebook. Though around 70 percent of American adults frequent the site, it’s no longer the favored platform among teens—only 51 percent used the network, while YouTube, Instagram, and Snapchat took the top spots in a 2018 survey. Yet, the report says, “Despite Facebook’s reputation as a less popular platform among teenagers, it was a more common platform for recruiting child victims than adult victims in 2020 active sex trafficking cases.”
“Sex trafficking and child exploitation are abhorrent, and we don’t allow them on Facebook,” Facebook spokesperson Jeanne Moran said in a statement to Ars. “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 organizations, 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.”
After Facebook, the next most common venues for online socialization of child victims were Instagram and Snapchat. Among adult victims, WeChat was the most common, followed by Facebook and then Instagram. Just under half the active criminal cases researched in the report involved children; nearly all of the victims were between the ages of 14 and 17.
In 2020, the Internet was the most common venue for victim recruitment. In 244 cases across all ages, the Internet was the primary location, with recruitment on the street and at stores far behind, at 43 and 10 cases, respectively. Facebook was the primary location in 78 active cases. The Human Trafficking Institute points out that its report is not on the prevalence of human trafficking in the US but rather of cases being prosecuted at the federal level.
Part of the reason why the Internet—and likely Facebook by extension—is so prevalent in the report is because it only considers federal cases. In those cases, law enforcement appears to rely heavily on the Internet for its investigations. “The Internet is implicated in many sex trafficking situations, but the high numbers of federal prosecutions involving Internet solicitation are equally if not more reflective of the strategies law enforcement use to investigate these crimes,” the report says.