During the self-quarantining that began in March of 2020 in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, many myths and falsehoods related to human trafficking began making the rounds through social media. Many of these rumors were familiar to people in the anti-trafficking movement: for example, rumors about young people being kidnapped rather than lured into danger by online acquaintances or trusted adults. Some of these rumors, however, were new. For example, in the summer of 2020 the online home décor company Wayfair was rumored to be smuggling children inside of expensive, industrial cabinets. Celebrities such as Tom Hanks and Chrissy Teigen were implicated as members of an elite pedophilia ring that stretched from Hollywood, CA to Washington, DC. COVID-19 itself was dismissed as a way to normalize mask-wearing so that it would be harder to identify trafficking victims.
While many people have been spreading these rumors with the best of intentions, often with the hastag #saveourchildren, these falsehoods harmed anti-trafficking efforts. Anti-trafficking organizations like Polaris saw their email inboxes become flooded with demands to “investigate” and “arrest” people like Hanks and Teigen, and devoted a great deal of time and energy debunking what amounted to urban legends. Both the old and the new rumors were linked to loose networks of online conspiracy groups such as QAnon, who are infamous for spreading false, poorly researched information.
Many of us have young people in our lives who we care for deeply, and welcome any opportunity to protect them. Spreading information about a supposedly nefarious organization like Wayfair is an easy and convenient way to convince ourselves that we are “making a difference.” Before hitting “Forward” on that email though, take a minute to think through some of the details of these rumors:
Human trafficking is a serious problem and protecting vulnerable populations, especially young people, should be any society’s highest priority. However, false information hinders that goal. Always think before you hit “send.”
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