Separating fact from fiction can save trafficking victims and our democracy

After Jan. 6. 2021, there were many questions we as a nation needed to ask ourselves. Chief among them: What motivated thousands of ordinary Americans to launch an attack on their own country? Hidden behind the “Camp Auschwitz” sweatshirts they wore, the pipe bombs they planted and the gallows they erected, many insurrectionists claimed it was conspiracy theories about human trafficking that motivated them to commit this atrocity. 

Disinformation can only spread if it is true enough to be believable and sensationalist enough to go viral. This is why human trafficking narratives are so easily weaponized — it is very real, prevalent and horrifying. 

Human trafficking is a $150 billion global criminal industry that exploits 25 million victims for profit worldwide. It is a crime, yes, but it cannot be fully explained solely in terms of the criminal justice system. At its core, human trafficking is what inevitably happens when every other system designed to maintain human dignity and create equitable opportunity breaks down — when wars erupt, when pandemics spread, or when economies put too much money in the hands of too few people. Ultimately, it is a crime of power.

Trafficking victims in the United States are disproportionately people of color, women and children, immigrants, and members of the LGBTQ+ community. People living in poverty or foster care and those struggling with addiction, trauma, abuse, or unstable housing are also at higher risk for trafficking. It is these underlying systems that made it possible for the transnational organization Patricio to imprison, rape and exploit more than 100 Mexican and Central American agricultural workers in Waycross, Ga., and for Robert King, who was convicted for his role in a sex trafficking ring in Danbury, Conn., to abuse and manipulate emotionally damaged and drug-addicted youth for nearly 30 years.

The real work to end human trafficking is highly complex. It requires remaking systems that are deeply entrenched and putting funds toward prevention and protection. It also requires providing services — immediate and long-term — to people who have been trafficked and need support to get back on their personal paths.

In this vein, Polaris, a nonpartisan NGO that fights sex and labor trafficking and where I am chief technology officer, operates the U.S. National Human Trafficking Hotline in a cooperative agreement with the Department of Health and Human Services. For over a decade, we have responded to more than 340,000 signals, identified nearly 74,000 cases, and assisted over 30,000 victims and survivors. As a result, we’ve generated the single largest dataset on human trafficking in North America, allowing us to inform evidence-based policy change.

The work to fight human trafficking is also uniquely dangerous. As chief technology officer, my job is to protect our organization from a wide range of security threats. Often, these threats present an opportunity to innovate. 

In the summer of 2020, QAnon orchestrated the Wayfair conspiracy, accusing the furniture company of selling children to child molesters and shipping them in cabinets. This had a devastating impact on real victims and survivors and clogged crisis hotlines with wasteful calls of well-intended misinformation. At Polaris, we worried this disinformation campaign was a leading indicator of something worse. Malicious actors often use disinformation as a way to reach a more insidious end-goal, such as exploiting political fault lines, weakening trust in democratic institutions and inciting violent extremism. With the 2020 U.S. presidential election right around the corner, it was likely that these conspiracies could alchemize with other disinformation narratives, so we published a report that proved how disinformation about human trafficking poses a threat to our democracy and our national security

Our data illustrates this extent of the phenomenon — 41 percent of U.S. adults believe that elites, politicians and celebrities are involved in global pedophilia rings. While this number feels shockingly high, it is not impossible to believe after witnessing Jeffrey Epstein, Ghislaine Maxwell and so many other powerful politicians and celebrities exploit vulnerable victims for profit. 

More than a year after the insurrection, the syllogism is clear: Human trafficking is more prevalent than ever, this reality then mutates into new conspiracy theories, those conspiracies then get weaponized by domestic violent extremists until finally, it poses an existential threat to our democracy. 

Therefore, if we want to preserve democracy as we know it, one of the many things we must do is end human trafficking. This is an ambitious undertaking and we cannot do this alone; we need the public to move past simple awareness of human trafficking and instead build a deeper understanding of how trafficking really happens and to whom. 

Human trafficking doesn’t happen in a vacuum; it happens when systems that are supposed to protect and support people fail. It happens when communities burdened by long-standing social, political and economic inequities lack opportunity. It happens when these injustices and broken systems make people vulnerable to exploitation in the first place.

During National Slavery and Human Trafficking Prevention Month, we ask you to join us in moving past awareness to true understanding. The future of the anti-trafficking movement — and our democracy — depend on it.

Anjana Rajan is the chief technology officer of Polaris, a national anti-trafficking organization working to end sex and labor trafficking and restore freedom to survivors. Previously, she was a Tech Policy Fellow at the Aspen Institute working to counter domestic violent extremism. Twitter: @Polaris_Project, @anjaninna

Civil Rights