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How human traffickers use social media to lure victims

Picture: Jae C Hong/AP

Picture: Jae C Hong/AP

Published Dec 3, 2020


For most people, social media is a form of escapism but for human trafficking predators, it is seen as an online store with countless options and opportunity.

The market for modern-day slavery continues to increase and has encouraged a surge in human trafficking, turning it into the fastest-growing criminal industry in the world.

According to A21, a non-profit organisation that focusses on breaking the cycle of human trafficking, of the estimated 40 million people who are enslaved in the world, 64% of the victims recorded in Africa are children.

Grooming the victim

By design, social media is meant to connect people, but it also allows easy access for predators to connect with naive and needy targets.

Traffickers trawl through apps like Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat and TikTok, looking for vulnerable children and girls. Once they’ve found a potential target, grooming begins by establishing a connection through a friend request, liking or commenting on a post.

“The numbers are now on par with estimates of the numbers of Africans who were enslaved in the 16th and 17th centuries,” said spokesperson for the non-profit organisation Stop Human Trafficking, Jameel Essop.

“Among the 30 000 children being prostituted in the country, half of these children are younger than 14 and as young as 4.

“KwaZulu-Natal is the main recruitment area for victims of human trafficking. Combating trafficking has become a major challenge, especially with perpetrators using social media,” he said.

Types of slavery

In 2017, Polaris published a report, The Typology of Modern Slavery, explaining the types of human trafficking business models.

The study gathered its information from various sources including cases and potential victims acquired from the National Human Trafficking Hotline in the US.

“The most shocking thing is that people know the victim really well and they go with them from a place of naiveté and a yearning for jobs and a better life,” said Mandy Murugan, a member of The A21 Campaign.

“They are then taken to cities and are either sold immediately into sex slavery, into domestic servitude or fishing boats and wine farms.

“Sadly no community is immune to this atrocity,” she said.

Agriculture and Animal Husbandry: A farming business where victims are exploited for labour in growing and maintaining crops or breeding animals.

Arts, Sports and Entertainment: Victims are exploited for labour in amateur or professional athletics, modelling or performing arts which includes exotic dancing.

Bars and Strip Clubs: Establishments front as a legitimate bar or club while exploiting victims for sex and labour behind the scenes.

Domestic Work: An individual works for one specific household cleaning, child care, adult caretaking and often lives on site with the family.

Escort Services: Commercial sex acts that primarily occur at temporary indoor locations.

Factories and Manufacturing: Victims are exploited for labour in food processing, clothing or shoe manufacturing, or factories producing vehicles or electronic devices.

Ukuthwala: A less talked about method is the tradition of ukuthwala, where young girls as young as 12 years old are forcefully married to adult men in remote villages.

Social media platform intersections

Below is a matrix showing some of the intersections that various social media platforms may have on potential victims.

A dot represents touch points throughout a trafficking life-cycle which includes identification, grooming, recruiting to overall business operations.

Image courtesy of Polaris

Educating children

While social media giants continue to tighten their rules and guidelines in the fight against human trafficking, parents are urged to speak openly to their children about the dangers online.

There are various online resources and programmes available to help further understand, identify and reduce the risk of human trafficking.

Nobody allows strangers into their homes, so why accept friend and message requests from someone you don’t know? Set your childrens’ profiles to private and ensure geotagging is switched off.

“When you get a too-good-to-be-true job offer with no normal processes to look into them, phone the company,” says Murugan.

“Be careful on social media who you become friends with and beware of any offers to travel or study.

“When it comes to kids, be careful who they’re talking to online as well. They’re just looking for affirmation and love, and they sometimes look in the wrong places.”