232 – Social Media and Finding the Truth about Human Trafficking

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Ruthi Hanchett and Sandie Morgan discuss the role social media has played recently in spreading misinformation about human trafficking. They also go into detail about how the rise in children being online, due to COVID-19, is exposing them to a greater risk of coming into contact with predators. As mothers, both Sandie and Ruthi list actions parents can take to protect their children from becoming victims to predators.

Ruthi Hanchett

Ruthi Hanchett has been a leader in the field of children’s and women’s rights, human trafficking, and gender equality for over a decade. While working for World Vision International, she regularly represented the organization to global political leaders, the UN Human Rights Council, UN Committee on the Rights of the Child, UN Girls Education Initiative, and the NGO Advisory Council on Violence Against Children. One of her favorite responsibilities has been enabling children and youth around the globe to speak out for justice. Ruthi currently serves on the board of Vanguard University’s Global Center for Women and Justice, teaches as an adjunct professor, and coaches Vanguard’s Live2Free student-teams, which speak on human trafficking in local middle and high schools. Ruthi often lectures and speaks on issues related to human trafficking, as well as mentors survivors of human trafficking in her local community. Ruthi is a volunteer with the Orange County Human Trafficking Task Force, a wife, and mamma to two little girls.

Key Points

  • The majority of people who are exploited are exploited by someone they know.
  • Ruthi and Sandie discuss the role social media has taken in spreading false information about human trafficking.
  • There has been a rise in predators accessing children online since quarantine began.
  • There are steps a parent can take to protect their children when online.
  • It is our job as a community to protect and look out for the children in our lives


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Dave [00:00:00] You’re listening to the Ending Human Trafficking podcast; this is Episode 232: Social Media and Finding the Truth About Human Trafficking.

Production Credits [00:00:09] Produced by Innovate Learning, Maximizing Human Potential.

Dave [00:00:30] Welcome to the Ending Human Trafficking podcast. My name is Dave Stachowiak.

Sandie [00:00:36] And my name is Sandie Morgan.

Dave [00:00:38] And this is the show where we empower you to study the issues, be a voice, and make a difference in ending human trafficking. Sandie, we have a friend back with us today who’s been on several times before, who’s going to help us to navigate what’s happening in social media right now. We’re so glad to welcome back Ruthi Hanchett. She is the Live2Free coach, adjunct professor, and also on the board of the Global Center for Women and Justice here at Vanguard University. And she’s a mom, too. Hello, Ruthi. We’re glad to have you back.

Ruthi [00:01:11] Hi. It’s good to be back. Thanks.

Sandie [00:01:14] We want to dive into the flurry of social media that has just I mean, my inbox is full. I have emails, my phone. I get texts, I get phone calls because people are anxious about some of the stories being circulated on social media. So, I thought it would be a really interesting conversation for us to talk about it. Partly from the perspective of our basis. Both of us have been working and anti-trafficking for a very long time, but also from the perspective. I’m a grandmother, you’re a mom, Dave’s a dad. So how do we find the truth in the midst of all of this? And you have to factor in why we might be seeing this as it relates to having been in this lockdown mode. Does that have anything to do with how the longevity of some of these stories is emerging? So, Ruthi, you wrote a blog for the Global Center for Women and Justice. The title is Hashtag Activism, Conspiracy Theories, and the Truth About Human Trafficking. People if you want to see that blog, you can go to gcwj.org and click on blog, or you can find it on our Facebook and our Instagram. So tell us what your experience has been in this season.

Ruthi [00:02:51] Yeah. You know, there’s not a lot going on. It’s a very challenging and anxious time, as you mentioned, Sandie because people have a lot of concerns and fears right now for very good reasons. And a lot of us are facing these big challenges of working from home or having to work outside the home and not feeling completely safe. Concerned about our kids. You know, I’m homeschooling my kids right now back to school from home. And there’s a lot of fear and concerns and also this sense of not being in control. And then when we add in this issue of human trafficking, it’s scary because it is an awful thing to happen to anyone. And then when we think about it possibly happening to someone we love and care about, that makes us anxious. It makes us fearful. And so, I think people are looking for ways to control the narrative, to have some sense of both understanding what is this issue, how does it happen and how do I keep myself and my loved ones safe. But what we’re seeing, unfortunately, I think right now is a lot of misinformation on the Internet. A lot of posts and videos and documentaries and claims that are linking both human trafficking and the way it happens to even larger issues that people are concerned about. And that’s leading to this spiral of concern and anxiousness that I think is really hurting both us as a community and a society. But even hurting the real victims of human trafficking, because it’s perpetuating myths that simply aren’t true or typical of the real experiences that most human trafficking victims experience.

Sandie [00:04:29] So let’s start with one of the first ones. I woke up to a text. I wake up pretty early and my friend knew how early it was and she was texting me. Have you heard Wayfair is selling children in cabinets? And I just thought, oh, my goodness. I got to look this up and find out where she’s getting this. So talk about that.

Ruthi [00:04:53] Yeah. I also had those sorts of texts from friends like, have you seen, do you know, is this true? And I appreciate that people are seeking more informed voices to guide them. And that’s why they’re calling us Sandie. And I appreciate that people want to know the truth. But the reality is, first of all, I hadn’t heard anything about it because the sources I read about human trafficking hadn’t talked about it. But I started looking into it. And really, I mean, without going to all the details, it seems as though some people who were influencers already on social media literally just saw outrageously priced cabinets connected it thought, how could this be human trafficking? Could they be secretly selling children for these outrageous prices with this secret kind of network of people who are in the know, able to buy children? And that could it be, became their truth? And so, this idea was perpetuated online when really all of the kind of trusted resources, fact-checkers have said there’s really no evidence to these claims. What we do know is that trafficking has not, does not typically happen online through corporate sales. You know, children are not being hidden in cabinets or whether it’s Wayfair or I saw Wal-Mart mixed in there. Pillows, outprice pillows at Wal-Mart. Children are not being sold online in these ways, unfortunately. We do know kids are being exploited on the Web, whether that’s through Webcams set up where they’re performing sex acts, whether that’s being groomed by traffickers, predators, and then exploited in commercial sexual exploitation. The Internet is a tool for the exploitation of children. It is a tool for recruiting people until labor trafficking jobs. But it’s not typically used to sell children for outrageous prices through the sales of cabinets. And so, again, when people heard these stories and when they became really viral, it caused people to look for children in places that they really are not. And we saw an increased spike in the calls to the National Human Trafficking Hotline than NCMEC, where we call for reporting missing and exploited children. And they’ve received a lot of calls. Some of those are legit, but some of those are false reports that they’ve had to reject.

Sandie [00:07:12] So when I think about that, I am drawn to all of the images that they’re using and this kind of social media. Kids who are smuggled in car trunks and rope bound hands and scary-looking dark corners, bruised victims, and just a couple of months ago, we did a podcast on media guidelines that was Survivor informed. And in that podcast, we talked about how survivors are really concerned that this is what people think, that they won’t see me standing right next to them because I’m not beat up and I’m not handcuffed, or rope bound. So how do we begin to show people how to identify real victims?

Ruthi [00:08:04] Absolutely. And I’ve heard those concerns from survivors as well. And it’s our duty as the community that is interacting with real live human trafficking victims to learn, to identify, and to respond to the real situations that they’re in. And as you’ve said, many a time, Sandie, it’s not the ropes, it’s not the basements that are keeping people in bondage. It’s psychological, emotional connections to their traffickers and the fear of the repercussions if they step away from that situation. It’s harder to see those things right. Ropes would be easy to find. It’s the emotional manipulation and coercion that’s hard to identify, but that can keep us from seeing the people. So, whether it’s someone washing dishes in the back of a restaurant, whether it’s someone mowing the lawn who may not be paid appropriately. In California, we’ve seen cases of people being exploited in nursing homes and care centers. And then certainly when it comes to commercial sexual exploitation of women and children, it is those psychological bonds that oftentimes keep them in their place because they have an emotional and even romantic relationship to their pimps and traffickers. It’s the people who groom them and say, I’m your boyfriend, I’m your partner; I take care of you, I love you. You’re special to me. That’s what keeps them in those places. So, as parents, there’s a lot we can do to talk to our kids about these manipulation tactics. And then even if we’re in the community, I mean, paying attention when we see women that look like they’re in distress or paying attention to when we notice that kids are not acting the way they typically do and are acting out differently. These are the kind of signs that are much honestly harder to see, more subtle. But these are the things we need to be looking for and not just kids trapped in cabinets.

Sandie [00:09:56] And I am kind of taken back to my early days in working in the area of domestic violence and child abuse. Remember my background in pediatric nursing and what was always difficult to communicate to people is that the stranger danger we have to teach our kids that. But the majority of sexually abused children are abused by someone they know. A family friend, even a member of the family, an uncle, or cousin. So, it feels like we actually are kind of in denial about the connection between having been abused earlier in life. Looking for someone that will rescue you. And that’s where the trafficker has adapted. And in this particular season of our kids are mostly doing online schooling. Kids are getting a lot more screen time and are more vulnerable to being approached by someone they don’t know. And so, parents need to understand what that looks like, how to check their kid’s devices to make sure that they’re checking all of the chats that are going on every day. Make sure the privacy settings are updated when there’s a new release of a new version of an app. Sometimes you have to go back in and put all the privacy settings back in. And we aren’t as alert to protecting our kids when they’re sitting at the dining room table working on homework as we are if we’re out in a grocery store shopping.

Ruthi [00:11:46] Absolutely. And it’s hard to keep up with all these things as a parent. It is a challenge. And you’re right that we have this sort of false safety sense when we’re in our own homes, not realizing that the predators can come in through the Internet and groom our children and exploit them in those ways. So that’s why for me, it is so critical that we talk to our kids about these issues from a very early age because we can’t protect them and put a shield around them. One hundred percent of the time. And so instead, we need to make sure that they are empowered to recognize these signs and to respond appropriately if that arrow gets through the shield that we’ve created around them. So, for me, I have little ones, you know, but from really early ages, we’ve talked about body safety rules. We’ve talked about what your private parts are and how people aren’t allowed to see, touch, or take pictures. And if they do, you go to a trusted adult and you tell right away. We’ve talked about the Internet and how there are inappropriate pictures. And I mean, I didn’t in very early days say pornography, but what we said was sometimes there are naked pictures of people. Those are inappropriate. And with kids, if that if you accidentally see that it’s normal to be curious, but you turn it off and you come tell me right away because I know that I will do my very best to protect them. But if I’m not able to all the time, I want them to know how to respond and be empowered to take action themselves.

Sandie [00:13:14] That really reminds me. I love the virtual access to great conversations and panels. And yesterday the State Department hosted one of those about the rise in child sex trafficking. It actually noted that traffickers, predators have adapted to this surge in kids being online. And in your blog, you talked about Thorn’s Survivor survey. You want to talk about who Thorn is and what they discovered?

Ruthi [00:13:48] Yeah, well, Thorn is a great organization that especially works for survivors. And they did a survey of survivors who have experienced sexual exploitation. And basically, what they found is most people are exploited by people they know. That they oftentimes are offered protection, connection, security, affection. These are things that every typical teenager long for, right? And so, it’s important that we realize that we as parents and as safe adults and in young people’s lives, we want to be talking to them before the traffickers do. And we also want to be creating safe relationships and connections so that kids are not seeking those with others. But the other thing that you brought up, Sandie, is this connection to sexual abuse in that history. We know that some studies say up to 90 percent of those who enter into commercial sexual exploitation, up to 90 percent have experienced some form of child sexual abuse. It’s oftentimes incest, sadly. But there are two things that that says to me. One is we need to work, do our very best to prevent sexual abuse of children. And the next is we need to also talk about resilience and recovery and healing from sexual abuse so that that one that thing does not turn into a lifetime of exploitation and abuse. So, we as, again, adults who care about stopping the commercial sexual exploitation of children, we need to address how sexual abuse happens in our communities. The fact that it’s a majority of the time people that children are already familiar with and know. It’s like you said, it’s unfortunately the. Calls the boyfriends, the family relative members that are trusted in our circles. We need it, equip our kids to respond and know what to do if anything begins to happen, hopefully from the very first stage so that it doesn’t get to the abuse. But even can stop the grooming process. And we need to talk about how to heal and support kids through that that have experienced it as a community. We need to be much more open and honest and talk about how we stop and also heal from sexual abuse.

Sandie [00:15:59] One of the things that makes me think of is when kids are living in that environment and now, they’re not going to school, no one seeing what’s happening. They are particularly vulnerable in that they’re looking for someone to trust because of the sexual abuse that’s happening, and people can’t see. They already have what is called betrayal trauma. And this is the person who’s supposed to take care of me. So when someone starts making friends online, they invest a lot of time and they take their time in grooming and in gaining trust. And in that Thorn survey, they indicated that the survivors, 88% of them, said that their trafficker told them they would take care of them. 83% said the trafficker bought them things. And 73% noted that the trafficker told them they loved them. And these are really vulnerable people because of the trauma they’ve already experienced. And so, teaching kids in our community, not just our own kids, because some people don’t have a mom like you, Ruthi, that’s going to teach them to do this, this and this. And so how can we be part of the solution? And I think it begins with understanding what the reality actually is and not paying attention to sensationalized storytelling out there in social media. I’m subscribed to this little app that tells me my screen time for the week and over the last several months where we’ve been staying home most of the time. My screen time has skyrocketed. So, I can imagine that people are spending more time on social media. They’re seeing things they probably wouldn’t even have paid attention to. And now once we’re spending so much time and everything is monetized, there is a competition to tell the best, well, actually, worst story.

Ruthi [00:18:26] Yeah, absolutely. We see that a lot. And I talk about this with my students when we teach about human trafficking at Vanguard. There’s this race to the bottom, right to tell the worst, most emotional, salacious story. I think really hurts the majority of the trafficking survivors because they’re saying, oh, well, if that’s the story that gets attention, I guess mine’s not that bad. Or maybe I don’t deserve the resources or the empathy because my story wasn’t quite like that. And I’ve had survivors tell me, you know, after watching a big-time film and saying, you know, that’s not really how it happens. And it’s not to say that that most extreme story cannot happen. It may happen. But does it happen to the majority of people? Because that’s where we want to put our energy. We want to focus on how we can have the greatest impact. And by learning, though, or a typical representative story in ways in which people are exploited, we can then tackle that problem to affect the most good, the most people. And I want to say, Sandie, I really appreciated what you said about bringing in the role we have in playing in the community and the children that are in our community. Because you’re right, a lot of times what I see on social media now are the parents saying don’t take your kids to target, you know, it’s dangerous and watch them. And my thought is, you know, your kids are probably fine at target. You’re watching out for them. They’re supervised. You’ve you’re knowledgeable enough to even be learning about this issue. But it’s the kids that have been in a society and whose families have already failed them that we need to all be looking out for. And, you know, in the blog I talked about foster care and the fact that up to 60 percent of all commercial sexually exploited children have a history of child welfare systems. So they’ve either been involved in abusive, neglectful homes and then been removed and then put into foster care or maybe their parents just, you know, we’re incarcerated, some life situation that was already traumatic. And then they’re involved in foster care. These are the kids that really need our support. These are the kids that need us to stand up for them and speak out for them. And then the other thing is it’s typically the children who are being exploited into commercial sexual exploitation are children of color. Statistically, children who are black and brown makeup more than 78 percent of the cases investigated by the Department of Justice. So, race and inequality have a major part to play in making children vulnerable. So, again, this is what we need to speak up about. This is how we can protect all the children, is by addressing these underlying issues within our community. These systemic injustice issues that really are risk factors for children becoming exploited. It’s not the trip to target. It’s these deeper issues that we need to tackle as a community.

Sandie [00:21:24] I love it. Now, you’re coming into my wheelhouse. Prevention. How do we not have to rescue kids? How do we actually do prevention? I love how you intentionally educate your kids. I also love that we had Cal Walsh on the last podcast. We talked about how to use the free resources to educate your kids. So, I’ve been trying to figure out a way to get more people who have time to be volunteers and in schools. I was talking to somebody on a literacy program, nonprofit, to use those materials, disperse them to families. You talked about how you teach your kids about pornography and the Netsmartz video: It’s OK to Tell, teachers that in seven minutes. So even though you don’t know what to say to your kids, the video has been designed to be age-appropriate and follow best educational practices as well. So, I think offering resources to people. And then I got an e-mail from a pastor about his kids had been contacted through social media while they were studying for their classes. And he’s like, what do I do? What do I do? So, I told him what to do for his kids. But then I challenged him to go beyond that, because there are kids in your youth department, in your Sunday school, in your children’s church, in your in whatever kind of a child program that you have in your community that also need to be included in this. And offering Internet safety classes through your organization right now would be amazing to your community’s children that maybe don’t have the same level of awareness and expertise in their home.

Ruthi [00:23:28] Absolutely. And I mean, we can all make an effort to do that. We can all, again, use that social media tool for good to perpetuate truth and helpful resources. One that I love is the mama bear effect is a resource center for very young children. They talk about body safety rules. And it’s like you said, you know, it’s OK to tell. It’s OK to say no. This is my body and I have power over it rather than, you know, some of the messages that we might teach our kids but really get into consent, that can erode some of their ability to say no to unhealthy touch. The momma bear effect has lots of helpful resources for they called Rock’em the talk. You talking to your kids about both the development and changes in the body, but also protection and safety issues. I love them for really young kids’ resources. And as you said, Sandie, you know, we’ve been doing our part here at the Global Center to really try to address both youth and parents. We partnered recently to do a webinar where our Live2Free team taught about online safety. And then we had a follow-up conversation for parents because all of us can begin to have those conversations, even if it’s just in your circle, your social circle, and say, hey, this is a resource I found. This is the online tool that I found that helps me make sure our monitoring what my kids are seeing online, I’m just sharing that information and having those conversations is really helpful because it can feel overwhelming. And we as parents and as community members, as youth leaders want to begin to have these open conversations.

Sandie [00:25:00] So we’re going to put links to Mama Bear, to those cyber panels that we did. And we will continue this conversation and try and do our best to equip this community to make sure the children around you are safe. And that’s going to take everybody doing something. But one of the key statements in your blog that I highlight, I circled is we cannot let that drive to find the most emotionally extreme story, prevent us from the empathy due to all victims, or to ignore the warning signs of the subtle ways most trafficking victims are groomed and exploited in our own communities. Ruthi, we’re going to keep having this conversation over the next few months. We’re going to post on our social media, on Facebook, on Instagram, and Twitter. Please reach out to us if you have more questions because we want to be part of prevention and part of the solution. Thank you so much for joining us today.

Ruthi [00:26:16] You’re welcome. It was a pleasure.

Dave [00:26:18] Thank you both so much for this conversation. I know I’m pulling some resources that I’m going to start using with our kids, especially the mama bear effect. What a great resource. You know, this is such an important conversation and I hope that it is getting you thinking about taking the first step as well. We’re inviting you to hop online and to download a copy of Sandie’s book, The Five Things You Must Know, A QuickStart Guide to Ending Human Trafficking. It’ll give you the five critical things that Sandie, her work through the Global Center for Women and Justice has identified that you should know before you join the fight against human trafficking. You can get access to the guide by going over to endinghumantrafficking.org. That’s also the best place to go for the notes and all the links that we’ve mentioned in today’s episode and of course, all of our past episodes as well. And then finally, while you’re online, we’d recommend going over to ensurejustice.com. You can find out more about the next Ensure Justice conference coming up March 5th and 6th, 2021, ensurejustice.com. All the information there. Have a great weekend. We’ll see you back in two weeks. Thanks, Sandie.

Sandie [00:27:27] Thanks, Dave. Thanks, Ruthi.

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