By Francesca Fletcher
As globalisation powers on and our world becomes more and more digitised, human traffickers are increasingly turning to the internet to find potential victims.
This frightening fact comes as no real surprise. Where else can such a bountiful supply of information be found with such ease? Millions of young people spend several hours of their day sharing information and pictures of themselves on sites like Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat, and with many users prioritising popularity over privacy, traffickers can peruse them at their leisure.
It is an uncomfortable thought to consider how exposed we might be to those want to exploit us. Particularly unsettling, though, is the fact that traffickers can use information that they find to seek out vulnerabilities to exploit.
Facebook isn’t always your friend
Many millennials know about the potential dangers of social media sites and there are plenty of educational programs to raise awareness in schools, colleges and workplaces in the west. Most of us know how to control our privacy settings and limit the audiences who can see our posts; we know not to accept friend requests from strangers.
For more vulnerable Facebook users, this isn’t the case. Many of the women in our programs haven’t had access to electricity or internet before. They come from small, tight-knit communities and now find themselves in an unfamiliar country where their language isn’t widely spoken. The opportunity to widen their circle of friends and acquaintances is difficult to resist. We often have to warn the women against investing too much in friendships with people online, especially when they seem to be particularly interested or overly flattering.
But it’s not just social media
A common ploy of traffickers round the world is to use employment websites to offer false advertisements of jobs in other cities or abroad. These jobs seem absolutely believable: often they are jobs that don’t necessarily need qualifications, like nannying, waitressing or modelling. Unsuspecting people keen for new experiences or desperately needing money are lured into a false sense of security with well-polished assurances of good pay and benefits. Once the target has accepted the job and travelled away from safety to the new destination, the trafficker can begin their work.
Again, young people and anyone facing job insecurity are particularly at risk here.
Turning the tables
Thankfully, the internet is a powerful tool not only for traffickers, but for those fighting trafficking. Governmental and non-governmental agencies are creating programs which use the internet to seek out traffickers. Activists have also used crowdsourcing to stop trafficking before it happens.
Anti-trafficking NGOs can also use the internet to raise awareness and funding for their programs. As populations become informed and equipped, they can start to practise internet safety more effectively and look out for people with vulnerabilities.
What we can do
Make sure those around you are being careful on the internet. Remind them to check their privacy settings. Find out if there are any internet safety initiatives in your area and ask if you can help them. Donate to anti-trafficking groups in your area and elsewhere.
Enjoy the internet and the infinite possibilities it can offer. At the same time, please be vigilant.