You know there is a misinformation problem interfering with fact-based anti-sex trafficking efforts when established, reputable anti-trafficking organizations start publishing articles debunking myths and rumors about trafficking.
Yet, false theories still circulate online, and while some of these misguided warnings are well-intentioned, they are doing more harm than good.
In the last couple of years, the National Human Trafficking Hotline operated by the Polaris Project, one of the largest anti-trafficking organizations in the world, was inundated with hundreds of calls reporting discredited sex trafficking theories. Instead of helping, these calls took time and resources away from genuine victims in need.
This is just one tangible example of how real victims aren’t getting the help they need from human trafficking organizations due to viral theories. The more viral misinformation there is about trafficking, the more energy is directed toward dispelling myths rather than helping real victims. Real victims’ voices aren’t being heard as a result of conspiracy theories, so we’re doing our part, here, to advocate for them.
We want to be clear in saying that we understand why people buy into theories that often embody the “Hollywood” version of sex trafficking as seen in the movie “Taken.” There are grains of truth in these theories because the reality is that sex trafficking can happen to anyone in any country of any gender, age, nationality, or any other diversifying factor. Trafficking can involve a stranger, or someone the victim knows well, or even just an acquaintance.
All of these things considered, still, anti-trafficking experts maintain that there are established patterns and behaviors that many human traffickers operate with. We err on the side of this established fact and research while also taking into consideration each theory we come in contact with and valuing expert feedback on these theories.
As an organization, we do not focus on bringing attention to myths or conspiracies, but rather sharing the facts about the harmful effects of pornography and its connection to the underground trafficking industry. Please refer to our blog to see the hundreds of articles we have about real sex trafficking stats and reports, as well as stories from survivors.
Established anti-exploitation organizations take a stand
“We cannot simply ignore ill-informed takes on sex trafficking because the vast and pervasive subconscious acceptance of the narratives they create make it more difficult to spread the truth and implement effective change and reform.”
Anti-child abuse and exploitation organization Thorn also set out to dispel theories and myths that serve to misinform people about how child sex trafficking works rather than help solve the issue at large.
Now, it’s our turn. To combat this issue, we need to start with awareness of the correct information. Most of us are not responsible for starting false theories about sex trafficking, but sharing and re-tweeting them is another story, even if those shares are well-intentioned. Though it can be easy to impulsively share a story after only reading the headline or without trying to verify the information, we hope to emphasize the importance of checking facts before sharing information on issues as serious as these.
If something sounds too “far-fetched” to be true, it might be. Of course, it’s important to remember that anything can happen, and while isolated incidents of some of these misinformed theories may have happened, anti-trafficking experts maintain that traffickers do not generally operate in the ways these theories describe.
The important thing is to stay informed, stay aware of your surroundings, and report anything you personally see that is suspicious.
So, let’s talk about what is true and factual, and what’s not.
Debunked myths, rumors, and conspiracy theories according to experts
Sex trafficking is a complicated topic. There is no single scenario that describes how a victim ends up in a sex trafficking situation, but there are proven patterns.
Yet many of the unfounded theories incorrectly rely on the myth that most or all victims are kidnapped, when in fact most victims know and trust their trafficker before the trafficking takes place.
To raise awareness, we have compiled a list of debunked sex trafficking rumors. Note that while some of these may have religious or political contexts, Fight the New Drug is a non-religious and non-legislative nonprofit organization.
Also note that, again, while isolated incidents of some of these misinformed theories may have happened, anti-trafficking experts maintain that traffickers do not generally operate en masse in the ways these theories describe.
Many of these theories are unsubstantiated, but it’s important to fact check with established anti-trafficking organizations before spreading any unsubstantiated information.
1. Pizzagate and a political cabal
Though there have been scenarios where celebrities and high-profile individuals have been accused of sex trafficking with credible evidence, Pizzagate is not one of those.
Pizzagate dates back to 2016 when 4Chan users speculated that a pizza restaurant in Washington D.C. was being used as the headquarters of a child sex trafficking ring lead by elites in the Democratic party.
This is a generally false conspiracy theory that directly resulted in at least one instance of violence. A 28-year-old North Carolina man drove to the restaurant to conduct his own investigation while armed. He was arrested and sentenced to four years in prison.
Online theorists have used fast food names on more than one occasion to spread rumors about sex trafficking that sound potentially true, but aren’t.
eyond Pizzagate, there is a perpetual rumor that traffickers speak in code referring to boys as “hot dogs” and girls as “pizza.” Even t-shirts with slogans like, “In Pizza We Trust” or “want a pizza me” are incorrectly believed to signal child sex trafficking. To learn more about why this theory is not backed by facts and data, click here.
2. Kids in cabinets and high-priced items
Users online made an incorrect jump in logic and assumed the expensive cabinets were a sign of child sex trafficking, and that when purchased, the buyer would receive a child for exploitation. Similar accusations spread to other retail sites like Amazon or Etsy where users could dig up high-priced items and say it was a sign of sex trafficking.
This theory has been thoroughly debunked, with multiple national anti-trafficking organizations saying this is not how sex trafficking actually happens. What’s more, no survivors have come forward to corroborate these claims. There aren’t even known isolated incidents reported of this happening.
3. Mask-wearing increases trafficking
As the COVID-19 pandemic spread across the world, rumors also spread that face masks are bad for sex trafficking victims. The theory goes that a face mask makes it difficult to see if a child is in distress, but this ignores the fact that many trafficking victims are psychologically manipulated or groomed and may not express distress in the first place.
Those who believe this rumor have used Elizabeth Smart’s story as an example, saying she wore a mask that prevented her from being discovered sooner.
In reality, Smart was disguised by her captors in a robe, wig, sunglasses, and veil, not a medical or cloth mask. To ease concerns, experts continue to emphasize that wearing a face mask to prevent the spread of COVID-19 is not a threat to sex trafficking victims.
4. Text messages about unclaimed packages
A “smishing” (SMS phishing) scam sparked a rumor that text messages with links to unclaimed packages are part of a sex trafficking scheme.
The fear was that clicking the link in the text would enable sex traffickers to track a person’s whereabouts. While these messages do appear to be scams, this instance of smishing is not a sex trafficking scheme.
5. Children’s swimwear websites
Another false rumor suspects websites that sell children’s swimwear as fronts for sex trafficking operations. This one is tricky because it is true that some individuals involved in child pornography collect, produce, and distribute images of children in swimwear. These images do not meet the legal definition of child pornography but are sexualized within that community.
We want to be clear, sexually exploiting children is never acceptable. With regard to this rumor specifically, it’s important to know that the majority of online retail sites selling children’s swimwear are genuine and are not reportedly connected to child abuse.
6. “800,000 missing children a year” stat
There are no definitive and widely agreed-upon figures for the number of children victimized by sex trafficking each year, and yet, one misinterpreted statistic refuses to go away.
You may have seen the claim on social media that 800,000 children go missing every year in the US, followed by a percentage of those who are sex trafficked. This is an old number and as the Polaris Project put it, “virtually meaningless” because it includes repeat reports as well as children who return home or are quickly found, many unharmed.
Any number of missing children is devastating, and when there is more accurate information available, we should be aware. Let’s try these facts instead. The FBI reported 421,394 entries for missing children in 2019. The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC) found that 91% of cases reported to them involved endangered runaways in the same year. Of those, 1 in 6 were likely victims of sex trafficking.
7. White passenger vans
In a TV interview, Baltimore Mayor Jack Young warned citizens about a person in a white van abducting women for human trafficking. When pressed where he received this information, he said it was “all over Facebook.” The Baltimore police said that they were aware of the social media posts but had not received any reports of actual incidents.
Mayor Young was neither the first nor last to believe this false threat, that white passenger vans are signs of trafficking. Traffickers drive all kinds of vehicles, and there is no evidence they favor white vans.
8. Zip ties and marked cars
Another warning about sex trafficking involved zip ties and tagging vehicles. One idea was that traffickers were placing zip ties on car door handles to trick women into looking down or in their purse for something to cut the tie with, and once they were distracted, a trafficker would abduct them. While this may happen in isolated incidents, the evidence does not suggest it is a common way that traffickers abduct victims.
Similarly, another warning claimed child traffickers were scribbling codes onto cars to identify potential victims. This tagging technique, like the zip tie, does not happen commonly.
Natalie Ivey of the Community Coalition Against Human Trafficking in Tennessee said that these plots require more work for the traffickers and dramatically increase their risk of getting caught—something they want to avoid.
9. Abandoned car seats
A TikToker named Paige Marie Parker with 122,000 followers posted a video in October 2021 alleging that traffickers will use an abandoned car seat to lure and kidnap unsuspecting victims. The video was viewed over 12.2 million times in the first day it was posted.
The theory originally came from a post Parker had seen on social media, not trafficking experts or survivors, that featured a photo of an abandoned car seat in a Wal-Mart parking lot in Wilkesboro, North Carolina, with allegations it was a trap.
According to a post by Wilkesboro Police Department, two Wal-Mart customers simply had left their old car seat in the parking lot after buying and installing a new one.
“At no time was this incident deemed to be involved in any criminal activity,” the post, which has only 255 shares as opposed to Parker’s video, which has more than 264,000 shares, concludes.
Megan Cutter, director of the National Human Trafficking Hotline—operated by Polaris—says traffickers placing car seats to lure victims “isn’t a pattern we are aware of or have heard from survivors.”
Rolling Stone reports that Cutter says that the hotline has received “quite a few” tips based on Parker’s TikTok from just within the first 24 hours.
“People are calling and repeating the same information from the TikTok, because that’s what the post requested they do,” she said. “It can be challenging because we’re continuing to spend time and resources responding to that, rather than to survivors.” calling to get help.”
You can fight misinformation
Many of these theories are unsubstantiated, but it’s important to fact-check with established anti-trafficking organizations before spreading any unsubstantiated information.
A common retort we’ve seen when sharing fact-checking on myths and conspiracies is that no one believed billionaire Jeffrey Epstein was trafficking dozens of underage girls, and yet it was true. “How can you know that these theories aren’t true when the theories that sounded impossible about Epstein were true?” many have said in response to fact-checking. But this is a false equivalence.
Any of these theories, and many more we didn’t share here, cannot be fairly compared to Epstein’s trafficking ring. For one, the reported trafficking of dozens and dozens of young girls allegedly done by Ghislaine Maxwell and Jeffrey Epstein left a trail of police reports, survivor testimonies, and eyewitness accounts. In contrast, none of these theories above have any sort of survivor-backing, nor paper trails of police reports, etc. See the difference?
So, what do you do if you are “doomscrolling” and come across a claim about sex trafficking? Maybe it is a warning or accusation about a specific instance of sex trafficking. What is your next move?
A couple of academics offered some advice. They were researching social media propaganda about COVID-19, but their suggestions below of how each of us can combat misinformation is applicable to sex trafficking myths.
- Be critical when scrolling social media.
- When in doubt, verify the information.
- Don’t leave false information in your online networks. You can politely ask the person who shared it to remove it.
- Report false information to the hosting platform.
- Make more noise than the people sharing false information.
Sex trafficking itself is not a myth, but there are myths about sex trafficking. If you want to get as involved as you can in helping rescue victims and advocate for survivors, start with factual information that is supported by anti-trafficking experts and survivor-led organizations. They’ll point us in the right direction and keep the fight factual.
The bottom line: It’s important to stay aware of your surroundings, and should you want to report or seek services related to a case of human trafficking, you can contact the National Human Trafficking Hotline at 1-888-373-7888 or email [email protected].