* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.
QAnon rampantly spread disinformation about child trafficking and sparked hundreds of #SaveTheChildren rallies across the country
Carter Quinley has worked in Southeast Asia on anti-trafficking initiatives for over a decade and serves as a board member at The Freedom Story.
In an unprecedented move, this week YouTube and Facebook took a hardline stance against far-right conspiracy QAnon by committing to remove any group, page, or Instagram account openly identifying with the harmful movement. In recent months, QAnon rampantly spread disinformation about child trafficking to millions of Americans through social media and sparked hundreds of #SaveTheChildren rallies across the country with the aim of pushing a pro-Trump agenda.
Over the summer, thousands of maskless protestors in dozens of U.S. cities took to the streets, holding painted signs with grossly misguided statements and false statistics such as “Human trafficking is the real pandemic.”
The conspiracy claims that “deep state” Democrats, celebrities, and the media are running an international trafficking ring and plotting against President Trump and his supporters. As a result, ordinary Americans have become enraged about child trafficking, seemingly overnight. While Trump has claimed to make human trafficking a policy priority, in practice, his administration’s actions have raised a litany of serious human rights concerns, including locking migrant children in cages where several have died and cutting victim protection by rolling back “T” visas.
Political leadership is imperative to fighting child trafficking, and an intersectional, social justice approach is needed in order to effectively address the roots causes of the issue. The challenge in this present moment is for the public to redirect their efforts and engage the problem more carefully rather than spreading baseless conspiracies, which distract and divert valuable resources from legitimate efforts to stop trafficking.
Globally, human trafficking is a $150 billion dollar industry. It is a well-oiled machine, fueled by socio-economic inequality, class, race, and gender. In the United States, the majority of victims of trafficking are often homeless or runaway youth. Of the more than 23,500 endangered runaways reported last year, one in six were likely to be victims of child sex trafficking. Prevention of child trafficking in America requires boosting social services, strengthening education in low-income communities, and lobbying for healthcare reform to support those most at risk.
Yet, most efforts to combat trafficking over the last twenty years have attempted to fix this systemic problem with siloed, ‘band-aid’ solutions. Anti-trafficking responses will always be ineffective and ad-hoc until people in power get serious about addressing the root causes by dismantling poverty, discrimination, and social exclusion. There is much work to be done.
But what can ordinary citizens do? Americans are asking, “How can we help?” The first step is to realize that trafficking is not as simple as in the Liam Neeson popular movie “Taken,” nor does it look like the debunked myth of children sold inside overpriced furniture through Wayfair. Trafficking is a nuanced, multidimensional crime of economics and power.
To care about trafficking means educating ourselves on the root causes and addressing the multitudes of issues at its source. It means evaluating our purchasing power and demanding supply chain transparency from the companies we buy from.
It means asking: “Are banks implementing anti-money laundering regulations?” and “Are local governments investing in education and healthcare?” If we begin the conversation with a focus on tangible root issues such as these, rather than becoming distracted by sensational conspiracies like QAnon, we can start to develop practical actions that lead to effective and holistic prevention efforts.
We must mobilize social institutions including schools, churches, mosques, and community centers as key anchors to support and protect vulnerable youth. Educators, health care professionals, bank tellers, airline staff, and cashiers are all critical in identifying victims.
This year marks the twentieth anniversary of the modern anti-trafficking movement. Two decades have passed since the enactment of the first U.S. legislation on trafficking, the Trafficking Victims Protection Act. Yet, human trafficking still remains one of the most pressing challenges of our time. We must stop perpetuating sensational conspiracies.
Rather, it is critical for ordinary Americans to demand policy solutions anchored in the real, intersectional work of social justice. Looking ahead to the next twenty years of the anti-human trafficking movement, we each have a role to play in ending this egregious crime, but it will take energy, time, resources, and above all, political leadership.
Perhaps in November, we will get just that.