Human and drug traffickers use social media to expand their markets


Release of so-called “Facebook Papers,” redacted versions of Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen’s explosive testimony to the US Senate Trade Committee, reveals the social media giant has struggled for years with limited success to curb illegal activities on its platforms.

The global illicit drug market brings in more than $ 600 billion a year to its dealers, while some 21 million people around the world are currently trafficked for sex and work. These three illegal markets thrive through clever exploitation of social media.

“Human traffickers will prey on vulnerable communities with real needs,” said Anjana Rajan, chief technology officer of Polaris, a non-profit organization that combats and prevents sex and labor trafficking. works in North America. In this photo, Ruchira Gupta, founding director of the non-governmental organization (NGO) Aapne Aap (On Our Own), presents the book entitled Confronting the Demand for Sex-trafficking at its launch in New Delhi on August 1, 2007. Poverty Globalization and growing customer demand are among the main causes of the global increase in the number of women and children trafficked into prostitution, according to the book.
TAUSEEF MUSTAFA / AFP via Getty Images)

The majority of online recruitments in active sex trafficking cases last year were on Facebook, according to the Human Trafficking Institute. The authors took advantage of the platform by using strategies such as fake identities or bogus job postings to identify and recruit vulnerable users.

“Human traffickers will prey on vulnerable communities with real needs,” said Anjana Rajan, chief technology officer of Polaris, a non-profit organization that combats and prevents sex and labor trafficking. works in North America.

These needs are heightened among users who suffer from trauma, addictions or poverty, she said.

“They will identify what those needs are and pretend to give them, whether it is a job or an apartment, a sense of love or a sense of belonging,” Rajan said.

With COVID-19 resulting in global economic financial instability and many people confined to their homes, internet use has increased. In the first six months of the pandemic, Facebook saw a significant increase in users, income and stock prices. Polaris researchers have observed simultaneous increases in labor markets and sex trafficking.

Meanwhile, accessing medicines has become easier than ever with online sales. In a 2019 survey of 16-24 year olds on Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat by Volteface, a UK-based advocacy and drug research organization, 24% of respondents reported seeing illicit drugs for sale on social media, including (in order of prevalence), cannabis, cocaine, MDMA / Ecstasy, and Xanax.

Katya Kowalski, Head of Strategy at Volteface, said News week that social media has become an increasingly popular means of reaching young people and selling them narcotics.

“Drug dealers often use specific emojis to signify certain things,” she said. “They will write a message rather than typing it, or post a photo of something that is written so that the algorithm does not pick it up.”

The network-based incentives of Facebook apps push users to connect with mutual friends. Without proper supervision, this makes it easy for drug dealers to find interested customers. It also unknowingly exposes people to dangerous social networks.

With a user-friendly interface, direct messaging capabilities, and an extremely powerful network effect, dealers and organizations have turned to platforms like Facebook and Instagram to quickly and easily expand their customer base.

“This allows drug trafficking to take on a more professional look and professionalize this network with legitimate business features such as selling items and creating a brand identity,” Kowalski said.

This ability to personalize and form “virtual trust” is a powerful tool, offering a significant level of access and familiarity. These tools are also exploited by those involved in sex or labor trafficking.

Facebook reaches nearly a third of the world’s population, including millions of young people. The possibilities of exploitation are practically limitless and Facebook has strived to systematically protect user safety.

The testimony of Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen before the US Senate alluded to this point. The hearing sparked new calls for the $ 1 trillion company to face tighter federal oversight.

“A business with such a frightening influence on so many people, their deepest thoughts, feelings and behaviors, needs real oversight,” she told the Senate Trade Committee.

Haugen criticized the company for not doing enough to limit the spread of disinformation, report harmful content and identify predatory accounts.

With billions invested in security measures over the past decade, the company today relies on algorithms, third-party verification, user-filed reports, and a dedicated security team to monitor its platforms.

Unfortunately, these measures have had varying degrees of success. With a limited ability to monitor its rapidly growing user base, potentially harmful content is not always identified and removed.

Haugen alluded to this damage in his Senate testimony.

Responding to a question from Senator Richard Blumenthal, she said that “numerous internal Facebook research reports indicate that Facebook has serious negative (mental) harm to a significant portion of adolescents and children.”

While some might view this as a personal issue, mental health epidemics create vulnerable communities that are more easily exploited, Rajan said.

“If the feelings of insecurity and loneliness created by Instagram amplify this vulnerability, then that’s a problem,” she said. “This means that you are now creating a vulnerability which could be exploited by a trafficker.”

Internal documents revealed by Haugen show that Facebook has known about the negative effects of its products for years. The company has completed its own internal reviews of its platforms, on topics such as the sale of illicit drugs, sex and labor trafficking, and the potentially damaging effects on the mental health of young users. discretion to choose when and where to implement guarantees.

Haugen directly criticized these practices.

“Hardly anyone outside of Facebook knows what’s going on inside Facebook,” she said. “The company intentionally hides vital information from the public, the US government, and governments around the world.”

Defending the company in a public blog post, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg directly refuted these notions, calling many recent claims false, while saying that “we care deeply about issues such as security, well-being and mental health “.

Kowalski of Volteface said solving the problem will require cooperation between the public and private sectors.

“Social media companies should work with government, police and all kinds of other stakeholders to discuss and understand how best to disrupt these markets on social media platforms,” she said.

Zuckerberg’s public comments indicate he can agree, at least to some extent.

“I don’t think private companies should make all of the decisions themselves,” he wrote in his blog post.

As individuals make proposals on what needs to be done, it is time for stakeholders to come together to protect communities and make the necessary policy changes, says Rajan.

“From a technical standpoint, Facebook knows what to do. From a regulatory standpoint, Congress knows what to do,” she said.

“Where is the moral courage to do it?” “Is the question,” she added.


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