Human Trafficking in the Digital World

By Ambassador Callista L. Gingrich

The scourge of human trafficking is a stain on all of humanity.  It invades borders, destroys communities, and robs millions of their human dignity.

Today, it’s estimated that more than 25 million adults and children around the world are victims of human trafficking.

One of the misconceptions about human trafficking is that its victims are often recruited on the streets.  In reality, since 2013, the most common location for traffickers to recruit sex trafficking victims has been the internet.

With the rise of the internet, traffickers have powerful tools at their disposal to solicit, recruit, and exploit innocent victims.  The 2020 United Nations Global Report on Trafficking in Persons notes that “internet technologies are increasingly being used for the facilitation of trafficking in persons.”

Social media platforms such as Facebook, Instagram, WeChat, and Snapchat are widely used by traffickers to recruit sex trafficking victims.  According to the U.S. Federal Human Trafficking Report, 59 percent of online victim recruitment in 2020 occurred on Facebook.

Among the most vulnerable to social media targeting are children.  According to the Global Report on Trafficking in Persons, one out of three human trafficking victims is a child.  Children in higher income countries, where there is greater access to technology, are more frequently trafficked for sexual exploitation.

Young social media users are often unaware of the threat of online traffickers and the methodology behind virtual grooming.  A study commissioned by the Ohio Attorney General’s Human Trafficking Commission identified some of the ways traffickers manipulate young victims online by preying on their insecurities.  Social media posts that communicate fear, disappointment, or lack of confidence, can be manipulated by traffickers’ false promises of protection, acceptance, and understanding.

In addition to recruitment, online platforms are used by traffickers to advertise and exploit innocent victims.

In 2020, 83 percent of U.S. sex trafficking cases were the result of internet solicitation.  Compared to other methods of solicitation, the internet has been the most frequently used method for traffickers to connect victims to buyers in the United States since 2008.

Another misconception about human trafficking is that its victims frequently cross national borders.  In reality, an estimated 77 percent of human trafficking victims never leave their country of residence.  Further, in the United States less than half of all sex trafficking victims cross state lines.  

Digital platforms, webcams, and livestreams have reduced the need for traffickers to transport victims and have enabled traffickers to broaden their geographic reach.  As the Global Report on Trafficking in Persons states, the internet helps traffickers to operate in multiple locations at the same time, while physically exploiting the victims in a single location. In fact, a 2018 study found that 42 percent of trafficking victims that met their trafficker online, never met their trafficker in person.

As the use of technology continues to grow, human traffickers are likely to develop new strategies to solicit, recruit, and exploit innocent victims, unless governments and civil society demand an end to this global evil.