While browsing social media over the past few weeks, you may have observed a surge in human trafficking-related hashtags and posts. As board members with the Laboratory to Combat Human Trafficking, it was encouraging to see that people were discussing an issue that doesn’t get nearly enough attention – particularly during a year of economic hardship, COVID-19 and mass protests. That is, until taking a closer look at what they were posting.
In the past few months, an internet-driven theory known as QAnon has propagated a story – in truth, a conspiracy – about human trafficking. The narrative being promoted includes many debunked stories, like the recent allegation of Wayfair selling furniture with children hidden inside. These conspiracies ultimately claim a group of political elites, deep state government officials and Hollywood actors are conspiring against the President while running a highly-organized global child sex trafficking ring.
Their web-based groups boast millions of members. You likely have come across at least one in your newsfeed. Unfortunately, this content doesn’t come close to providing an accurate picture of the real human rights abuse in our communities.
This may sound like a fringe theory, but QAnon-related posts have been liked and re-shared by tens of thousands of people. Their web-based groups boast millions of members. You likely have come across at least one in your newsfeed. Unfortunately, this content doesn’t come close to providing an accurate picture of the real human rights abuse in our communities.
QAnon Narratives Distract and Distort Reality
Nobody denies that there are clear cases of people in positions of power who have exploited others to the level of trafficking. Power imbalances nearly always contribute to labor and sex trafficking. And it’s also true that sometimes there are wealthy social elites like Jefferey Epstein who avoid criminal prosecution thanks to their power and influence. But the abuse of power realized in human trafficking isn’t only committed by these groups.
Human trafficking is defined as a severe form of exploitation that involves force, fraud or coercion for labor – including sex. People in diverse positions of authority can commit that kind of action, ranging from teachers and coaches to leaders in industries like agriculture or hospitality. Unfortunately, the spread of misinformation by QAnon doesn’t acknowledge the fact that intimate partners, family members and employers are frequently identified as human traffickers. Their focus instead on a “shadowy global cabal” renders real traffickers and survivors invisible. We’re looking in the wrong place.
Understanding Real Vulnerabilities That Increase Exploitation
It’s important to understand the conditions under which individuals are more vulnerable to exploitation. In Colorado, someone’s race, gender, sexual orientation, immigration status and access to housing are all factors that can increase vulnerability. Systemic imbalances related to identity also contribute to vulnerability and their effects can be intensified during crises like the COVID-19 pandemic. Not only have QAnon’s followers largely ignored these facts grounded in research, but they have also begun to organize protests, which bypass our state’s established anti-trafficking initiatives and partnerships.
There is, in fact, good news in Colorado’s response to human trafficking. Research released in 2019 from the Laboratory to Combat Human Trafficking found more coordinated efforts emerging within existing anti-trafficking coalitions. Many survivors are beginning to lead initiatives statewide, and traffickers are being prosecuted at greater numbers and with more significant sentences. A group of practitioners, law enforcement and survivors also came together to promote recommendations that further combat trafficking in the Colorado Action Plan 2.0, which communities can support right now.
Responsible Anti-Trafficking Efforts and Opportunities
Becoming aware of these honest efforts – and the facts around human trafficking in our state – is an essential start for anyone driven by compassion and interested in ending this crime. In Colorado, many organizations working on trafficking need volunteers, donations and financial support. And for those still suffering from past or current trafficking, help is available through Colorado’s Human Trafficking Hotline.
Many positive changes are in motion. But to continue our progress, we must work together to move the conversation away from conspiracy theories and unify our efforts to educate each other, provide support for those in need, and ultimately, end human trafficking.