NEW YORK (NEWS10) — Real and shocking stories of private islands and trafficked children have dominated recent headlines, along with viral internet conspiracy theories of a global faction of celebrity pedophiles. While all this goes on, local human trafficking support agencies, like the Albany County Safe Harbour program, say there are real examples of exploitation in our neighborhoods.
“We see it here in the Capital Region, in gangs,” said Nicole Consiglio, coordinator of Safe Harbour. “We also see parents trafficking their own children to feed a drug habit, or to pay their bills. It really does take on a lot of forms, and can happen anywhere at any time.”
Consiglio said both unproven conspiracies and large-scale Hollywood crimes can make parents unsuspecting of the commonplace dangers posed by traffickers.
“We don’t want that message to be lost in these stories that are out there to pull away and draw attention from what’s really going on here,” said Consiglio.
Viral internet theories have also muddied the messaging.
QAnon dates back to 2017. The anonymous online poster shares claims about a ring of power players that control Hollywood, and they set their sights on different celebrities. One viral theory suggested Oprah Winfrey was arrested for involvement in a sex trafficking ring, a theory she was forced to debunk in March.
“What we see a lot is these stories that have some shock value to them. They’re those celebrity stories. People click on the headline,” said Consiglio, “there’s disturbing imagery. It gets people emotionally charged.”
Consiglio said having an emotional reaction isn’t a bad thing, but when it is in response to false claims or conspiracies, it impacts the ability of agencies to effectively respond to victims and help them transition out of their abusive situation.
Megan Cutter is the director of the National Human Trafficking Hotline.
“What we’ve seen, unfortunately, through the National Human Trafficking hotline, is an increase in reports that are about viral information that someone’s seen on social media, or on the news,” said Cutter, “and people are reporting it without having any connection to that situation.”
Cutter agrees that not everyone who calls has bad intentions, but the misinformation places stress on their hotline and can be confusing to the people in need who are choosing whether or not to pick up the phone and dial.
“The biggest thing we’re worried about,” said Cutter, “is the impact that misinformation and viral content can have on victims and survivors that are trying to reach out for help.”
Rachel Lloyd, a survivor of commercial sexual exploitation, deals directly with the survivors who may be on the other end of those hotlines. She said viral theories and misconceptions date back before QAnon’s existence.
“The anti-trafficking movement, for years, had done a disservice to real victims and survivors by not putting the real stories, and the real faces, and the real issues at the forefront,” said Lloyd, “and allowing it to be reduced to this most basic and sensational level.”
Photos circulating social media showing children with duct-taped mouths and girls in cages perpetuates stereotypes about trafficking and can be confusing to victims whose experiences don’t look that way.
“It takes the focus off real survivors, and puts it on this crazy idea of who’s involved, and who’s to blame,” said Lloyd, “and I mean, it’s just gotten so toxic.”
Lloyd is the founder of GEMS, an organization that wants to end the commercial sexual exploitation and trafficking of children and young women.
Her work on the Safe Harbor Act, to protect victims of exploited youth, is where groups like Albany County Safe Harbor come from.
While these organizations and survivors combat misinformation and advocate for victims, they say you play a role that starts when you open up an internet browser or a social media app.
“We need to make sure people research what they read. Don’t just take a meme or a picture and let that dictate your feelings toward it,” said Consiglio, “do your research.”
Here are some resources from Polaris, the organization that operates the National Human Trafficking Hotline, to educate and inform about misinformation and human trafficking: