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What Happened When A Human Trafficking Hashtag Got Hijacked


Hashjacking is when somebody co-opts a hashtag to promote their own social media content. The hashjack of #SavetheChildren is proving dangerous for anti-human trafficking organizations in Central Illinois.


Save the Children is an international, humanitarian organization that tries to protect children around the world. Its hashtag is #SavetheChildren. This past year the tag has attracted an unusually high volume of social media chatter.

Nathan Carpenter is the coordinator for the Social Media Analytics Command Center at Illinois State University. Carpenter said his data show right-wing groups now use the hashtag … a lot.

“These are pretty mundane — well, the stories aren’t mundane but the posts themselves are pretty day-to-day. What it looks like we start to see is around April 1 (2020) or so we see the first big spike where you see it shifts suddenly into the QAnon world,” said Carpenter.

The content and what dangers it presents

QAnon is a disproven far-right conspiracy theory that, generally speaking, alleges a political clique of Satan-worshipping cannibalistic pedophiles runs a global child sex-trafficking ring and plots against Donald Trump, who is fighting the clique. 

“It’s so ludicrous, but it’s really taken off in social media circles because anybody can publish in those spaces,” said Carpenter. “Particularly, Twitter and Facebook are the places where you can see it’s really taken off.” 

This confuses people who support legitimate anti-child trafficking groups. Facebook even took down #SavetheChildren because it promoted what Facebook called “low quality content.”

Carpenter’s data also shows rumor mongers emerging and creating dangerous, divisive content that goes beyond QAnon.

“You’ll see it connected to particular individuals or political parties. So they’ll always throw things in there about Democrats, Hillary Clinton. It’s all connected to attempting to make this trend and stick in the public imagination,” said Carpenter. 

“You get enough people falling into the conspiracy here, it equates into some real world actions,” said Carpenter.  

An example took place in 2017 when a North Carolina man fired an assault rifle inside a Washington, D.C., pizzeria while investigating an online conspiracy theory known as “Pizzagate.”

Impacting anti-human trafficking groups 

The danger didn’t end in 2017. With the misuse of #SavetheChildren advocacy groups are having to evolve.

Child safety groups say the sensationalism of these conspiracy theories damages the reality of the violent crimes victims face. Sara Sefried is the director of human trafficking services at the Center for Prevention of Abuse based in Peoria. 

“The concern that I have is that some of those viral posts are perpetuating some of the common myths and misconceptions that surround the crime of sex and labor trafficking and it really distracts and distorts the reality that thousands of individuals are facing each year,” said Sefried. 

Sefried said one misconception is that human traffickers are always violent strangers. 

“In most cases of sex trafficking the victim knows the trafficker or the abusive partner. And it happens through psychological coercion, manipulation, trickery … rather than always involving that physical violence or force,” said Sefried.

Sefried said misinformation obscures what actually happens to victims. She says that’s harmful.

“If they’re seeing stories portrayed on the media that don’t look like their story, they A) Might not think they’re a victim of sex trafficking or B) They might think their situation isn’t bad enough and that there is no help out there for them. I think it makes real, true victims hesitant to reach out for help,” said Sefried. 

Combating the lies with facts

Sefried said the nature of the crime and people’s desire to fill in blanks can foster misinformation.

“We believe human trafficking is often under-identified and that’s just simply because it exists in the shadows,” sais Sefried. “People don’t know what they’re looking at when they come across it.” 

Sefried said the Center for Prevention of Abuse has given up on #SavetheChildren and is using a new hashtag #LetsStartTheConversation.

“The goal for that campaign is to make sure we are providing accurate information that is relevant to our community,” said Sefried.

Another advocate suggests people may want to avoid social media altogether.

Nastasha Powers is a medical and legal advocate at Stepping Stones, a branch of YWCA McLean County in Bloomington.

Powers said no survivor’s story is too small and the sensational treatment of human trafficking on Twitter and Facebook is dangerous. 

“For the most part we can’t stop what people post. But what we can do is try to continue raising awareness and continue to give back,” said Powers. “Then we can only hope the people are searching for facts and not the most popular hashtag.” 

Powers suggests going to the National Human Trafficking website

“When you want to get to the facts you want to make sure you are getting credible sources,” she said.

Powers said social media won’t go away because it’s profitable, but she hopes people will post factual content that will help put false narratives to bed.

Social media analyst Nathan Carpenter said advocacy groups have to spend more energy and resources combatting the false information than they should. 

“That kind of goes to show the real-world power of this,” he said.

And that might have real world consequences for the more than 24 million enslaved people around the world who need help.


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