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Expert: Conspiracy theories make it harder to fight real sex trafficking

QAnon and other sex traffic conspiracy theories on social media have made it more difficult to do legitimate work for those working to support victims, according to an expert on Wednesday night.

Shea M. Rhodes, the director and co-founder of the Villanova Law Institute to Address Commercial and Sexual Exploitation, was a special guest speaker for the Transitions of PA's Human Trafficking Awareness Night via Zoom on Wednesday. The live discussion on dangerous narratives coincided with January being Human Trafficking Awareness Night.

"It has become incredibly dangerous," said Rhodes. "Human trafficking has taken center stage over the past few months. We started noticing an uptick in July on social media. It's quite upsetting and completely wrong. Misinformation is rampant on social media, the internet and even news networks. It's important we debunk this information so people can understand the reality and the harm that is caused by false narratives."

QAnon, whose followers recently made headlines by taking part in a siege of the Capitol on Jan. 6, is a far-right conspiracy theory group that falsely believes the government is secretly controlled by a cabal of Satan-worshiping pedophile cannibals. Rhodes said QAnon has politicized a historically bi-partisan issue.

The #SaveTheChildren movement makes it increasingly difficult to discern who truly cares about child exploitation and who is interested in spreading falsities. It diverts time and resources from legitimate anti-trafficking groups, and QAnon encourages followers to pursue acts of vigilante justice, said Rhodes.

"We are spending a huge amount of time answering people putting things on our social media," she said. "Our time, our resources are completely hijacked."

The dangers include spreading misinformation and other dangerous narratives; delegitimizing real resources; diverting monetary and other resources away from legitimate organizations; clogging hotlines with false calls and threats; and normalizing "saving and rescuing" trafficking victims, she said.

One example was a report about 39 children being recovered in Georgia. While the report was true, social media changed it into a false story about it being a massive sex trafficking ring, said Rhodes.

Rhodes also discussed important points: a person is more likely to be trafficked by someone they know; third party facilitators such as hotels and websites can be held criminally and civilly liable for their involvement in sex trafficking; and sex trafficking happens all over the U.S. by U.S. citizens to U.S. citizens.

She said prostitution is a "choiceless choice" in the sense that many enter prostitution because of poverty, homelessness, drug addiction, and domestic or childhood abuse and other traumatic hardships.

One solution to reclaiming the narrative, Rhodes said, is to focus on truth. Share resources from legitimate anti-trafficking organizations; report false information on social media; have conversations about this issue with friends and loved ones; question everything you read on social media and do your research, she said.

Transitions' Trafficking Expert Heather Shnyder said she became involved in the issue in June 2012 when she answered the hotline and talked to a woman who was placed in a hotel only seven miles from her home. She didn't know how to exit the situation safely. "If you don't think something like this can happen in our area, think again," said Schnyder. "We are not here trying to scare you or perpetuate conspiracy theories from social media. We want you to recognize, respond, and report. Together we can stop human trafficking."


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