Beyond Trafficking and Slavery

Cutting corners to make a compelling story: trafficking awareness campaigns as fake news and alternative facts

Anti-trafficking awareness campaigns share many features with fake news and alternative facts. While the latter are derided, campaigns continue to be widely celebrated despite their serious flaws.

Kelli Lyon Johnson
20 June 2019, 9.19pm
Comet restaurant, Washington, DC.
Elizabeth Murphy/Flickr. (CC BY 2.0)

This is a response to the above debate.

Late last year, Edgar Maddison Welch set out on a 360-mile drive from his home in Salisbury, North Carolina, to the Comet Ping Pong restaurant in Washington DC. His trip was inspired by a desire to investigate human trafficking. According to New York Times reporter Adam Goldman, Welch had initially heard through “word of mouth” about a child sex trafficking ring run out of the basement of this restaurant with Hillary Clinton’s help or, at the very least, her knowledge.

Further research, which he conducted on the internet, appeared to confirm this story. Although Welch initially intended only to investigate things on the ground, his mission evolved once he arrived in DC. Motivated by a desire to rescue the victims of child trafficking that he believed to be held in the pizzeria, Welch entered the premises armed with an assault rifle, which he subsequently fired inside the restaurant. No trafficking victims were found.

It is not difficult to imagine the victims that Welch sought to rescue in his disastrous armed raid of the restaurant since human trafficking awareness campaigns have called into being a very specific set of images. In the bulk of awareness campaigns – particularly in the United States and Europe – the typical story of human trafficking proceeds as follows: an innocent girl or young woman is forcibly removed or coerced from her home-space. She then suffers physical and sexual harm through commercial sexual exploitation, and must therefore be (dramatically) rescued.

Innocence and suffering are crucial to this story because the combination creates a foundation of moral clarity that ensures she is regarded as worthy of rescue. More ambitious choices and outcomes, such as the decision to migrate voluntarily as a sex worker, are rarely part of public awareness campaigns because they raise questions of autonomy and rights that cannot easily be answered.

More ambitious choices and outcomes, such as the decision to migrate voluntarily as a sex worker, are rarely part of public awareness campaigns because they raise questions of autonomy and rights that cannot easily be answered.

While proponents of the formula argue that simplified narratives of good and evil are necessary to garner adequate attention to the problem of human trafficking, this model has nevertheless had significant consequences. For example, as Guri Tyldum and Anette Brunovskis have documented in their research, law enforcement officials may fail to identify persons who have been trafficked if they do not ‘look’ like campaign victims. In her book Selling Olga, Louisa Waugh quotes a London police officer who complained, “we’re just not getting the sorts of victims we were anticipating, the sort of genuine victims who have been dragged kicking and screaming into a lifestyle they never wanted”.

In addition to stereotyped and sensationalised narratives, some human trafficking awareness campaigns present statistics that are, at best, unclear or unfounded, or, at worst, exaggerated for effect, as Zoe Trodd contends. Defenders argue that they are a necessary trade-off for the benefits they seek, such as to “engage with people’s emotions”, as Marilyn Murray writes.

But in failing to research, ascertain, and then publicise an accurate measure of the human trafficking problem, consumers of awareness campaigns begin to see human trafficking not only as pervasive – and probably more pervasive than it is – but also as threatening and anxiety-inducing. The rhetoric has come to parallel US anti-terror security campaign slogans: “if you see something, say something”.

This kind of fear and a mindset of mistrust can result in the suspicion and paranoia that might lead someone to believe they see trafficked persons everywhere, and the common advice of reporting suspicious cases to police can too often result in forms of detention or deportation for potential victims as much as for potential perpetrators.

Fear and a mindset of mistrust can result in a paranoia that might lead someone to believe they see trafficked persons everywhere.

Enter Edgar Maddison Welch. He has not told reporters anything about his knowledge of human trafficking awareness campaigns; he has spoken only of his reading “news” stories about child sex trafficking in secret basement tunnels of the restaurant. While the police described a “fictitious online conspiracy theory” as having led to Welch’s armed attack, most reporters used the short-hand phrase that had developed during the 2016 US presidential campaign: “fake news”.

Like the phrase ‘human trafficking’, ‘fake news’ has been poorly defined in the media and elsewhere. As Will Oremus points out, the term originally applied to false stories made to look like genuine new stories from genuine news sites, stories that typically “played to readers’ partisan biases”. Fake news has since come to include exaggerated or unproven claims, rumours, and conspiracy theories.

Worse, politicians, pundits, and the public alike have begun to label factual news stories from longstanding and reputable news organisations as ‘fake news’ if those stories contradict closely held beliefs or ideologies. President Trump famously pointed at CNN reporter Jake Acosta during his first press conference as president-elect and denounced his organisation: “Not you. You’re fake news”. The recent debates about fake news and what President Trump’s aide Kellyanne Conway has called “alternative facts” raise questions about the role of inaccurate information in the service of persuasion and campaigning.

We can draw useful parallels between awareness campaigns and fake news that highlight the risks of the tactics involved.

The authors in this series take on the tactics – inaccurate or inflated data, oversimplified narratives, and sensationalised images – that frequently characterise human trafficking awareness campaigns. I am not suggesting that these tactics rise to the level of being fake news; indeed, there are probably dozens of ways that awareness campaigns differ from fake news – not least of which is intention.

But we can draw useful parallels between the two that highlight the risks or the costs of these tactics. Purveyors of fake news could argue, for example, that the substance of the story does not matter as much as engaging their audience to convince them of a broader idea. In the Comet Ping Pong case, suggesting that trafficked children were being held in the restaurant helps convey the idea that Hillary Clinton is untrustworthy and should not be president – even if the facts of the matter are uncertain, exaggerated, unsupported, or, even, untrue.

Child sex trafficking, or sex trafficking more broadly, is not an ‘alternative fact’. Some girls and women, like those represented most commonly in awareness campaigns, are forcibly abducted and exploited in horrific ways. But this long-standing stereotype has virtually supplanted all facts about human trafficking in the eyes of campaign consumers – from law enforcement officials to self-styled rescuers like Welch. In a context in which a single narrative has dominated awareness campaigns and media coverage, arming himself for vigilante justice appeared to Welch as an appropriate and even laudable response.

While public awareness campaigns are not necessarily exactly the same as fake news and alternative facts, they often share too many features in common: telling consumers a titillating and simplistic morality tale in order to get them to accept what the campaigners believe about human trafficking despite both substantial complexities and contradictory evidence.

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