On December 4, 2016, Edgar Madison Welch entered Comet Pizza in Washington D.C. armed with an assault rifle on a hunt for clues about alleged pedophilia. He was prompted by the patently false internet conspiracy theory known as “Pizzagate”. The conspiracy theory touted that “political elites”, including Democratic presidential nominee, Hillary Clinton, were running a child sex trafficking ring in the basement of the popular restaurant. Not an iota of this theory was found to hold weight, but its’ popularity on the internet brought it to mainstream consciousness and had extremely dangerous ramifications.
Sex trafficking is a crime historically plagued by misinformation and hyperbole. Swaths of the public associate sex trafficking solely with the movie “Taken” and other highly dramatized depictions of young girls bound and shuffled between nations. Flawed information about sex trafficking lead to gaps in victim identification amongst other devasting implications. Unfortunately, the ease at which misinformation is shared on social media platforms has created a domino-effect of far-fetched sex trafficking conspiracy theories appearing as legitimate to those unfamiliar with nuances of this crime. This is a serious problem.
Earlier in July, a viral social media post about online retailer, Wayfair, trafficking children under the guise of overpriced furniture began to rival 2016’s “Pizzagate”. Rolling Stone magazine covered the phenomenon, including descriptions of related posts that falsely ensnared Jeffrey Epstein’s alleged accomplice, Ghislaine Maxwell, in the ever-widening “Wayfair” conspiracy web. These viral social media posts about sex trafficking are effective because they start with a kernel of truth and then twist the narrative in such a way that the truth is no longer discernable. “Pizzagate” and “Wayfair” gained mainstream attention, but they are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the distorted reality of such posts.
Sex trafficking is not a global conspiracy theory linking politicians and celebrities to cases of missing children, as viral social media posts connecting Ghislaine Maxwellto the disappearances of JonBenet Ramsey and Madeleine McCann falsely suggest.Jeffrey Epstein trafficked and sexually exploited children. Child sex trafficking is very much a reality. However, the wealth and power that enabled Epstein and his cronies to do so with impunity and on such a large scale are not at all emblematic of how sex trafficking normally presents. Every day, countless children are sex trafficked in their homes, by neighbors, and by strangers without the aid of Hollywood or political “elites”. Lumping all sex trafficking in with the extraordinary circumstances of the Epstein case is factually erroneous and takes away from legitimate anti-trafficking efforts.
As advocates, we need actively promote thoughtful discussion about sex trafficking and refute baseless conspiracy theories. We can’t let our reasoned message be lost in a sea of unhinged social media posts that have proven to have the power to negatively skew public consciousness. These fantastical tales, like “Pizzagate” and “Wayfair”, do nothing but detract from the needs of victims and make it more difficult for the public to grasp what sex trafficking actually looks like. I urge you to use your voice and your platform to spread facts and stop these extremely dangerous conspiracies from causing any more harm than they already have.
Please join us for a virtual panel TONIGHT about human trafficking in the Commonwealth. This informational event is hosted by Rep. Melissa Shusterman, Rep. Kristine Howard, and Rep. Christina Sappy. More details are available here.