In 1770, Anglo-Irish statesman Edmund Burke wrote, “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” Several women who were victims of sex trafficking as young girls have been applying this famous quote to the management and staff of hospitality facilities where they were exploited – and now, they are going after social media.
According to the anti-trafficking organization Polaris Project, social media platforms such as Facebook and Instagram are fertile hunting grounds for sex traffickers seeking vulnerable young girls (as well as boys) to exploit. These predators lure their victims using a three-part strategy:
Once their prey has been identified, the trafficker will exploit the victim’s vulnerabilities through flattery, mock concern, and verbal seduction as well as false promises of a “better life.” The ultimate objective, of course, is to draw the victim into the trap by arranging an actual meeting.
According to lawsuits filed in recent years, social media companies should have done more to prevent these tragedies. One such lawsuit was filed in early 2018 in Houston, Texas. The plaintiff, identified only as “Jane Doe,” says she was 15 years old in 2012 when she received a “friend” request from a Facebook user – a man who appeared to have a number of the same “friends.” According to her complaint, he started off by telling her she was “pretty enough to be a model.” When she left her family home to meet the man, he took her photo and posted it to Backpage (essentially, a “Craigslist” for buying and selling sex that was closed down by federal authorities in April of 2018). She then claims she was raped, beaten and forced into prostitution.
Doe blames Facebook’s “morally bankrupt corporate culture” for her experiences.
A second lawsuit, filed by a 14-year-old girl alleging she was lured into sexual slavery in 2018, names Instagram as the defendant. She says she met a man through the social media platform, who then assaulted her and forced her into sex work for three weeks. The girl is still undergoing therapy.
These lawsuits represent the first to be filed since the passage of the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act and Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act (SESTA-FOSTA), a controversial statute that was intended to make it easier to prosecute persons (both natural and corporate) who own and operate websites that enable sex trafficking. In response, Facebook filed a motion to dismiss Jane Doe’s lawsuit, citing Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act of 1996 (CDA), which shields website owners from liability arising out content posted by third parties.
That motion was denied by Judge Stephen Kincaid of the Harris County District Court, who is hearing both cases. Facebook has filed an appeal of that ruling, which is still pending. Attorney Annie McAdams, who represents both plaintiffs, argues that “The CDA was never designed to protect entities that protect the rape of children,” and that SESTA-FOSTA removes any immunity the defendants might have had.