November 13, 2019

Sex Trafficking Survivors Reveal Instagram is a Popular Online Slavery Auction Block

A few months ago I met with 3 young girls who were sex trafficking survivors in Washington DC.

They showed us their Instagram accounts, which were set to private. Any parents would assume this meant the app was locked down and safe for a minor to use. However, even though their accounts were set to private they received a dozen or more messages from strangers, adult men, on a regular basis. They would ask them to meet up, or ask them for sexually explicit photos.

Sometimes they complimented girls and got them to feel loved and like they were their boyfriends. Sometimes they used sexually explicit photos they got from the girls to extort and blackmail them into sex trafficking or abuse—sometimes both!

We know from the research that psychological manipulation and coercion is the most prevalent and popular tactic to coerce a victim, including falsely proclaimed love, establishing superiority to intimidate, and also manipulating other emotional needs. Not all chains are visible, and as we know from the Domestic Violence sector, psychological coercion can keep individuals in a death grip.

These girls shared how, almost universally, these men would use pornography of sex trafficked girls to advertise them on Instagram, or would use livestream features on Instagram to auction them off to sex buyers.

While exploiters seeking to groom children and teens used to have to find them in person, they now have the ability to anonymously reach them with a few clicks of a button.

Instagram is rated as safe for children 12+, along with Snapchat, and TikTok which have all been methods for sex trafficking, and abusers, to groom and abuse children. These app ratings are misleading and leave parents and children unaware of the risks involved, because each app gets to rate itself. Right now the industry has no accountability and transparency to make safe digital spaces for kids.

There are two solutions that we need from the tech industry: first, we need both devices and social media apps to embrace age-based default safety settings—where by default safety features are turned on and you have to go in to intentionally turn them off. This would be the opposite of our current system where it’s assumed that you want zero safety measures and the parent or individual has to go searching for the safety controls to turn them on. Second, we need an independent app ratings board with sanctioning power for non-compliance. This system would be like the ratings board created for the movie and videogame industry—operating independently of the government, run by a cross-section of industry and child development experts. While Congress would have no control over this independent board, we are calling on Congress to request that the tech industry takes the initiative to set up this review board.

Haley Halverson

Vice President of Advocacy and Outreach

Haley Halverson is the Vice President of Advocacy and Outreach at the National Center on Sexual Exploitation where she develops and executes national campaigns to change policies and raise awareness. Most notably, she promotes corporate social responsibility by constructing annual activism campaigns like the Dirty Dozen List, which names 12 mainstream private companies that facilitate sexual exploitation. Her advocacy work has contributed to instigating policy improvements in the native online advertising, retail, and hotel industries.

She is a member of the Washington DC Mayor’s Advisory Committee on Child Abuse and Neglect, September 2018-2019. This Committee advises DC Mayor Muriel Bowser on the multi-faceted continuum of the District of Columbia’s child welfare services, including prevention, early intervention, treatment, and sources of permanency.

Haley regularly speaks and writes on topics including child sexual abuse, sex trafficking, prostitution, sexual objectification, the exploitation of males, and more. She has presented before officials at the United Nations, as well as at several national symposia before influencers from the Department of Justice, Department of Health and Human Services, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and Croatian government officials. She has provided training to Arlington County Child & Family Services on the social media grooming, recruitment, and advertising for sex trafficking. She has a Master of Arts in Government from Johns Hopkins University where she received honors for her thesis regarding the online commercial sexual exploitation marketplace.

Previously, Haley served for two years as Director of Communications for the National Center on Sexual Exploitation where she oversaw strategic messaging development, press outreach, email marketing, and social media marketing.

Prior to working at NCOSE, Haley wrote for Media Research Center. Haley graduated from Hillsdale College (summa cum laude) with a double major, and conducted a senior thesis on the abolitionist argument regarding prostitution. During her studies, she studied abroad at Oxford University and established a background in policy research through several internships in the DC area.

Haley has appeared on, or been quoted in, several outlets including the New York Times, NBC’s The Today Show, BBC News, New York Post, USA Today, Chicago Tribune, Fox News, San Francisco Chronicle, the Washington Post, Yahoo News, Voice of America, Dr. Drew Midday Live, The DeMaio Report, the New York Daily News, the Washington Examiner, USA Radio Network, the Washington Times, CBC News, The Rod Arquette Show, The Detroit News, Lifezette, The Christian Post, Lifeline with Neil Boron, EWTN News Nightly, KCBS San Francisco Radio, LifeSiteNews, The Drew Mariano Show on Relevant Radio, News Talk KGVO, and American Family News.

She has written op-eds for the Washington Post, the Huffington Post, FoxNews.com, Townhall.com, Darling Magazine, the Daytona-Beach News Journal, and has been published in the Journal of Internet Law and the journal Dignity: A Journal on Sexual Exploitation and ViolenceShe has also contributed to a digital middle school curriculum regarding the links between sex trafficking and pornography as well as the public health impacts of sex trafficking.

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