from the reality-is-way-less-lurid-than-headline-writers-would-like-it-to-be dept
If sex trafficking was actual traffic, people would rarely complain about congestion. It’s not that it doesn’t happen. It’s that it doesn’t happen with the frequency claimed by government officials in order to do things like dismantle Section 230 immunity or pursue baseless prosecutions against online ad services.
But it always sounds like an omnipresent threat thanks to far too many news organizations who are apparently unwilling to challenge claims made by officials, much less dig into the details of trafficking stings. Almost without exception, big human/sex trafficking busts end with little to show for them but some standard solicitation arrests and a handful of jailed sex workers of legal age who haven’t been “trafficked.”
There’s a lot of blame to spread around for this turning from small-scale misguided hysteria into the focal point of legislation that harms the immunity granted to website and platform owners. But we can start with media, which hasn’t met a sex trafficking story it isn’t willing to hype, even when the facts don’t jibe with the headlines. Michael Hobbes punches holes in the latest sex trafficking horror story covered nationwide — one that contains very little horror and almost no sex trafficking.
This is how it landed on people’s virtual doorsteps following the government’s press release:
“U.S. Marshals Find 39 Missing Children in Georgia During ‘Operation Not Forgotten,’” proclaimed the government’s official press release. Federal agents and local law enforcement, it said, had rescued 26 children, “safely located” 13 more and arrested nine perpetrators, some of whom were charged with sex trafficking.
The facts of the operation weren’t clear (what does “safely located” mean, exactly?), but it didn’t stop media outlets from taking up the story. “Missing Children Rescued in Georgia Sex Trafficking Bust” wrote The Associated Press, a headline dutifully repeated in The New York Times. “39 Missing Children Located in Georgia Sex Trafficking Sting Operation” was People magazine’s version. Few media outlets contributed any original reporting; the vast majority of stories were little more than rewritten versions of the U.S. Marshals Service’s press release.
These credulous takes of the information offered by the US Marshals Service became even hotter once it hit Twitter, with people asking why finding 39 trafficked children wasn’t a bigger story. But that’s not even what the Marshals’ press release said. It only said law enforcement has rescued 26 “endangered” children, found 13 other missing children in “safe” locations, and arrested only nine people. The release mentioned “crimes related to sex trafficking” but did not specify any of the nine had been charged with sex trafficking. It wasn’t even a “sex trafficking sting.” It was a joint task force operation to find missing children.
The details larger press outlets were unwilling to dig into have been uncovered by Michael Hobbes. Here’s what the US Marshals had to say about the operation the media insisted was a sex trafficking sting.
“This was not a designated anti-trafficking operation,” Darby Kirby, a U.S. Marshals Service inspector involved with the operation, told HuffPost. Operation Not Forgotten, the name law enforcement gave the recovery effort, was a collaboration between state and federal authorities to locate 78 “critically missing” children.
The good news is the task force found 65 of the 78 “critically missing” children. Thirty-nine were “recovered,” which means they weren’t necessarily in danger, but possibly just not living with the custodial parent. The other 26 cases were closed, possibly because the child had already been located by Child Protective Services or had returned home prior to the operation.
As for the sex trafficking that was the focal point of national news stories, it’s almost a footnote.
The operation netted only one new charge of sex trafficking against a perpetrator. Of the seven men and two women arrested, three were charged with probation violations, one was charged with unlawful possession of a firearm and two were accused of violating custody arrangements. One person was arrested on a warrant for a previous sex trafficking charge, and two more were arrested on warrants for sex crimes in other states.
And it wasn’t just a rescue operation. Law enforcement was also looking for underage criminal suspects.
It’s also worth noting that the operation was also set up to arrest children, not just rescue them. Katie Byrd, the communications director for the Georgia attorney general’s office, noted that two of the missing kids were suspects in homicide cases, and one was a person of interest in another.
Plus, 11 of the kids had, in Byrd’s words, “some kind of gang affiliation.” Byrd did not specify how many juveniles were arrested in connection with the operation, but, according to numbers her office provided, it appears that up to seven warrants were issued for underage offenders.
Reporting like this can’t really be called “reporting.” It should be called “stenography.” And when officials were actually asked for comment, they just made things worse. The director of the US Marshals Service — Donald Washington — claimed 300 underage girls were lured into trafficking every month… and that’s just in the Atlanta area. But the stats from operations like this just don’t bear that claim out. In this operation, officials claimed just six of the sixty-five children rescued were considered “trafficked.” Keep in mind that a minor that performs sex work on their own is considered “trafficked,” even if there’s no sex trafficker involved. That’s the statutory definition. If Atlanta alone is responsible for 3,600 trafficked minors a year, you’d think an operation that took place in Georgia would have found a lot more trafficking victims.
It’s not that minors are never forced into sex work by traffickers. It’s that it happens far less frequently than irresponsible headlines (and irresponsible statements by law enforcement officials) would have you believe. The good news is missing children were located. But, sadly, that’s not enough to interest people when there’s an entire internet full of bad faith arguments, overblown rhetoric, and grandstanding officials.
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Filed Under: georgia, hype, media, sex trafficking