Across the Upstate, people have shared social media posts alleging that children wearing masks are more likely to be trafficked or abducted. These posts have come in the form of shared statuses that make these claims, while others are images with similar text. The phenomenon, though, is misinformation about human trafficking and mask wearing, according to local trafficking advocates and law enforcement.
The only connection that Beth Messick, the executive director of Jasmine Road — an organization in Greenville that helps survivors of trafficking — could imagine between mask wearing and trafficking could be a mask over a face that could be a trigger for a sexual assault survivor.
Besides that, Messick doesn’t see a connection and said she wasn’t aware of any correlation between a child wearing a mask and the child being more vulnerable to trafficking, comparing mask wearing to Halloween costumes or sports headgear, which are considered harmless.
“The reality about that is that most of these kids and adults involved in human trafficking go willingly because there has been a grooming process by which a relationship is created with [the trafficker],” explained Messick.
Grooming is the process a trafficker uses to manipulate and control a person.
When sent examples of social media posts indicating increased vulnerability to trafficking in children wearing masks, South Carolina’s Department of Health and Environmental Control spokesperson Laura Renwick said in an email that “DHEC doesn’t have any data or reports that support those claims.”
Unless a person has trouble breathing or is in physical danger, she said “DHEC recommends the current CDC guidance that to help stop the spread of COVID-19: Everyone should wear a cloth face covering when in public, except for children under age 2.”
Lt. Alia Paramore of the Greenville Police Department has run into similar instances of misinformation spreading on social media platforms before. “We’ve run into several situations like this, not just with children wearing masks but a lot of other myths about sex trafficking,” Paramore explained. She brought up examples of this misinformation, such as unfounded claims that large retailers in the area were sites of trafficking.
“Sharing misinformation does more harm to the anti-trafficking movement than anything,” she said. “It takes away from the real information that we need to get out there.”
Some of these social media posts about trafficking and children wearing masks seem to come from the followers of the conspiracy theory known as QAnon, reported the New York Times. QAnon is a debunked conspiracy theory connecting human trafficking with former and current U.S. government officials.
Paramore said a situation of trafficking due to a mask “could occur” but emphasizes there are far more other things that parents should focus on when it comes to the pandemic and keeping their children safe. “While I would disagree that wearing a mask puts your child more at risk for being trafficked, COVID has introduced challenges,” said Paramore. The most prominent, she said, was the increased amount of internet activity of children due to virtual education and more time at home.
That new internet exposure has become a prime environment for traffickers to contact and groom children, said both Paramore and Messick.
“We think these devices are great because they give us access to all kinds of information,” Messick said. “The reality of what happens is you give your kid a device, and you just gave the world access to your child.”