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On Grooming
July 1, 2021

The Texas Supreme Court recently handed down a ruling that could prove to be a landmark decision in holding social media companies accountable for trafficking that occurs on their platforms, and may push them to take more proactive measures to protect users from grooming for exploitation by traffickers.

The Case Background

Three trafficking victims filed suit against Facebook for negligence and product liability after they had been recruited and groomed as teenagers via Facebook and Instagram, met the men in real life, and then were subjected to repeated rape and trafficking. They argued that Facebook failed to flag or prevent the misuse of its platform and that a platform that benefits from connecting people needs to be held responsible for its role in facilitating exploitation and trafficking.

The Texas Supreme Court agreed. Texas Supreme Court Justice James Blacklock, writing for the majority, argued, “We do not understand Section 230 to ‘create a lawless no-man’s-land on the Internet’ in which states are powerless to impose liability on websites that knowingly or intentionally participate in the evil of online human trafficking.” (Source: Houston Chronicle) Facebook has long hidden behind Section 230 to protect it from being held liable for the actions of its users, but this case puts a crack in that shield, saying that Facebook is not totally immune. While the case only applies in Texas law, it sets a precedent that other states can follow–and may put pressure on them to do so. 

“Facebook can appeal the ruling to the U.S. Supreme Court, but that would give the court the chance to issue a ruling that goes further than the child trafficking exceptions to Section 230, potentially imperiling a key legal shield for the tech industry. “If you open it up, they could narrow the whole scope of Section 230,” said Jeff Kosseff, a cybersecurity law professor at the United States Naval Academy and the author of a book on the history of the law. He noted that Justice Clarence Thomas has said he believes Section 230 is too broadly interpreted in favor of the tech companies.” (Source: Forbes

How the Grooming Happened

This case is potentially groundbreaking. But let’s take a wide-angle lens. These three women filing suit were first approached when they were in their teens. One was approached by a friend of a friend who complimented her looks, offered her help launching a modeling career, and capitalized on a conflict with her parent to suggest moving out on her own, thus isolating her from family support. She was photographed, her images shared online, was raped, beaten, and then trafficked at a motel.  

The second victim was initially contacted at age 14 via Instagram by a man offering promises of love and a better future. He then used Instagram to advertise her as a prostitute. Even when her mother complained to Facebook about what was happening, Facebook never responded.

The third victim was also 14 when she was first contacted via Instagram. They grew a relationship via messages over the course of two years before the man asked her to leave home and meet him, where she was then photographed and her pictures were shared on Backpage. Let’s let that sink in for a minute: she was groomed for two years.

These are just three women–and they are not alone. The internet has become one of the dominant ways that people become trafficked for sexual exploitation. A recent report by the Human Trafficking Institute showed that: 1) the internet has become the most common place of recruitment, 2) in 2020 in the U.S., 59% of online recruitment of identified victims in active cases happened via Facebook alone (followed by Instagram and Snapchat for child victims), and 3) that children accounted for 53% of identified victims in active cases for that same year. (Source: CBS News

And it’s not just girls. Online sexual exploitation happens to boys too, often via chat apps and multiplayer video games

Lessons About Preventing Grooming

The scale of the problem is mind-boggling. Factor in how many teens are on social media, how they can be reached by almost anyone from almost anywhere, and if they share images online, there is almost zero control over where their images go or to what use they are put. And consider how long the trajectory of these cases go: from the time they are first contacted, to when they become exploited, how long the exploitation occurs before any kind of legal action is taken, and then how long it takes for a case to wind its way through the legal system–in the meantime, how many others are being exploited. When it comes to online sexual exploitation, the legal system is critical and necessary, but a very slow, cumbersome, blunt tool to stopping trafficking. 

The only way we, as a society, can truly counter this form of exploitation is to spread the message loud and clear to all of our children and youths that they themselves are not immune to being trafficked, and that we all have to be aware of how this happens and on our guard. Nobody goes into a trafficking situation thinking that it’ll happen to them. And yet these three cases above are classic, textbook examples of grooming a person for exploitation: building a relationship of flattery, offering love and affection to the lonely, offering understanding and acceptance when there is a conflict with family; offering promises of a modeling job or a place to live. It is so insidious precisely because they first build trust over time. 

We tend to think that trafficking is something that happens elsewhere, to other people. But adults should remember what it was like to be teenagers wanting romantic relationships or even finding self-worth in them, or teenagers dealing with family conflict and wanting desperately to feel understood. We also cannot underestimate the role social media plays in connecting people who otherwise might never meet: people who are otherwise well-protected from “stranger danger” in daily life, but then cultivate relationships with dangerous strangers online until those strangers become friends or lovers–and then traffickers. 

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