University of Southern California USC

Digital Activism in Anti-Trafficking Efforts

In a growing phenomenon, members of the public are attempting to participate in online anti-trafficking interventions. Digital activism and advocacy are transforming individual and group participation in social causes. In many ways, digital networks have lowered the barriers to citizen participation and are allowing individuals to transcend geographical boundaries and organize around global causes.[1] In recent years, an outpouring of public involvement online has risen around the issue of human trafficking.

Online Petitions

Petitions are among the oldest forms of communication among citizens in social movements.[2] At least since the success of MoveOn in 1998, petitions have experienced a revival, emerging as a trademark of digital activism.[3] is among the most visible of the online petition sites; it has hosted a number of high-profile petitions since launching its petition feature two years ago.[4] Many of these petitions relate to human trafficking, and the issue consistently ranks among the 12 “Top Causes” featured on the homepage. In 2010, more than 10,000 members signed a petition asking Craigslist to shut down its “adult services” section.[5] After facing pressure from a number of activist groups, government officials, and media outlets, Craigslist ultimately shut down this portion of its site in the United States in September 2010 and worldwide in December 2010.[6] As of October 2012, the most popular active petitions on related to human trafficking include, “Tell Village Voice Media to Stop Child Sex Trafficking on” (more than 250,000 supporters),[7] “Support the Domestic Minor Sex Trafficking Deterrence and Victims Support Act [S. 596]” (more than 40,000 supporters),[8] and “Tell McGraw-Hill Publishers: Slavery Did Not End in 1865, Include Modern-Day Slavery in Textbooks” (more than 20,000 supporters).[9]

Avaaz, another site campaigning for social causes, has had success with online petitions related to sex trafficking. In January 2011, Avaaz sent a petition with 317,000 signatures to the CEO of the Hilton hotel chain, urging the company to sign more effective Codes of Conduct and to work with the U.S. chapter of End Child Prostitution, Child Pornography and Trafficking in Children for Sexual Purposes (ECPAT-USA). Four days after receiving the petition, Hilton agreed to train all 180,000 of its international employees in recognizing and preventing the sex trafficking of minors.[10]

While sites like MoveOn,, and Avaaz demonstrate the potential of online-only petitions, new technologies are increasingly being used to expand the reach and impact of more traditional activist campaigns. In 2009, The Body Shop International partnered with ECPAT for a campaign focused on child sex trafficking that combined awareness programs, fundraising, and legislative change.[11] A petition accompanying the campaign was available not only online, but also in all Body Shop stores between 2009 and 2001. The petition ultimately accumulated more than seven million signatures worldwide before being delivered to the United Nations and various world leaders and organizations.[12]

In all of these cases, it is important to recognize the difficulty in assessing the direct impact of online petitions independent of other factors.


The term “crowdsourcing” has been defined as “the act of taking a job traditionally performed by a designated agent (usually an employee) and outsourcing it to an undefined, generally large group of people in the form of an open call.”[13] A noteworthy examples of crowdsourcing being used to address human trafficking occurred on May 19, 2010, when a 28-year-old MetaFilter member named Dan Reetz posted “Help me help my friend in D.C.,” in which Reetz described the situation of a former student of his, a young Russian woman who was traveling with a female friend.

The two women had paid about $3,000 for a travel exchange program that promised legitimate work in Washington, D.C. Upon arrival in the United States, however, their contact in the program changed the details, insisting at the last minute that they travel to New York City to meet that evening, with promises of hostess work at a lounge. Reetz suspected his friends were being lured into a human trafficking operation, but he was unable to convince them not to travel to New York that evening. The MetaFilter discussion, still available online in its entirety, shows that within minutes of Reetz’s first post, members began to offer information and support.[14] Members reportedly called human trafficking hotlines and the Russian embassy in Washington, D.C., offered places to stay for Reetz and his friends, and researched the travel agency and lounge where the women were promised work. One user, 24-year-old Kathrine Gutierrez Hinds, volunteered to meet the women at the bus depot in New York where, according to Newsweek, she was able to convince them not to meet the “exchange program” contact.[15] Individual cases like this one—in which hundreds of community members mobilized in a matter of hours—suggest the potential to crowdsource around human trafficking issues.

Increasingly, anti-trafficking groups are employing crowdsourcing tactics to assist in their work. The group Oklahomans Against Trafficking Humans (OATH) solicits volunteers to map out known trafficking areas and contact potential victims,[16] and the for-profit startup Labor Voices provides a platform for employees to report on working conditions, allowing companies and watchdogs to better monitor supply chains.[17]

Amateur Policing

Individuals such as JohnTV creator Brian Bates are attempting to act by identifying locations where they suspect sex trafficking is taking place.[18] While Bates’ focus is primarily on prostitution, the self-proclaimed “video vigilante” hosts numerous videos that claim to show underage girls being sold on the streets of Oklahoma City. In early 2011, Bates had a dispute with YouTube over whether such videos were in violation of YouTube’s Terms of Service. Bates and JohnTV ultimately were allowed to post a video featuring a suspected victim of DMST by arguing that it was “a public service message that brings home the reality of child sex trafficking, moves the social conscious and hopefully helps authorities identify this victim so she can be rescued.”[19] Tactics employed by Bates are controversial and provoke important questions about the efficacy, ethics, and liability of non-expert, amateur forms of policing and vigilantism. Future research is needed to examine the impact of amateur policing by digital activists, specifically on individuals vulnerable to DMST.

Social Media


The most widely used social media platform, with more than one billion users worldwide, Facebook has become a natural hub for socially conscious networking.[20] Many anti-trafficking NGOs have created Facebook groups or pages to expand their audience. The Facebook page for the DNA Foundation, for instance, has more than 110,000 “likes,”[21] MTV Exit has more than 108,000, and ECPAT UK has more than 29,000.[22] Such organizations use Facebook to share projects and developments, post relevant news stories, connect with organizations doing similar work, and highlight opportunities for action.


Twitter serves as a hub for activism around human trafficking issues. Twitter hosts dozens of influential individuals and organizations focused on human trafficking and appears to be a central venue for information sharing among these users.

For organizations such as The A21 Campaign (~40,000 followers[23]) launched in 2007 and now operating shelters and transition homes for victims of human trafficking in Greece, Ukraine, and Bulgaria[24]—Twitter provides a way to regularly engage with a large and growing audience. Other anti-trafficking organizations active on Twitter include International Justice Mission (~37,000 followers[25]), the DNA Foundation (~30,000 followers[26]), Not For Sale (~29,000 followers[27]), the Freedom Youth Center (~21,000 followers[28]), Polaris Project (~14,000 followers[29]), and the CNN Freedom Project (~9,000 followers[30]). Organizations and individuals on Twitter are able to collectively amplify the reach and impact of reports and events with real-time networked technologies to a degree never before possible.

Somaly Mam, an anti-trafficking activist and survivor from Cambodia, regularly tweets links to human trafficking stories, events, and other opportunities for activism to her nearly 400,000 followers. For example, in successive tweets on July 24, 2012, Mam informed her followers of three allegedly trafficked women who had just arrived at one of her organization’s centers in Phnom Pehn, Cambodia.[31] Later that day, she alerted her followers to a story in the Calgary Herald about a woman who had been recruited into a sex trafficking operation by a man she initially met on Facebook.[32]

Twitter appears to be an important venue for raising awareness of human trafficking and mobilizing support around legislation, promoting work and volunteer opportunities, and potentially putting public pressure on individuals and organizations. More research is needed, however, to measure both the positive and negative implications of digital activism in anti-trafficking efforts.


[1]               Lund, M. (2009) Networked Activism. Harvard Human Rights Journal, 22: 205–44.

[2]               Zaret, D. (1996) Petitions and the “Invention” of Public Opinion in the English Revolution. American Journal of Sociology, 101(6): 1497–1555. See also, Zaeske, S. (2002) Signatures of citizenship: The rhetoric of women’s antislavery petitions. Quarterly Journal of Speech.

[3]               Karpf, D. (2012) The MoveOn Effect: The Unexpected Transformation of American Political Advocacy. New York: Oxford University Press.

[4]               Geron, T. (October 17, 2012) The Business Behind’s Activist Petitions, Forbes. Retrieved October 19, 2012, from

[5]              Kloer, A. (n.d.) Petition: Tell Craigslist to Make REAL Change in the Adult Services Section of Craigslist!, Retrieved October 19, 2012, from

[6]               CCLP 2011 report, pp. 21–22.

[7]              Groundswell (n.d.) Petition: Tell Village Voice Media to Stop Child Sex Trafficking on, Retrieved October 19, 2012, from

[8]              Robin, S. (n.d.) Petition: Support the Domestic Minor Sex Trafficking Deterrence and Victims Support Act, Retrieved October 19, 2012, from

[9]              Scott, S. (n.d.) Petition: Tell McGraw-Hill Publishers: Slavery Did Not End in 1865, Include Modern-Day Slavery in Textbooks, Retrieved August 31, 2012, from

[10]             Hilton Hotels: Say No to Sex Trafficking (n.d.) Retrieved October 19, 2012, from

[11]             Kristof, N. (August 2, 2010) A New Petition to Protect Children, The New York Times. Retrieved October 19, 2012, from

[12]             The Body Shop Hands Over Petition to the UN, ECPAT-USA. Retrieved October 19, 2012, from

[13]             Jeff Howe is attributed with coining the word “crowdsourcing” in a 2006 article for Wired, and this definition comes from the homepage of his blog: For Howe’s original Wired article, see: A number of tensions are inherent in discussions of crowdsourcing, especially the potential for for-profit companies to exploit “free” labor without full transparency, and the way the term “crowdsourcing” rolls the agency and work of individuals into “an undifferentiated bovine mass” (

[14]             The original MetaFilter thread is available at A follow-up thread can be found at

[15]             Coppins, M. (May 20, 2010) EXCLUSIVE: One Of The Heroes Behind the MetaFilter Human-Trafficking Rescue Speaks Out, Newsweek and The Daily Beast. Retrieved August 7, 2012, from

[16]             Bringing Abolitionists Together to Expose and End Slavery (n.d.) Outreach/OATH. Retrieved August 27, 2012, from

[17]             Products – LaborVoices, Inc. (n.d.). Retrieved August 27, 2012, from

[18]             Bringing Abolitionists Together to Expose and End Slavery (n.d.) Outreach/OATH.

[19]             Video: Child Trafficking in Oklahoma (& the YouTube battle to show it), Retrieved August, 27 2012, from

[20]             Fowler, G.A. (October 4, 2012) Facebook: One Billion and Counting, The Wall Street Journal. Retrieved October 19, 2012, from

[21]             Retrieved October 19, 2012, from

[22]             Retrieved October 19, 2012, from and

[23]             As of October 19, 2012, The A21 Campaign’s Twitter page ( had 41,985 followers.

[24]             “Who We Are,” The A21 Campaign. Retrieved August 27, 2012, from

[25]             Retrieved October 19, 2012, from

[26]             Retrieved October 19, 2012, from

[27]             Retrieved October 19, 2012, from

[28]             Retrieved October 19, 2012, from

[29]             Retrieved October 19, 2012, from

[30]             Retrieved October 19, 2012, from

[31]             SomalyMam (July 24, 2012a) “My advocacy team received a report that 3 women were lured from Kampong Cham to Po Sen Chey district in Phnom Penh” [Twitter post]. Retrieved August 27, 2012, from

[32]             SomalyMam (July 24, 2012b) “Traffickers take advantage of their victims’ trust and exploit their vulnerabilities” #humantrafficking #endslavery [Twitter post]. Retrieved August 27, 2012, from