Child trafficking is having a strange moment in the spotlight. The issue is of course a considerable one. It’s estimated that there are 40.3 million victims of modern day slavery across the world. Of these 24.9 million have been exploited for labour and 15.4 million are in forced marriages. Women are more likely to be trafficked with 71% of trafficking victims globally being women and girls. Children are hugely at risk of trafficking with the number of victims estimated at 10.1 million. They’re most likely to be trafficked in order to be pushed into forced labour. The reasons that they’re trafficked vary and include forced marriage or debt related tricks.
The Wayfair conspiracy theory
But in recent months social media has seen the issue become the subject of some particularly peculiar conspiracy theories. The Wayfair conspiracy theory is odd to say the least. Its narrative focuses on the idea that Wayfair- a furniture company- is complicit in child trafficking. The idea was based around the fact that Wayfair was selling particularly large furniture cabinets, at a large price whose names correlated to missing children’s. Social media proved fertile ground for the theory to gain traction. Its affiliated hashtag #savethechildren has been used in over 650,000 posts on Instagram and on Facebook interactions with posts with the hashtag have increased 500% since July. Meanwhile on Twitter Wayfair gained 1.8 million mentions (the previous week it averaged 500 mentioned a day). The conspiracy is linked to the QAnon movement; a pro-Trump conspiracy theory that the president is working to unmask a high profile pedophile ring involving top politicians and Hollywood stars. More broadly the movement and the Wayfair conspiracy have links to alt-right influencers, anti-vaxxers and anti-maskers.
So far, so bizarre.
Why would a conspiracy theory like this flourish? And does it matter? The Covid-19 pandemic has been rife with conspiracy theories. Misinformation, fake cures, 5G, secret agents. The list goes on. And in fact, it is to be expected. Conspiracy theories tend to take particular root during times of significant societal upheaval or chaos. For many of us this has been an unprecedented event.We’ve never come close to anything as unsettling or existentially challenging as this. The sense of loss of control, combined with fear and panic leave many of us feeling powerless. Conspiracy theories allow us to regain a sense of agency. What’s more online interaction (particularly at a time when a lot of us have been spending more time than ever bored, at home and online) makes it easier than ever to proliferate or share. At a time of feeling alone and anxious, conspiracy theories provide a sense of togetherness and an outlet for that anxiety. The problem with these types of thinking though is that they erode the truth and the central narrative of particular issues. And the Wayfair case proves this very well. Because the pandemic will indeed increase the likelihood of slavery and human and child trafficking. But the reasons for this are complex and not be as a result of wearing a mask, as many of those who subscribe to the Wayfair theory propose.
Human trafficking during a pandemic
It’s estimated that the pandemic will drive 70 million people into extreme poverty. This level of vulnerability will mean that human trafficking is incredibly likely to increase. With more and more people susceptible to false schemes or jobs, which will include children. It’s not the first time that disease has increased this problem; during Ebola the number of vulnerable orphans rose. And in fact the pandemic has already illustrated terrible tragedies, such as the trafficked women left to starve in Italy.
The pandemic is creating new victims all over the world- for example in the UK and the US there have been reports of increased “sextortion” or room share deals targeted at young women no longer able to afford their rent. Lockdown has pushed victims into further isolation, whilst third sector and non-governmental organisations working in the sector only face more challenges. This all means that it’s never been more important to take a critical eye to what we all see on the internet. On the surface of it far fetched conspiracy theories may appear just another oddity, humorous even, but they detract from issues that are only likely to grow more pertinent as the world changes and moves on from the last few, difficult months.