Wanted to Fight Child Sex Trafficking: The ‘Next John Walsh’ of Social Media Influencers

Young social media influencers are needed to really propel awareness about the crime of human trafficking, said a top official at the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.

“One of the biggest challenges right now is trying to cut through the noise. The reality is people are being hit with so much stuff right now — this terrible thing over here, that terrible thing over there. It’s just a matter of getting the awareness in front of the public,” Gavin Portnoy, vice president of NCMEC’s Strategic Advancement & Partnerships division, told HSToday on Thursday. “I think we’re slowly getting to a point now where the general public is starting to get it but the reality is they’re still at the underlying belief of ‘it can’t be here.’ And so people maybe turn a blind eye that something like this is happening right underneath their nose.”

More than 23,500 endangered runaways were reported to NCMEC last year, and one in six of those were likely victims of child sex trafficking. No state is excluded from this crime, and the average age of these victims is 15 years old.

“What would surprise people most about the perpetrators is that it’s often people that you would not expect. Really, it is happening everywhere. And a lot of people say, no, not here, impossible, and it’s in every community. It’s in every state, every backyard,” Portnoy said.

While social media is a natural tool to spread awareness, advocates for missing and exploited children often need to buy ads in order for cases to rise to prominence on sites like Facebook and Twitter where any number of viral topics will dominate users’ feeds.

“Facebook, Twitter, you name it, they’re very helpful with giving us strategies that work,” Portnoy continued. “Unfortunately, the way they all work or are set up, you have to create ads to really cut through and create an audience. They’ve been super helpful with the nonprofit world, giving us support to make that happen. We also are able to use private dollars and some government dollars to help increase awareness around cases. So essentially, we turn missing children into ads.”

And while that strategy has been successful in spreading the word about missing kids, bringing awareness to child sex trafficking would get an invaluable boost if an influencer — a social media personality with a large following — adopted the cause.

“We need influencers who want this to be their platform and are out there banging the drum,” said Portnoy. “The reality is very few people have. It’s a difficult subject to talk about… I understand why some people might not want to get behind that and put it out there. But we are in desperate need of those people who want to make a stand and say we’re looking for that next John Walsh. Somebody who would get up there and say ‘you can make a difference.'”

Portnoy noted “great support from people like Bryan Cranston”; the actor has “used his platform to help us out” including producing KidSmartz to teach families via DVD about how to stay safe from child predators. “We’re really in need of that and also the younger generation. I just named two older gentlemen who are wonderful; the reality is, where’s our Ariana Grande? Insert young female there who can help get this out here.”

“Not enough people are talking about it. We’re at a point now where I feeling like the government is making it into an issue. It’s been an issue for the National Center for a while now; I mean, we had just about 11,000 cases last year where we believe strongly a child is being trafficked. That’s 11,000 of 29,000 cases. So it’s a massive amount.”

The trafficking of children needs an “if you see something, say something kind of campaign,” he stressed, lauding educational awareness signs in major airports. Teaching children in schools about trafficking requires “bite-size content” for age appropriateness and maximum accessibility.

Convincing influencers to use their platform to fight trafficking often requires “staggering statistics” or “making the story personal.”

Child sex trafficking is often seen with children who have run away from a home situation, such as children in foster care. “They’re going out, they don’t have much, they’ll do what they need to do to survive and people take advantage of them in a heartbeat,” Portnoy noted.

“The only way to properly educate in this crazy world we live in is to have somebody influential telling you ‘you need to care about this.'”

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Bridget Johnson is the Managing Editor for Homeland Security Today. A veteran journalist whose news articles and analyses have run in dozens of news outlets across the globe, Bridget first came to Washington to be online editor and a foreign policy writer at The Hill. Previously she was an editorial board member at the Rocky Mountain News and syndicated nation/world news columnist at the Los Angeles Daily News. Bridget is a senior fellow specializing in terrorism analysis at the Haym Salomon Center. She is a Senior Risk Analyst for Gate 15, a private investigator and a security consultant. She is an NPR on-air contributor and has contributed to USA Today, The Wall Street Journal, New York Observer, National Review Online, Politico, New York Daily News, The Jerusalem Post, The Hill, Washington Times, RealClearWorld and more, and has myriad television and radio credits including Al-Jazeera, BBC and SiriusXM.

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