In another "mini" episode that accidentally turned mega, Mike tells Sarah about the Wayfair conspiracy theory and the sketchy statistical screenshots that have shown up in its wake. Digressions include "Inside Llewyn Davis," Miranda Priestley and (sigh) Jeffrey Epstein. This episode contains, we're sorry to say, detailed descriptions of child abuse.
We recommend listening to this episode alongside our "Human Trafficking" episode from last year, which contains much more context for understanding this issue: https://podcasts.apple.com/us/podcast/human-trafficking/id1380008439?i=1000465289965
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Wayfair and Human Trafficking Statistics
Sarah: To be fair, it is a hard position to be put in as a company because you don't want to be the company that's saying on the record, “We are not trafficking in children”.
Welcome to You’re Wrong About, where we return to topics that we talked about not that long ago, because so much has happened somehow.
Mike: Oh God. Or nothing has happened.
Sarah: Or nothing has happened, but a lot is happening on Facebook.
Mike: A lot of long phrases are getting hashtagged.
Sarah: Welcome to Your Wrong About, the show where I could be having a completely free Wednesday night, if not for Mark Zuckerberg and his “choices”.
Sarah: But I am happy to be here with you, Mike.
Mike: I'm Michael Hobbes, I'm a reporter for the Huffington Post.
Sarah: I'm Sarah Marshall. I’m working on a book about the Satanic Panic, which keeps getting longer.
Mike: Just like this endless episode that we are about to do. And we are on Patreon at patreon.com/yourewrongabout, and we're on PayPal and other places, and we've been designing disco t-shirts for you guys.
Sarah: Very excited about that.
Mike: And God today, I mean, this is like kind of a mini, another mini episode.
Sarah: It's a mini episode on top of a regular episode, so it's like when you get a Bloody Mary where they put like a little cheeseburger on as a garnish. So this is the little cheeseburger garnish part. And then once you get through this, then there is like a whole other drink.
Mike: Oh God! So, one of the things that we love about our listeners is that oftentimes someone on the internet will be like saying some bullshit and then you'll find like one of our listeners in the replies being like, “That's not true, I learned about it on You’re Wrong About”, and then they link to our show. And so we've become like ammunition for people like, “Well, actually-ing” others, which I love.
Sarah: We're a footnote, we're footnotes. We're dynamic, cuddly footnotes.
Mike: And so, we thought we would like make a more deliberate kind of primer on the numbers that you see floating around right now. So we're basically just going to go through a bunch of the numbers that are on like various Instagram posts.
Sarah: All right, let us do it.
Mike: So, okay, we have some numbers, but first of all, do we want to talk about the Wayfair thing?
Sarah: Yeah, I mean, I feel like I know the basics of it. Which is that people were looking at items on Wayfair that were like, chests or freezers, or like large items that cost like $50,000, way more than you would think that they would actually cost.
Mike: Yeah, they should have been like $500 bucks and they are like $10,000.
Sarah: Right. And so rather than assuming that a decimal place got put in the wrong part of the number somehow, a conspiracy evolved that these items were so expensive because they were being used to traffic children in. The money you spend on the item includes the cost of the child who may be either literally shipped to you, or like maybe you got them some other way. But I'm given to assume that the kid was supposed to be shipped inside of the furniture.
Mike: And what definitely did not help, you know, cabinets have funky names, right? It turns out a lot of the products that were being sold, like one of them was called the “Anabel shelf”, and then people started looking around and there was a girl named Anabel Wilson who went missing. And so it starts to look like what you're really doing is you're basically purchasing this specific child.
Mike: There was also a cabinet, or something called Samiyah, and there was a girl named Samiyah Mumin that went missing. And so, a lot of the screen grabs that went around were sort of like this picture of this cabinet and then a picture of this girl that had disappeared.
Sarah: Wait, when does this start going around? Give us a timeline here.
Mike: The first tweet about this was June 14th from a queue on an account. So it started on Twitter and then it moved to the conspiracy theories board on Reddit, and apparently that's where it like really caught fire.
Sarah: So the traffickers kidnapped this girl, kept her in layaway, and some traffickers are selling her to some clients using the Wayfair system.
Mike: Yes. I will also say, Wayfair did not help. So, it wasn't just cabinets that were really expensive. There was also these weird things that the same pillow or the same shower curtain would be on Wayfair for like $50, and then it would be listed elsewhere on the site for like $10,000.
Mike: A couple of days after this, once it really explodes, Wayfair puts out a statement. The statement says “There is of course no truth to these claims. The products in question are industrial grade cabinets that are accurately priced.” Wayfair is basically saying like, well, of course the cabinet costs $50,000, it is industrial.
Sarah: It costs $50,000 because of the absence of children.
Mike: Yeah, I know.
Sarah: But yeah, it sounds sketchy. I feel like what people want is like some type of breakdown of like why. If people can have like an itemized list of where that money is going, I think, that is what I would want.
Mike: I mean, an actual explanation of why the products were at these bananas prices would have been way better than being like, oh, the prices aren't bananas, the prices are fine. Because it does not do anything for the pillow that costs $50 or $10,000.
Sarah: If your parents catch you sneaking out to go to Jeff's house, you are not going to get very far by being like, “I wasn't sneaking out, I was checking on the storm window”. Like, instead you have to be, “I was sneaking out, but…”
Mike: Jeff has cancer, always use cancer, you know.
Sarah: It's not persuasive to act like the thing you're doing that is not normal is in fact normal. Like, no one likes that.
Mike: I mean, I think this is so typical of conspiracy theories where there's something that is out of the ordinary and then people jump to an extremely specific counter explanation for the thing. Because this doesn't have to be child sex trafficking, this could be like drug trafficking. Maybe these cabinets are $50,000 because they're full of cocaine or maybe it's some weird money laundering thing.
Mike: I mean, it doesn't have to be like an innocent explanation. Other than the kids' names, the only other evidence that this was child sex trafficking is apparently there is a Russian search engine called Yandex.
Mike: And if you type in the sort of 10-digit product code into Yandex, and then you follow it with source USA. So SRC USA, like any website from the USA, you hit enter, apparently, I have not done this for very obvious reasons, but apparently you would get like child pornography photos.
Mike: Of course what journalists find out, hopefully with like an incognito window or something, is that if you type anything into this search engine with “Source USA” after it, you get images of child porn.
Sarah: Like the word ‘cotton’.
Mike: Yeah, you can type in like’ cat playing with a piece of string’ and then Source USA, like these weird little letters at the end and you’ll like it's just a really sketchy Russian website with a lot of porn on it apparently.
Sarah: So, it's like a website that has a child pornography search code and like, okay, there's a great scoop there. Like, what the hell is going on with this search engine?
Mike: That's the story here.
Sarah: Pearls before Redditors, man.
Mike: And then of course within days, people sort of figure out that all of these quote unquote missing kids that you know are supposed to be stashed in the cabinets. The vast majority of them came home years ago. This poor girl, Samiyah Mumin, she has come home. This girl goes on Facebook live, and she says like, “This was actually really painful period in my life and it's not fun to go onto the internet and find all of these photos that like my family was putting around the city, looking for me. I am not missing; I am not trafficked. Take me off the internet please.”
Sarah: I'm not even this picture anymore.
Mike: Exactly. So, what's frustrating about this is it's very similar to me to the ‘jet fuel can't melt steel beams’ thing.
Sarah: Oh with 911. What is that again?
Mike: This is like where internet sluthery gets you, right? This idea that there's like the meta explanation that is baked into a lot of conspiracy theories that like I, a random person with no specialist knowledge, can do all of this sort of Wikipedia level research and crack these massive conspiracies.
So, the explanation of the jet fuel can't melt steel beams thing. Was that with 911, the planes hit the towers and the towers eventually collapsed. The conspiracy theory explanation is that apparently jet fuel only burns at 800 degrees or something. I don't know the numbers, but it's some number.
Sarah: Some very high number.
Mike: Yes, it's a very high number. And then to melt steel, steel has to be like 1,200 degrees. Again, I'm making up these numbers, but some number higher than jet fuel burns at.
Sarah: You're going to get some hate mail from metallurgist.
Mike: Please do not email us. So as soon as these rumors are going around, actual structural engineers point out, steel does not have to liquefy to lose a lot of its strength.
Sarah: Like maybe you could crash a huge thing and do it, maybe then.
Mike: Yes, if you heat steel up to whatever it was, 800 degrees it's going to become really fucking weak and it can't hold up the other floors of the building and the building collapses.
Mike: So, it's all these people without specialist’s knowledge who are speculating about these technical things that they do not understand and coming up with that baroque theories.
So the same thing happens here where people look into this and they're like, well, why else would the cabinets be $50,000? And then people who actually work in online retail, point out that a lot of the pricing on online retail sites these days is algorithmic. So the vendors, it is all like these third-party vendors that are posting ads on Wayfair, they'll actually troll other websites and be like, “Oh, well that cabinet on this other website is $200 bucks, so we’re going to price it at $300 bucks.” Prices change all the time and human beings do not look at these things. Right? So sometimes the algorithms can go a little haywire.
There was infamously a textbook, a medical textbook on Amazon that was priced at $24 million a couple of years ago, because there were two companies and each one of them was watching the other company's website and they would raise their price. So, if you go to 100, I go to 200, you go to 300, I go to 400, and it just kept climbing up and up and up and up before anybody noticed.
Sarah: Oh my God!
Mike: There's also a thing that it looks like Wayfair doesn't like it when third-party vendors have items out of stock, it reduces your rating on Wayfair to like to have a bunch of items that are out of stock. So, when you run out of a pillow, instead of saying it's sold out, when you do it, you just change the price of $10,000 and then nobody ever tries to buy it again.
Sarah: Ahhh, oh yeah.
Mike: But anyway, I mean, it's so perfunctory to debunk these things because of course it wasn't true.
Sarah: Well, but then, I mean, what it shows us is that there are an appreciable number of people who do believe - and I think this is kind of getting to our next segment - that child trafficking looks like this. It looks kids being put into cabinets and shipped via Federal Express.
Mike: Yeah, I mean, there's also the thing that is important to a lot of moral panics, this idea that it's hiding in plain sight. You know, you often see this thing of they put zip ties on your car and then when you come over to investigate them, that's when they kidnap you. It's this idea that after that every time you see a zip tie, you're like, oh, the traffickers, like this is evidence. I see it but other people don't see. Is like this idea that there's these innocuous things around you that are signs of something sinister. And I think these high prices on a random website, it's just like those zip ties, right. Where it's like out of the ordinary, but it's also common enough that it can make you think that this problem is everywhere, because every time you see a high price on a retail website after that you like, “Oh, the traffickers.”
Sarah: This is like Dr. Pastor logic. He's like, oh my God, Michelle has a rash. Like that proves that Satan wrapped his actual tail around her actual neck.
Mike: Exactly. So do you want to want to talk about some numbers now?
Sarah: Oh my God. Can we talk about my favorite number first?
Mike: I was just about to send you a screen grab of it. Is it the one, the 666 one?
Mike: I am sending you the screen grab.
Sarah: So, it's funny because this is in that kind of like live, laugh, love, aesthetic.
Sarah: Sort of wall art that you see at Home Goods.
Sarah: And so at the top it has an image of, it's not an image, it’s like a stencil kind of cut out of a hypodermic needle. And underneath that, it says “A child in America is 66,667 times more likely to be sold to human traffickers than die of COVID-19. In addition, your masks assist in them being transported, undetected and unidentified by anyone.”
Mike: I do love that they said 66,667. Like they didn't go all the way. They're like, no, we don't want to be too obvious.
Sarah: Yeah, it just makes it look like a more of a legitimate number, right? You are totally thrown off.
Mike: So of course, I mean, this is so dumb, but I did the math on this.
Sarah: Please give us the math, the math is bound to be spectacular.
Mike: The number that I could find, I mean, it's hard to get good numbers on this, but the number that I could find is that 76 children have died of COVID. I think this was like as of July 23rd, so it's not an updated number, but it doesn't matter because this whole thing is fake anyway, so who cares? But anyway if you multiply that by 66,667, you get 5 million kids. So, in the time that we have had COVID, 5 million kids have been sold to traffickers.
Sarah: So 5 million, so like a million kids a month is what that breaks down to.
Mike: Yes, that number is 7% of the total number of children in the population.
Sarah: Yeah, I guess that's my next question. Are these being shown to us as the same numbers, the same level of direness, or are there statistics where it's like the numbers used to be lower, but they're higher because of the masks?
Mike: The masks thing has become a weirdly prominent aspect of this moral panic in the last couple of months. It's not clear to me what the logic is, because I guess the logic is that if you're a trafficker and you kidnap a child, if the child has a mask on, then people will not recognize that as a missing child. But like how many members of the population know what the missing children look like, first of all? And second of all, if the myth is that a million children are going missing every month, then like before I go to Walmart, I'm supposed to know what all the missing children look like in my area.
Sarah: Well, there is like 20,000 missing children in Washington state, by that math, if you just break it down to like every state gets the same amount. So, say it's like 5,000 in the Seattle area. So, you guys have to memorize the names and faces of 5,000 missing kids.
Mike: Just going through my binder every morning, 5,000 kids.
Sarah: Like preparing Miranda Priestly for a gala.
Mike: I actually think that there's something really pernicious in this ad, which doesn't get remarked upon. The thing that really bugs me about it is this idea that they're being sold to human traffickers. There is this idea that children are being kidnapped, and then there's this international network of sort of shady businessmen who are literally buying and selling children. I mean, this is what the Wayfair conspiracy was based on, too.
Sarah: Yup. Two full transactions are taking place here and like three separate abuse events. Where like the child is kidnapped, the child is sold to the traffickers, and then the traffickers then turn around and I guess sell the child to someone else. So, it's like an economic world apparently where there are middlemen and brokers and corporations and like this whole robust economy of child snatching and sorting and selling.
Mike: Yes. And I want to be crystal clear that there is no evidence that has ever happened. What I think this depends on is this idea that there is some rapacious demand for sex with children. Everyone in society should know that attraction to children is quite rare in the population. People who are attracted to prepubescent children, we know that it is less than 1% of the entire population. It is actually quite rare for people to be attracted to prepubescent children.
Sarah: And then what are the numbers for people actually acting on that?
Mike: Well this is the thing, we don't know. But we know that it's relatively small because they do these phallometric tests where they can actually test the amount of arousal that you exhibit based on certain photos. So they can show you photos and see how aroused you get. And so, there's some debate over like how good this measurement is, but based on the information that we have, most people who are attracted to prepubescent children are not only attracted to prepubescent children. So, what we are pretty sure of is that the vast majority of people that are attracted to prepubescent children live their lives, they get married to people, they probably never tell anyone about it. Maybe they tell a therapist, but like they get married, they have kids, they live their lives, they don't really act on it, that's it. So, it's not the majority of people who have these attractions who act on them.
Sarah: Or they lead solitary lives. But the point is that it's possible to harbor these feelings without letting your life be guided by them.
Mike: But so the other barrier that I think is also really important. So pedophilia is pretty rare in the population. Acting on pedophilia is pretty rare. And the number of people who are interested in purchasing sex with abused children is also very small. I realize this is really disturbing to talk about, but actual abuse cases, actual abuse of children - which is predominantly done by relatives, acquaintances, or people in positions of power - part of the grooming process is pedophiles convincing themselves that these relationships are consensual. That it's actually very rare for a child molester to identify as a child molester. What they think that they are doing is having a relationship. And so, if you are purchasing sex with a kidnapped child who is in a hotel room, or chained, or bound in some other way, extremely upset, that destroys that fantasy, right? It reminds them that they are harming children and they do not want to be reminded of that.
And so again, just the market of people who are interested in these kinds of transactions with children are vanishingly small. It does not mean it doesn't happen, but there just isn't a market for this kind of behavior with prepubescent children.
Sarah: Yeah, within this very rare and this scheme of things means of molesting a child, I think it is like still rare to molest a child or to abuse a child. And the way that we're being taught to envision every single instance of anything like this.
Mike: Right. And this is also again, disturbing to think about, but there's also just the logistics of it. That most people who are violating against children, there's oftentimes substance abuse issues, there's oftentimes mental illness issues. These are not very functional people, typically, the ones who actually offend. And so the idea that they're interested in paid sex with a minor and they are good enough at the dark web, they have these networks of international elites, they have enough money to be paying for this on a regular basis. I mean, that's just like another leap of implausibility. There's not that many people that are interested in harming a child in this way, and capable of purchasing this kind of activity.
Sarah: Right. I mean, I feel like if I'm someone who wants to harm a child, it's hard for me to couple that with the kind of very calculated executive function that you would need in order to go through this whole complicated kind of dark web transaction process. And then also, you know, the people who are being envisioned in these conspiracy theories, you know, QAnon is very much about the alleged misdeeds of the Hollywood elite. Like I think that within this scenario it's supposed to be wealthy, powerful people. But it can't all be the elites if we're talking about these numbers.
Mike: Right. And also, I mean, if we look at the real cases that we know about people like R. Kelly or Jeffrey Epstein, you know Jeffrey Epstein is about as close to this stereotype as you get.
Sarah: I mean, he had a plane called ‘Lolita Express.’ So, like, he's really a great example of someone who knew what they were doing.
Mike: But what interesting about the Epstein case, is that was he buying kids online? No, he was using his power to make people trust him. This is the same thing that R. Kelly did, I'm going to make you a singer. When we see real cases of this, it's not people that are just like buying kids off of some shipping container or using the dark web, it's people with power and without accountability. And that doesn't mean that they're global elites and they're flying you around on private jets. It can just be a soccer coach whose very well-liked by all the other teachers in the school.
The thing that drives me nuts about all of this like kidnapped kid stuff, is it distracts us from the fact that in real cases, the problem is not that victims don't come forward. The problem is not that nobody sees anything. it's that they do see things, they do report things, and nothing happens. All of this is a distraction from the patterns that we see in real cases of child abuse. So even in Epstein's case, who clearly didn't have like a moral objection to sexually abusing children, even Epstein was not like buying and selling kids on some sort of international network.
Sarah: Because why bother? Like, why create more work for yourself?
Mike: There is actually, I found a really interesting study of every single human trafficking case that has been prosecuted in the United States between 2000-2015. Do you know, how many of those cases were from organized cartels?
Mike: Literally zero. I mean, there were some that were linked to gangs, like three or four people. There were some that were sort of like mom and pop, they call them operations, but there was nothing with any ties internationally. There was nothing with any level of hierarchy or organization.
Sarah: I really don't think we should use the word ‘trafficking’ unless it's like totally unavoidable, which I don't know when it would be. Because it's like, if we mean traffic in terms of anyone engaging in underage sex work for any reason in any situation is trafficked, people don't picture that when they hear the word ‘trafficking’.
Mike: Oh totally.
Sarah: I mean, what they picture is you being crammed into a Wayfair cabinet.
Mike: Oh yeah. And also, if you're a queer kid who runs away at age 16 from your extremely abusive and violent parents, you end up being homeless. You have no options because there's no services available for homeless youth in America. The only way that you're going to get a warm place to sleep is by having sex with somebody, so you have sex with that person and you sleep over at their house. Does calling that trafficking, does that help anyone? We're going to send away the guy who purchased sex with a teenager, maybe he knew she was 16, maybe he didn't. He definitely should have known. He's now a trafficker, he goes away for 40 years, great. Does that give her a place to stay? Does it make her less vulnerable to that happening to her again?
Sarah: Does that make her less likely to have needed to run away to begin with, does it make families better?
Mike: Exactly. So it's just like fine, if you want to call it trafficking, but it's not clear that that's helping anybody.
Mike: Okay, next number. Do you want to do another number?
Mike: So another one that we've been sent, I don't have a screen grab of this one. This is the exact wording, “300,000 times per year, underage girls are sold for sex.”
Sarah: Can I choose like red, yellow, green for these, like the Snope’s scale where like red is like totally untrue, yellow is ok maybe kind of, and green is like, yes? I feel like this is a yellow one where I believe that there can be like 300,000 individual transactions between clients and underage sex workers who are being coerced into sex work and aren't legally able to consent, like that seems possible.
Mike: This number is actually a sort of game of telephone version of a number that has been around for years. This is one of the most prominent numbers that you find that 300,000 children in the United States are at risk of being trafficked.
Sarah: Which is the Vegas statistic in the whole world.
Sarah: Because I’m at risk of every fucking thing.
Mike: I mean, just on its face, the idea of people being at risk of something is completely absurd because we're all technically at risk of everything.
Sarah: I'm at risk of a meteor right now, and yet I bravely carry on.
Mike: Also, it is based on a 2001 study where they break at risk kids into 17 categories. So, there's like homeless children, kids in public housing, one of them is female gang members, one of them is child victims of unwanted exposure to sexual materials via the internet. And of course they're all overlapping, right? Because some of the kids that are homeless.
Sarah: Also get sent dick texts like, they can be at risk, so many ways all at once.
Mike: This is like the trajectory that they go through in the, in the paper, it's kind of amazing. There's 523,000 runaways, which isn't true, but we'll get to that later. 35% of those are away from home for more than a week, that also is not true by the way, and then of that 30% of them are at risk of being trafficked. No methodology given.
Sarah: They're just like, oh, it feels like 30%. This is not a recipe.
Sarah: You are not adding nutmeg.
Mike: So this is how they get to 300,000, is they just add up all the categories. And the author of the paper now says that he would not publish it today. So this number, I mean, this number appears on like anti-trafficking websites to this day.
Sarah: So I guess to sort of like, we started off with a real number of something and then extrapolated that to like sort of random numbers of other things. And then the researcher disowned their own work, and the internet doesn't care.
Mike: Although this methodology actually shows up elsewhere. So, there's an infamous University of Texas Austin study that says that 79,000 children are trafficked in Texas alone. And the way that they calculate that number is, of the 290,000 children who experienced abuse in Texas, 25% of them will be trafficked. It’s not clear where they get the 25% from, but they're just like, okay, a lot of kids experience abuse, 25% of them will be trafficked, math, math, math, 79,000 kids are being trafficked in Texas.
The most amazing thing about this study and you find this so much in trafficking statistics, we have the estimate that there are 79,000 children are victims of trafficking in Texas, right? They then note in the same study that in the previous year, the police in Texas only identified 320 victims of trafficking.
Sarah: And the implication is that the police are doing a terrible, terrible job.
Mike Terrible Job.
Sarah: Which is a weird thing for a conservative meme to be implying when you think about it.
Mike: We know that other types of crimes are underreported, right? Everybody knows that for every rape that gets reported to the police, there's three or four or 10 that don't get reported. For this number to work, for every reported case of child trafficking, there would have to be 256 that are not reported. There is no other crime that has a ratio like that.
Sarah: If things were happening on the scale, and I think this probably comes back to some degree to the fact that people I think are bad at visualizing what a lot of an item would look like.
Sarah: You cannot picture, you know, 60,000, 300,000 children.
Mike: Ok, next number. I'm just going to send you a tweet, there you go.
Mike: Alright, do you want to read the tweet? Or I guess read the infographics, the tweets contained.
Sarah: I do. It's also weird because a lot of these have that fuzzy look where like you can tell they've been sort of like screen grabbed and passed around a few times.
Mike: Right, like sort of folded up in somebody’s pocket.
Sarah: Okay, so this graphic says, “Missing children per year, Spain 20,000, Australia 25,000, France 39,000,” which is like a nice, specific, not round number that makes it look more credible. “Mexico 45,000, Canada 50,000, Germany 100,000, the United Kingdom 230,000, United States 800,000.
Sarah: And then there is an accompanying image, and it's in that like classic meme look with like impact font.
Mike: Yeah, yeah.
Sarah: And it says, “Children don't just disappear.” And then it's images of four red shoes, which I know are like a theme in QAnon.
Mike: Yeah, it's very “IT”.
Mike: So this number goes around a lot. This idea that there's 800,000 missing kids in America.
Sarah: And a 100,000 in Germany.
Mike: I mean, every number on that infographic is wrong by the way. I looked at the other countries.
Mike: I mean, just to pick one, it says that there's 230,000 kids go missing in the UK. It's actually 112,000. But anyway, putting that aside, I like the 800,000 number because sometimes you come across numbers in human trafficking that are like, fractally wrong. Like at any level of detail, they're wrong in a different and new way.
So first of all, 800,000 is not the number of missing kids in America. I don’t know why this has, I mean, I do know why this has caught on with people, because it's a really big number, but this number is from a 2002 study and it's based on 1999 data. One thing I really don't like about these things is that we always see this phrase, ‘go missing’, of kids ‘go missing’ every year. What these big numbers refer to is not kids who disappear, these are reports of missing children and there's a huge difference because the same study that found there were 800,000 reports of missing children that year, also found that 99.8% of them returned home. So, if you believe the 800,000 number, you also have to believe the 99.8 number. So that number was based on a survey that collected all of the reports to the police of missing children, plus people that report it to like NGOs and stuff like there's other agencies that take reports of missing children.
Sarah: So, there's kids that are getting counted twice.
Mike: Yes, exactly, there's kids that are getting counted twice. And that also counts kids that run away more than once.
Sarah: Oh, ok.
Mike: Which is actually quite common, like especially kids in abusive foster care situations, or custody battles. If there's like a really ugly custody battle going on, my husband took the kids for the weekend and he didn't bring them back, you have to report that to the police as missing for them to go to your husband's house and try to get them back for you. And oftentimes that will happen a number of times in the year, because you're still legally obligated, potentially, to give the kids to your husband. So a lot of these reports are actually being generated by like the same kids over and over.
Sarah: So, if your parents had like a really nasty custody battle in 1999, you can look at that number and be like, yeah, like 50 of those are me. I'm that good.
Mike: A much more recent number then that, is that in 2019 there were 421,000 kids reported missing to the FBI.
Sarah: Doesn't sound as good Mike, does it?
Mike: And same thing with this FBI number, over 99% of the kids come home. And so as we have discussed on the show so many times, we think there's somewhere around 115 actual stranger danger kidnappings of children per year.
Another piece of evidence for this, this is actually interesting, there are only 161 Amber Alerts in 2018. So, if there's like this massive wave of missing children, it's a little weird that there's only 161 Amber Alerts, because stranger danger kidnappings are exactly what Amber Alerts are designed for.
There's also, have you seen this number that the average trafficking victim or the average sex worker, depending on which screen grab you look at starts commercial sex when they're 13 years old, have you seen this?
Sarah: I have not seen that one.
Mike: I like this one because it's based on the same 2001 article that produced the 300,000 kids are at risk of trafficking statistic. So it's already debunked by the guy that wrote it. That number comes from qualitative interviews with 107 sex workers.
There's also a 1982 survey of sex workers where they asked sex workers how old they are the first time they had sex, and the average age was 13 ½.
Sarah: Which is a different question.
Mike: Yes. What I also love about this statistic is that Polaris, which is one of the biggest anti-trafficking organizations in the country, Polaris itself has a debunking of this statistic.
Sarah: Really? Good for them, making good choices.
Mike: The anti-trafficking organizations don't even stand by this one.
Sarah: Yeah, that's bad.
Mike: So please stop smashing that’ like’ button when you see it. Okay, next number. Let me send you another screen grab.
Sarah: Oh boy. So we have the silhouette of a person with long hair, kind of a Rachel, and the text says, “Human trafficking is one of the fastest growing criminal enterprises in the world,” which makes it sound like they're trying to recruit you to be a major in human trafficking, “with an estimated 40.3 million victims worldwide at any given time. Victims are young children, teenagers, women, and men.”
Mike: It's people, those are just all the people.
Sarah: Not nonbinary, well, young kids, but not adult people who identify as neither women nor men, they are safe. No, everyone else is fucked.
Mike: Nonbinary, we just want you to know everything is going to be fine.
Sarah: You're going to be okay.
Mike: So, I'm going to talk about this 40.3 million victims’ worldwide number.
Mike: So, this 40.3 million figure comes from the international labor organization. And this is one of those ones where we have to keep zooming in on the number, because 40 million trafficking victims includes an extremely wide range of behavior. So first of all, around 16 million of those victims are in forced marriages. So this is a weird thing that has happened, that the legal definition now includes everyone who was in a forced marriage.
Sarah: And how were you defining a forced marriage while we're on the subject?
Mike: It includes anyone who was made to enter a marriage in the last five years, regardless of their age.
Sarah: What is ‘made to’ mean though. even?
Mike: Well, exactly. I mean, this is the problem with these statistics is that there's a huge spectrum of like forcedness within that. I don't want to go down a whole rabbit hole because like, I would need to spend a lot of time looking into this issue to discuss it with any level of nuance. But I think the main thing is that it's not what 99.9% of people would consider trafficking to be.
Sarah: Yeah. If you want to question the ethics of having marriages arranged by the parents of the bride and groom or what have you, that are happening in a country where you don't live and where you maybe don't know anyone, then you can sit with that and think about, is this something where I can learn enough to determine whether or not my opinion is helpful here? But it's not as exciting as a number like 40 million.
Mike: Right, I will also say that like, as somebody who worked in development for 11 years. I think that if you're looking for a development issue, some way that you feel like you can be helping the developing world, don't pick something that's like a deeply entrenched cultural practice like this that you don't know about. Like, if you don't speak the language of a country, don't start getting yourself involved in its relationships between men and women type institutions. I don't want to offend practices and say that like, they're good. I'm just saying that, like, if you don't know that much about this and you just heard about it on a screen grab on Instagram, don't get involved, fix things in America where you actually know how things work.
Mike: So, once we take out the 15 million that are enforced marriages, we're left with 25 million. So, 20 million of these people, the vast majority are forced laborers. This is anybody who is working under conditions where they cannot leave, basically. They do not have to be moved across borders. So this can be somebody in the town where they grew up not being paid, or they were lied to about their recruitment conditions.
Sarah: Are they being paid under the table and they can't go to anyone to try and enforce being paid a living wage?
Mike: A huge component of this is undocumented immigrants. I've interviewed people in America who are undocumented immigrants, and their bosses say, if you quit, if you complain that I'm not paying you, I will call ICE on you. So this is actually like a big problem in the world.
Although, one of the weird methodological things with this, with all of the numbers that are produced by this ILO report, is that there is something deep in the footnotes, in the methodological appendices that they do this by surveying people, they talk to you on the phone. It seems there's some sort of in-person component of this. If they ask somebody whether they're in a forced marriage or they've done forced labor. If they refuse to answer, they mark that as they are a victim.
Sarah: Yeah, that's not great.
Mike: It's not great. They also do a really weird thing where instead of asking you, “Are you a victim of forced labor?” They ask you, “Are you or anyone in your immediate family, a victim of forced labor?”
Sarah: So again, you're getting, you know, people who are potentially getting counted multiple times and that for one thing.
Mike: Exactly. They're deliberately choosing methodologies that are going to make the numbers as high as possible. Again, so we started with 40 million, we remove everybody that's in a forced marriage, we're down to 25. Then we remove everybody who is in forced labor, we finally get a sexual exploitation. So according to this study, there are 5 million victims of forced sexual exploitation of which 1 million are children. So if what you are concerned with is child sex trafficking, you should not be using the 40 million number, you should be using the 1 million number.
What's very weird about this section of the report is that they don't actually survey people. This isn't based on anything. So what they’re basically doing is they have another dataset of survivors of trafficking, survivors of sexual exploitation. And basically, what they do i they just apply the stories that they get from those victims to the various countries.
So, if some percentages of their victims are from Kenya, they'll just be like, “Oh, well, Kenya has this many forced sex workers.” This is actually a really big problem with like any global statistics, is that because it's really, really, really expensive to do surveys and you know, more than 190 countries, what they usually do is this like clustering thing. So rather than doing interviews with people in like Kenya, Uganda, Zambia, Zimbabwe. That's really expensive to do that in all four countries. So what you do is you just interview people in Kenya, you get a sample there, and then you are like, “Okay, Uganda has around 1/3 the per capita GDP of Kenya.” So, we assume that child sex trafficking is higher there because the poverty rates are higher. And so, you adjust the number upwards, and you say, well, Uganda has a smaller population than Kenya. So, you adjust the number downwards, so you basically just take these numbers from Kenya and then you adjust them upwards and downwards, according to various economic conditions in Uganda.
Sarah: Hmmm, yeah, I don't think that's good.
Mike: This is my beef with any of these sorts of like the Global Slavery Index is one of the worst ones, that's another trafficking one. What you're basically doing is you're assuming exactly the thing you're trying to find out. Like I was looking at police violence for our episode last week, right. So, if you say like, well, okay, there's police in Britain shoot about three people a year, and police in Germany shoot about 10 people a year. Well, U.S. has a bigger population, so let's say police in America shoot 20 people a year. That's good, right? And it's like, well, no, because the exact thing you're trying to find out is are there unique social economic and policy conditions in the United States that would make this behavior different there. If you're interested in child sex trafficking, you can't just say that Uganda has more because it has a higher poverty rate, because maybe Uganda has less. Maybe the country has really good policies that prevent child sex trafficking. Or maybe there’s something in the culture that keeps this from happening as much as you would expect, given its population, GDP, all of these other factors. This is the entire point of the exercise.
Sarah: Right. Because presumably you are focused on finding out what the actual numbers would be, because that's the first thing that you need to know to get an accurate sense of like, what do we need to do for some kind of intervention? And so if you're not even looking directly at the actual county that you're projecting. The statistics for then it's like, so you're flying blind, like you don't know anything about the kind of trafficking that's taking place. You don't know what industries it's clustering around. And it seems like you have more information than you actually do if you're reporting a number.
Mike: Exactly, because it sounds quantitative. But all of the stuff about sex in there is not actually based on any survey data. It's not really based on anything. It’s just you applying these numbers of victims that you have already. Does all of that make sense?
Sarah: Yes. You know, to me, what's most frustrating about this is that the phrase human trafficking essentially means nothing because it means so many different things. But if we're seeing memes about it on Facebook and Instagram, then like, you never see, or I certainly can never remember seeing a meme that is trying to show the face of like human trafficking in the sense of like your server might be getting screwed by their boss.
Sarah: Like of course it's not about that. You know, even if the numbers were 100% accurate to what they were claiming to describe, the phrase ‘human trafficking’ is just, it's useless at this point.
Sarah: Because people don't understand it as referring to the thing that it is for the most part referring to. So, it's like language becomes unusable at that point.
Mike: I mean, I've actually had two conversations in the last week with immigration and labor lawyers who work on trafficking cases. Sooooo, one of the lawyers I interviewed actually helps trafficking victims apply for trafficking visas, right? There is a special trafficking visa status. First of all, they said that neither one of them have ever been contacted by the national human trafficking hotline. There's this myth now that like, ooh, the Wayfair human trafficking conspiracy theory is like preventing the anti-trafficking organizations from doing their work. The trafficking hotlines don't do anything. The only thing they do is call the cops. If that's what you need them to do, they don't actually perform any services.
Sarah: Like F. Murray Abraham and inside Llewyn Davis, they said, “I don't see a lot of money here.”
Mike: What you find when you start looking into the actual problems with forced labor in this country, is that Government policy is complicit in it the entire time. So, what happens is a lot of people come to America on farm worker visas, which allow them to work legally, but do not allow them to change employers. So, if you want to quit your job, you have to leave the country. This is a program that is designed for abuse.
The employers know that their employees cannot leave or else they'll get deported. So they have no incentive to give them decent working conditions, no incentive to pay them on time, no incentive to follow through on any promises. This is what drives me nuts is that when you talk to the anti-trafficking organizations, you're like, okay, what do we need to solve this problem? You are telling me this problem is huge, what do we need to solve it? And they say like, “Oh, more awareness. More people need to know about it. We need to do more trainings for cops, trainings for nurses, trainings for pilots.”
Sarah: I do not know how much more aware people could get at this point?
Mike: Seriously, we are wildly like most Americans are more aware of human trafficking than like antibiotic resistance. Like there's a lot of issues that we should be more aware of.
Sarah: Yeah, and this idea of awareness it's like people are being trained to look for the kind of thing that they're not going to see very much. And we talked about this when we did this episode last fall, but the thing where, you know, if you're seeing these posters and you're looking for a child in visible distress, who is being stranger danger kidnapped in front of you. Then if you're looking really hard for that, you might not see other things.
Mike: Yes. This is another thing that drives me nuts, that I've actually asked human trafficking organizations, the ones that I have mentioned on this episode. I've asked them, are there any cases where somebody has called one of your hotlines and a child has been rescued and they could not give me a case. And meanwhile, one of these lawyers were telling me that when she helps her clients apply for T visas, for these trafficking visas, if they're turned down, ICE will go and deport them because their address is often on the paperwork.
Sarah: Oh my God.
Mike: And we have all these organizations that are saying, “Oh, we really need is awareness, awareness, awareness.” And then you look into it and you're like, no, there's actually some like pretty specific legal changes that we need, a change to the visa program. If you come here as a farm worker, if you leave your job you have six months to find any other job you want, no questions asked. That would prevent a huge amount of trafficking. Ending homelessness. How many kids are engaging in sex acts because they don't have a place to stay? If we give them a place to stay, they will not be as desperate.
Sarah: Improving the foster care system, for the love of God.
Mike: For the love of God, right? It's like, it's all right there.
Sarah: But it's not because it's this invisible, all powerful cartel, and they're shipping kids through Wayfair, and they're making billions of dollars every year, and they're hiding in plain sight. And so, I feel like it plays into just this desire for helplessness, you know. It's like, what can we do? What can we do, no one cares. And it's like, here's three things. And it's like, no, no, the cartels are too big and too powerful. We just have to keep sharing memes.
Mike: I just have to keep looking for zip ties.
Sarah: And the Chardonnay all day fonts.
Mike: My sort of main takeaway and the thing that I try to hammer into people whenever I rant about this at parties, which is all the time back when there were parties, this is not normal.
Sarah: Which part?
Mike: I mean, there's a lot of like random Harris County Human Trafficking Task Force. They'll say like ‘human trafficking by the numbers’, and then list all of these numbers that we just talked about; 300,000 children at risk, they'll say 800,000 missing kids. These numbers swirl around, right. And they're old and they're sketchy, and the researchers don't even stand by them anymore. This is not normal.
I worked in development for 11 years. I've been to a million conferences, I’ve talked to people that work on like deforestation or like female genital mutilation, income inequality. You ask them about these issues, and they can tell you basic facts, right? How much deforestation is there in the world? Where is it happening? They don't have perfect information, but they have a general sense, right. And then you look at trafficking organizations and it's like, okay, how many people are trafficked? And they're like, well, there's this number from 2002 but like the person doesn't stand by it anymore. And like, we had to take it off our website because it's bad. No, this is a basic fact about your main issue. What is the prevalence.
For the last week for something else, I was looking into gun violence. 3000 kids are killed every year by guns in this country, and you go to their websites and it's like, okay. It was like 2,700 last year and now it's like 2,800, right. And there's like different data sources and like they're broken down, by sort of suicides and homicides and accidental and on purpose. And you know, it's like how many black kids and how many white kids and what are the ages of the kids. And then you look at trafficking organizations and a lot of these trafficking organizations, if you go to, Shared Hope International which is like one of the main anti-trafficking organizations, there's no fucking numbers on their website. They do not have a basic estimate of prevalence, and they don't seem to have any interest in getting better numbers.
This issue has been a major moral panic in the United States for more than 20 years and in all that time, millions, tens of millions of dollars in donations. They haven't put together a consortium of NGOs and a bunch of experts, to try to really crack how this is happening, who it's happening to, where it's happening. The only numbers that this entire field is producing on a regular basis are the national trafficking hotline figures, which are literally anonymous calls to a hotline. They reflect nothing. All they reflect is how paranoid random members of the population are about this issue. It is completely inconceivable that you would want to solve a problem and be this uninterested in how it's actually happening.
Sarah: And then the mobius strip that you got into is I can say, well, we don't have the numbers because the traffickers are so powerful and they cover up their tracks, and so it's hard to get an exact estimate. And then the response to that, it's like, okay then why are we so sure that they're so high?
Sarah: There's this family of statistics where we just want high numbers and it was the same, and, you know, stranger danger in the eighties, we talked about that, you know, stranger danger was the chest burster from which the human trafficking panic like matured. And that seemed to have been based on a desire not to calmly assess the situation and do what needed to be done. Like, I think a lot of people did want to do that, but the broader cultural tenor of that was like, let's be scared all the time. Like, let's find a reason to be in a state of fear and reactivity all the time, no matter what.
Mike: And also, I mean, this is one of my beefs with like the way that the media covers this. Go on Snopes, go on Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, there's so many fact checks of all of the numbers at the heart of the trafficking panic and it's the same organizations putting out these bad numbers again and again. And so, Washington Post will have like one of these facts check columns of like, the 300,000 figures doesn't make any sense, the 800,000 figure doesn't make any sense.
But anyway, sex trafficking is like a huge issue and we don't want to minimize it, and it's like this massive problem. And you're like, wait a minute. Why are we still taking the fact that this is this huge issue that is worthy of posters in every fucking airport? Seriously, we don't have the basic evidence. It's like, okay, you cheated on the last test and then you cheated on the test before that, and you cheated on the test before that, but I'm just going to give you the test and like not look at you while you're taking it. It's no big deal.
Sarah: Like fool me over and over again, over the course of decades, shame on me. Can I tell you my theory about why we're seeing so much of this right now?
Mike: Oh, do it.
Sarah: I feel like what this fear reflects, and I feel like what it reflected in the eighties and what the Satanic Panic reflects. So many other panics about our children that are claiming to be for the welfare of the child, but are like targeting something that is either like, not a problem that many children are actually facing. You know, these panics that like are about protecting children, but always managed to miss the point spectacularly.
Sarah: And I think that does reflect the fact that you cannot ignore that America is a dangerous country for children. They get shot, they shoot each other. And we know how many toddlers shoot each other per year and we can look at a chart and it's all right there, but it's not exciting to have actual numbers, is it? And it's not exciting to be like, what if we have to challenge our culture in this specific way to like, make the world safer, for our toddlers or what if, you know, cause so many things that we need to do for children. And so many of them are like hard, and expensive, and they involve actually listening to children and learning about what they need, and like not just sort of treating them as props for whatever political ideology we may have. And the fact that this is coming to a head around COVID, and in the summer before we are going to start sending children back into school.
Sarah: I do feel like there is some amount of projection and misdirection happening because we know that, you know, maybe kids do die of COVID at much lower rates than other demographics. But like 76 children is still a lot of children, and that number is going to get higher. And so, it feels like a way of being like, yes, we are going to sacrifice all these children.
Sarah: But you know who is sacrificing more children? Human traffickers.
Mike: Yeah. I also think that there's a thing and we've seen this before for people that are sort of generally on the left, generally progressive to be like, well, you know, at least we can all agree that we need to ensure the safety of children. Right? Like a lot of people jumping on the human trafficking bandwagon are like pretty left-wing celebrities. There's one of the fact checks, I read had a quote from Amy Klobuchar who was using one of these false human trafficking numbers. I think that a lot of people are coming to this issue from actually a good place and I think we need to be very skeptical of the fact that this is a narrative, human trafficking, that is extremely important to the religious right, to conservatives, and to Q Anon supporters. And like, if those are the people that are pushing this right now, and those are the people that keep bringing it up when we're in the middle of a pandemic, for no particular reason, we need to ask ourselves if they are really acting in good faith for the protection of children. We just need to be really careful with the way that we amplify and accept the framing of organizations that seem like they share our values, but are not working toward the same goals, because that's exactly what we did during the stranger danger panic, right.
It was like, well, this is a Reagan thing, but we can all agree that we need to keep children safe. Did that make children safer? No, all it did was give us like three strikes laws and charging people with much harsher crimes than we used to because we've literally done this exact same thing before, and it didn't work out.
Sarah: So I have been watching all of the Paranormal Activity movies this week. One of the tropes in horror that I think is silly but also enjoy in that way, is that a child thinks that they have connected with a spirit and then the child is tricked because it's not a ghost or a kind or neutral spirit, it is a demon. And the energy that you give to the demon makes it stronger. And I feel like engaging with false statistics about human trafficking is like thinking you're talking to a ghost on your Ouija board, and you're connecting with this benevolent spirit and you don't know what you're feeding. Like that might be too scary of a metaphor, but I do feel like if you share a statistic that's like for awareness, and saying like, oh my God, this horrible thing is happening according to this Instagram post, I'm not going to individually fact check this. Because even if it's not right or not completely right, people still benefit from being more vigilant about children being abused. that can't be bad. But I think that statistic, you think you're feeding the child and you think you're feeding like the child welfare.
Mike: But you're really feeding Cindy McCain.
Sarah: And you're feeding QAnon, and you're feeding this idea that no, like don't pay attention to what's going on, pay attention to this story that we are telling you. And I don't know if you care about children, there are so many ways to show that. And I think that it's bullying to be throwing around these sensationalistic statistics and these very sort of triggering images and sort of daring people to like, not retweet it or to not share it.
Sarah: You're playing like empathetic chicken with people at that point. You're saying like, either you pass on my message, either you further this conspiracy theory I am sharing, or you don't care about children, and no one gets to decide how you go about trying to make the world a better place.
Mike: I mean, I just think that if you really care about children, you will play them disco every chance you get.