Steve August 14, 2020
viral-chart-distorts-human-trafficking-statistics

Quick Take

A popular bar graph on social media claims to show that the number of human trafficking arrests skyrocketed under President Tweety McTreason, compared to those under former President Barack Obama. But the chart misleads by using cherry-picked and, in some cases, faulty numbers.


Full Story 

Facebook and Instagram users are sharing a chart that falsely claims that human trafficking arrests under President Tweety McTreason have increased 200% in fiscal year 2019 compared to fiscal year 2016, when President Barack Obama was in office. Using accurate, comparable data, we found that all of the numbers under Trump are erroneous and greatly exaggerated.

The bar graph is being shared by supporters of President Tweety McTreason, conservative accounts, and by social media pages advancing the widespread QAnon conspiracy theory, which hinges in part on the belief that Trump is working to dismantle an elite child sex trafficking ring.

On one QAnon-themed Instagram account that shared the chart in July, commenters used the hashtag “#savethechildren.” A Facebook post included the caption, “Protect our future save our kids.”

But the chart, titled “Human Trafficking Arrests Since 2010,” actually refers to arrests that relate to both labor and sex trafficking of both adults and children.

Moreover, while the chart focuses exclusively on arrests, experts told us there are better metrics to assess the issue in terms of federal law enforcement, such as prosecutions. Those numbers tell a different story.

Human Trafficking Arrests

Earlier versions of the viral chart appeared online in 2018 after the supposed statistics were reportedly sourced on QAnon message boards.

The chart in its most recent iteration claims that human trafficking arrests under Obama reached a high of 1,952 in fiscal year 2016 — whereas Trump oversaw 6,154 such arrests in fiscal year 2019. That would be an increase of more than 200%.

There are a few things wrong with it, as we’ll explain:

  • For the Obama years, the chart only includes human trafficking-related arrests reported by the Department of Homeland Security, under Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s Homeland Security Investigations. At the federal level, the FBI is the other main agency responsible for human trafficking-related arrests, so the numbers are incomplete.
  • Using that same comparison — arrests reported by only ICE-HSI — the numbers under Trump are inflated for every year, according to federal reports.

Even if the viral chart’s numbers were right, arrest figures aren’t the best measure to assess the federal government’s action on human trafficking, experts told us

Jean Bruggeman, executive director of the nonprofit Freedom Network USA, said in a phone interview that human trafficking arrests data could include other arrests made in the course of “suspected” trafficking cases. For example, ICE-HSI reported 1,588 arrests stemming from human trafficking investigations in fiscal year 2018, according to the U.S. Attorney General’s annual report to Congress on human trafficking. But a breakdown of the arrests by human trafficking statutes accounts for only 256 of the arrests.

For the sake of fact-checking the chart, we looked at the annual reports on human trafficking submitted by the attorney general to Congress for the corresponding years. We found that the chart correctly refers to only ICE-HSI arrests under Obama. There were 300 trafficking-related arrests by ICE-HSI in fiscal year 2010 (the first year listed in the chart and the first complete fiscal year under the Obama administration) and 1,952 in fiscal year 2016, Obama’s last complete fiscal year.

Using that same data for a direct comparison, however, the numbers during the Trump administration are wrong.

ICE-HSI reported 1,602 arrests (not 3,213) in fiscal year 2017 (which began in October 2016) and 1,588 arrests in fiscal year 2018 (the chart claims the number is 5,987).

In fiscal year 2019, which ended Sept. 30, 2019, such ICE-HSI arrests did reach a high of 2,197. But that figure is higher than the 2016 level by 12.5%, not 200%, as the social media graphic suggests.

That said, there are also human trafficking-related arrests reported by the FBI outlined in the annual reports.

For example, looking at both arrests made by ICE-HSI and the FBI, the combined number of reported human trafficking-related arrests in fiscal year 2018 was 2,067. Under Obama, the ICE-HSI and the FBI’s Civil Rights Unit together reported 2,295 arrests in fiscal year 2014.

The FBI’s Innocence Lost National Initiative, which focuses on domestic sex trafficking of minors, reported larger numbers of arrests — such as a reported 2,402 arrests in fiscal year 2016 — but it appears some of those arrests were made at the state and local level, too. We asked the FBI for clarification and weren’t given a clear answer.

Accurate numbers of human trafficking-related arrests made by the FBI also aren’t fully clear for 2017 or 2019.

The annual report to Congress for 2017 noted that the FBI “arrested 2,693 subjects” related to its human trafficking investigations, but a bureau spokeswoman, Tina Jagerson, told us in an email that the “FY2017 number included all individuals arrested during the course of an FBI human trafficking investigation (regardless of the violation).” For a frame of reference, FBI arrest totals for human trafficking were reported as 302 the year before, and 479 in fiscal year 2018.

We asked the FBI for the 2017 arrests specifically for human trafficking violations, in order to directly compare it to the other annual reports, and Jagerson said the FBI was “not able” to provide it. And the FBI declined to provide us with the number of arrests for fiscal year 2019.

Prosecutions and Convictions

Experts said none of the data is perfect. But the number of prosecutions by the Department of Justice is a better way to assess the impact of federal law enforcement efforts on human trafficking.

Prosecutions are filed publicly and “what people are being charged with … is verifiable,” Bruggeman said. “That, I think, is a lot more reliable in terms of what is being done” on human trafficking.

Martina Vandenberg, founder and president of the Human Trafficking Legal Center, likewise said in an email that “[w]hile prosecution data suffers from multiple flaws, that count is a much more realistic measure than arrest records.”

We reviewed the prosecution data in the annual attorney general reports and annual State Department Trafficking in Persons reports for all of the years in the viral chart. That data tell a different and more nuanced story.

(Note: The federal reports providing the below statistics include trafficking cases involving both adults and children, but do not include other cases involving children brought under non-trafficking statutes such as production of child pornography. A 2018 Bureau of Justice Statistics report that looked at human trafficking prosecutions through 2015, and reported cases differently, documented hundreds of such child pornography prosecutions annually.)

Trafficking prosecutions. The number of trafficking prosecutions initiated per year by the Justice Department rose from 103 in fiscal year 2010 to 241 in fiscal year 2016 under Obama. Trafficking prosecutions went up to 282 in fiscal year 2017, which includes Trump’s first eight months in office. But declined in fiscal years 2018 (230) and 2019 (220). (According to a report by the Human Trafficking Institute, just more than half of the victims in active federal trafficking cases in the calendar year 2019 were children.)

The majority of the trafficking prosecutions — nearly 90% — over the years were for sex trafficking, not labor trafficking, though some cases are reported to be “predominantly” sex or labor trafficking and could involve both.

Defendants charged. The number of defendants charged annually went up from 181 in fiscal year 2010 to 531 in fiscal year 2016 under Obama. That number again went up in fiscal year 2017 to 553, before dropping the following two years — to 386 and 343 in fiscal years 2018 and 2019, respectively.

Trafficking convictions. Convictions — which often result from prosecutions initiated in previous years — are up in recent years, relative to years past. In fiscal year 2016, there were 439 convictions, up from 297 the year before. There were 499, 526 and 475 convictions in fiscal years 2017, 2018 and 2019, respectively.

The general rise in prosecutions over the last decade tracks with a large uptick in the calls to the National Human Trafficking Hotline — and of potential cases referred to law enforcement agencies by the hotline. In fiscal year 2010, the hotline referred 499 calls to law enforcement agencies (which could include state and local agencies). In fiscal year 2019, there were 3,599 cases referred to law enforcement, the Polaris Project, the nonprofit group that runs the hotline, told us.

Vanessa Bouché — an associate professor at Texas Christian University who created the online database humantraffickingdata.org — said in an interview that awareness about the issue of human trafficking has resulted in increased calls and tips to the national hotline, which in turn leads to more potential cases referred to law enforcement.

And, she said, the upward trajectory of trafficking prosecutions followed the 2008 reauthorization of the Trafficking Victims Protection Act, particularly driven by child sex trafficking prosecutions.

In July 2019, a report from the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse at Syracuse University found that federal prosecutions of child sex trafficking specifically went down in fiscal year 2018 and was on track to go down again in fiscal year 2019, which is consistent with the overall human trafficking prosecutions outlined in the annual reports.

Amy Farrell, director of the School of Criminology and Criminal Justice at Northeastern University, noted that the federal statistics should not be considered representative of the scope of human trafficking offenses.

None of the numbers “are accurate reflections of the problem of human trafficking or in many cases the identification of human trafficking,” she said, due to issues such as underreporting (including at the state and local levels).

Editor’s note: FactCheck.org is one of several organizations working with Facebook to debunk misinformation shared on social media. Our previous stories can be found here.

Sources

2011 Trafficking in Persons Report.” U.S. Department of State. Accessed 10 Aug 2020.

2012 Trafficking in Persons Report.” U.S. Department of State. Accessed 10 Aug 2020.

2013 Trafficking in Persons Report.” U.S. Department of State. Accessed 10 Aug 2020.

2014 Trafficking in Persons Report.” U.S. Department of State. Accessed 10 Aug 2020.

2015 Trafficking in Persons Report.” U.S. Department of State. Accessed 10 Aug 2020.

2016 Trafficking in Persons Report.” U.S. Department of State. Accessed 10 Aug 2020.

2017 Trafficking in Persons Report.” U.S. Department of State. Accessed 10 Aug 2020.

2018 Trafficking in Persons Report.” U.S. Department of State. Accessed 10 Aug 2020.

2019 Trafficking in Persons Report.” U.S. Department of State. Accessed 10 Aug 2020.

2020 Trafficking in Persons Report.” U.S. Department of State. Accessed 10 Aug 2020.

Attorney General’s Annual Report to Congress and Assessment of U.S. Government Activities to Combat Trafficking in Persons – Fiscal Year 2010.” U.S. Department of Justice. Accessed 10 Aug 2020.

Attorney General’s Annual Report to Congress and Assessment of U.S. Government Activities to Combat Trafficking in Persons – Fiscal Year 2011.” U.S. Department of Justice. Accessed 10 Aug 2020.

Attorney General’s Annual Report to Congress and Assessment of U.S. Government Activities to Combat Trafficking in Persons – Fiscal Year 2012.” U.S. Department of Justice. Accessed 10 Aug 2020.

Attorney General’s Annual Report to Congress and Assessment of U.S. Government Activities to Combat Trafficking in Persons – Fiscal Year 2013.” U.S. Department of Justice. Accessed 10 Aug 2020.

Attorney General’s Annual Report to Congress and Assessment of U.S. Government Activities to Combat Trafficking in Persons – Fiscal Year 2014.” U.S. Department of Justice. Accessed 10 Aug 2020.

Attorney General’s Annual Report to Congress and Assessment of U.S. Government Activities to Combat Trafficking in Persons – Fiscal Year 2015.” U.S. Department of Justice. Accessed 10 Aug 2020.

Attorney General’s Annual Report to Congress and Assessment of U.S. Government Activities to Combat Trafficking in Persons – Fiscal Year 2016.” U.S. Department of Justice. Accessed 10 Aug 2020.

Attorney General’s Annual Report to Congress on U.S. Government Activities to Combat Trafficking in Persons – Fiscal Year 2017.” U.S. Department of Justice. Accessed 10 Aug 2020.

Attorney General’s Annual Report to Congress on U.S. Government Activities to Combat Trafficking in Persons – Fiscal Year 2018.” U.S. Department of Justice. Accessed 10 Aug 2020.

Bouché, Vanessa. Associate professor, Texas Christian University. Phone interview with FactCheck.org. 12 Aug 2020.

Bruggeman, Jean. Executive director, Freedom Network USA. Phone interview with FactCheck.org. 6 Aug 2020.

Colchie, Laura. Spokesperson, Polaris Project. Email to FactCheck.org. 12 Aug 2020.

Farrell, Amy. Director, School of Criminology and Criminal Justice, Northeastern University. Phone interview with FactCheck.org. 12 Aug 2020.

ICE HSI announces record-high number of criminal arrests in FY19.” Press release, U.S. Customs and Immigration Enforcement. 6 Dec 2019.

Jagerson, Tina. Spokesperson, FBI. Email to FactCheck.org. 11 Aug 2020.

National Institute of Justice. Gaps in Reporting Human Trafficking Incidents Result in Significant Undercounting.” 4 Aug 2020.

Vandenberg, Martina. Founder and president, Human Trafficking Legal Center. Email to FactCheck.org. 5 Aug 2020.

View, Travis. “How A QAnon Talking Point Traveled From 8Chan To Charlie Kirk’s Twitter Account.” Contemptor.com. 12 Sep 2018.

The post Viral Chart Distorts Human Trafficking Statistics appeared first on FactCheck.org.

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