Actual Facts Undercut Media's Narrative That Law Enforcement Task Force Broke Up A Multi-State Sex Trafficking Operation

from the reality-is-way-less-lurid-than-headline-writers-would-like-it-to-be dept

If sex trafficking was actual traffic, people would rarely complain about congestion. It's not that it doesn't happen. It's that it doesn't happen with the frequency claimed by government officials in order to do things like dismantle Section 230 immunity or pursue baseless prosecutions against online ad services.

But it always sounds like an omnipresent threat thanks to far too many news organizations who are apparently unwilling to challenge claims made by officials, much less dig into the details of trafficking stings. Almost without exception, big human/sex trafficking busts end with little to show for them but some standard solicitation arrests and a handful of jailed sex workers of legal age who haven't been "trafficked."

There's a lot of blame to spread around for this turning from small-scale misguided hysteria into the focal point of legislation that harms the immunity granted to website and platform owners. But we can start with media, which hasn't met a sex trafficking story it isn't willing to hype, even when the facts don't jibe with the headlines. Michael Hobbes punches holes in the latest sex trafficking horror story covered nationwide -- one that contains very little horror and almost no sex trafficking.

This is how it landed on people's virtual doorsteps following the government's press release:

“U.S. Marshals Find 39 Missing Children in Georgia During ‘Operation Not Forgotten,’” proclaimed the government’s official press release. Federal agents and local law enforcement, it said, had rescued 26 children, “safely located” 13 more and arrested nine perpetrators, some of whom were charged with sex trafficking.

The facts of the operation weren’t clear (what does “safely located” mean, exactly?), but it didn’t stop media outlets from taking up the story. “Missing Children Rescued in Georgia Sex Trafficking Bust” wrote The Associated Press, a headline dutifully repeated in The New York Times. “39 Missing Children Located in Georgia Sex Trafficking Sting Operation” was People magazine’s version. Few media outlets contributed any original reporting; the vast majority of stories were little more than rewritten versions of the U.S. Marshals Service’s press release.

These credulous takes of the information offered by the US Marshals Service became even hotter once it hit Twitter, with people asking why finding 39 trafficked children wasn't a bigger story. But that's not even what the Marshals' press release said. It only said law enforcement has rescued 26 "endangered" children, found 13 other missing children in "safe" locations, and arrested only nine people. The release mentioned "crimes related to sex trafficking" but did not specify any of the nine had been charged with sex trafficking. It wasn't even a "sex trafficking sting." It was a joint task force operation to find missing children.

The details larger press outlets were unwilling to dig into have been uncovered by Michael Hobbes. Here's what the US Marshals had to say about the operation the media insisted was a sex trafficking sting.

“This was not a designated anti-trafficking operation,” Darby Kirby, a U.S. Marshals Service inspector involved with the operation, told HuffPost. Operation Not Forgotten, the name law enforcement gave the recovery effort, was a collaboration between state and federal authorities to locate 78 “critically missing” children.

The good news is the task force found 65 of the 78 "critically missing" children. Thirty-nine were "recovered," which means they weren't necessarily in danger, but possibly just not living with the custodial parent. The other 26 cases were closed, possibly because the child had already been located by Child Protective Services or had returned home prior to the operation.

As for the sex trafficking that was the focal point of national news stories, it's almost a footnote.

The operation netted only one new charge of sex trafficking against a perpetrator. Of the seven men and two women arrested, three were charged with probation violations, one was charged with unlawful possession of a firearm and two were accused of violating custody arrangements. One person was arrested on a warrant for a previous sex trafficking charge, and two more were arrested on warrants for sex crimes in other states.  

And it wasn't just a rescue operation. Law enforcement was also looking for underage criminal suspects.

It’s also worth noting that the operation was also set up to arrest children, not just rescue them. Katie Byrd, the communications director for the Georgia attorney general’s office, noted that two of the missing kids were suspects in homicide cases, and one was a person of interest in another.  

Plus, 11 of the kids had, in Byrd’s words, “some kind of gang affiliation.” Byrd did not specify how many juveniles were arrested in connection with the operation, but, according to numbers her office provided, it appears that up to seven warrants were issued for underage offenders.

Reporting like this can't really be called "reporting." It should be called "stenography." And when officials were actually asked for comment, they just made things worse. The director of the US Marshals Service -- Donald Washington -- claimed 300 underage girls were lured into trafficking every month… and that's just in the Atlanta area. But the stats from operations like this just don't bear that claim out. In this operation, officials claimed just six of the sixty-five children rescued were considered "trafficked." Keep in mind that a minor that performs sex work on their own is considered "trafficked," even if there's no sex trafficker involved. That's the statutory definition. If Atlanta alone is responsible for 3,600 trafficked minors a year, you'd think an operation that took place in Georgia would have found a lot more trafficking victims.

It's not that minors are never forced into sex work by traffickers. It's that it happens far less frequently than irresponsible headlines (and irresponsible statements by law enforcement officials) would have you believe. The good news is missing children were located. But, sadly, that's not enough to interest people when there's an entire internet full of bad faith arguments, overblown rhetoric, and grandstanding officials.

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Filed Under: georgia, hype, media, sex trafficking


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  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 10 Sep 2020 @ 3:30am

    The problem

    Click bait wins over facts when it comes to selling news, along with hype to make stories look more important than they are.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    Upstream (profile), 10 Sep 2020 @ 4:02am

    It's not that minors are never forced into sex work by traffickers. It's that it happens far less frequently than irresponsible headlines (and irresponsible statements by law enforcement officials) would have you believe.

    It is this kind of consistent dishonesty by government, in this case by the increasingly pre-eminent law enforcement arm of government, that contributes to the well-deserved erosion of faith in government. It is clearly time for a change. Did I mention that you should vote Libertarian, and not for the status-quo?

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      PaulT (profile), 10 Sep 2020 @ 5:48am

      Re:

      "Did I mention that you should vote Libertarian"

      Which type of Libertarian do you mean? The one that's designed to let you do whatever you want and screw the rights of everyone else, or the kind that assumes that human nature doesn't exist?

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • identicon
        Anonymous Coward, 10 Sep 2020 @ 6:12am

        Re: Re:

        The one that is grounded in possession is ten-tenths of the law, everyone is going to live in peace and harmony if we respect each other's property rights even if the prevailing attitude is "fuck you, got mine", and the rest of civilization automatically comes from that and is an exercise the reader can do on their own.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

        • icon
          PaulT (profile), 10 Sep 2020 @ 6:25am

          Re: Re: Re:

          "The one that is grounded in possession is ten-tenths of the law"

          That doesn't narrow it down, sadly.

          "everyone is going to live in peace and harmony if we respect each other's property rights "

          In my experience with Libertarians, that usually lasts just as long as they realise they're not going to be the ones with a majority of the property, then they default to demanding that the government protect what little they do own. Especially if the people gaining property look slightly different to them.

          reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

          • icon
            Stephen T. Stone (profile), 10 Sep 2020 @ 6:33am

            I forget where I read this (t’was probably Twitter), but I find this semi-useful:

            When libertarians talk about individual freedom, silently add "to own people" to the phrase regardless of context.

            reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

            • icon
              PaulT (profile), 10 Sep 2020 @ 7:55am

              Re:

              Well, that might be part of it. But, I think it's more about a childish lack of understanding about the world. They oppose taxes because they see "their" money going away but don't understand the many things that taxes pay for that they depend on to live the life they lead. They idolise "freedom", but always forget that freedom is a compromise. Their freedom to buy cheap crap at Wal Mart means that children in the third world are enslaved to provide that. And so on...

              That might be oversimplified, but most who ascribe themselves to that type of philosophy tend to forget that there's a price that others need to pay for them to have what they want.

              reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

          • identicon
            Anonymous Coward, 10 Sep 2020 @ 7:25am

            Re: Re: Re: Re:

            Sorry if the sarcasm wasn't quite palpable enough. I should have added a /s

            I lean Libertarian in some ways so have read a lot on the topic, but a lot of the groundwork and (surprise surprise) putting it into practice fail once population density gets higher than one self-important-asshole per 30 acres (or whatever the spread out family population density of New Hampshire actually is).

            reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

            • icon
              PaulT (profile), 10 Sep 2020 @ 7:59am

              Re: Re: Re: Re: Re:

              "Sorry if the sarcasm wasn't quite palpable enough. I should have added a /s"

              That's fine, it's not really possible to tell nowadays.

              "putting it into practice fail(s)"

              That's ultimately where that, and every other "pure" political philosophy fails. Theories, whether pure capitalism, communism, libertarianism often seem very compelling and every idyllic on paper. But, once you try imposing them on to real life and actual human beings, things tend to go bad very quickly. That's why the majority of successful civilisations have some mixture of ideologies at their core. For example, we've seen the horrors when "pure" capitalism is in place, so some kind of "socialism" is usually there to temper the inevitable problems that come with people putting profit about people.

              reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

              • icon
                Stephen T. Stone (profile), 10 Sep 2020 @ 8:23am

                For example, we've seen the horrors when "pure" capitalism is in place, so some kind of "socialism" is usually there to temper the inevitable problems that come with people putting profit about people.

                To wit: Social Security, Medicare/Medicaid, public schools, public roads, and…well, basically every other taxpayer-funded system and infrastructure in the United States that would otherwise be called “socialism” and likely decried as “evil” if they weren’t already taken for granted by virtually everyone.

                reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

                • icon
                  JMT (profile), 10 Sep 2020 @ 3:58pm

                  Re:

                  Don't forget that huge, uber-socialist, overly-revered entity that sucks up about 15% of government spending. Y'know, the one with all the cool pew-pew toys.

                  reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

        • identicon
          Anonymous Coward, 11 Sep 2020 @ 3:30am

          Re: Re: Re:

          The problem with libertarian ideals is that have not worked out how to restrict the authoritarians who seek power.

          reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

          • identicon
            Anonymous Coward, 11 Sep 2020 @ 6:46am

            Re: Re: Re: Re:

            Has anyone?

            reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

            • icon
              Scary Devil Monastery (profile), 14 Sep 2020 @ 1:45am

              Re: Re: Re: Re: Re:

              "Has anyone?"

              Not really, but a few countries have managed to put enough barriers in place that the self-serving authoritarian has to really work for it.

              It's normally a problem of scale. Germany and Sweden do not in modern times have problems with authoritarian politicians. The EU most definitely has, since that bureaucratic megastructure has room for dozens or even hundreds of small self-contained fiefdoms. US and China similarly so with the latter being expressly created to focus power at a single point and the former focusing blind patriotic obedience in a same way, to much the same result.

              reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • icon
        Toom1275 (profile), 10 Sep 2020 @ 8:49am

        Re: Re:

        The one that relies on corporate astroturfers and Youtube to tell them how economics and law work.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      ECA (profile), 10 Sep 2020 @ 1:24pm

      Re:

      You didnt go read the Whole article did you.
      It wasnt the gov. that changed the Headline.
      There are groups that Love to IMPRESS others and add a few things, that make the articles Fantastic. Even if they Include the Original article, a Basic read tells you the headline was STUPID.
      Might as well be Trump and his followers declaring he has DONE everything, including spreading open the red sea.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      Scary Devil Monastery (profile), 11 Sep 2020 @ 1:07am

      Re:

      "Did I mention that you should vote Libertarian, and not for the status-quo?"

      "Libertarian". You mean the flip side of the coin of "Utopian impractical ideals" which has "Communism" written on the other side?

      When human nature changes enough to make libertarianism feasible rather than just a throwback to the viking ages communism will be similarly viable.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • icon
        ECA (profile), 14 Sep 2020 @ 5:13pm

        Re: Re:

        So you are admitting that the Rich person comment about Poor people are lazy good for nothings, is correct??

        Are you of the thought, that everything we buy Should DIE in a couple years so we can RE-buy them and keep the market going?? (really drives the idea that the USA makes good products, dont it?)

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    hij (profile), 10 Sep 2020 @ 4:32am

    Helping to fuel Q-Anon

    These kinds of headlines only serve to fuel the Q-Anon theories about massive conspiracies to commit the kinds of crimes broadcast in these announcements. In Georgia, it allows the Governor to crow about his efforts to fight these conspiracies without having to do anything. Best of all he gets to do it without actually mentioning Q-Anon so he gets to feed the conspiracy cult while also playing to suburban fears of a dark underworld trying to take their things.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      Vidiot (profile), 10 Sep 2020 @ 6:00am

      Re: Helping to fuel Q-Anon

      I hear Hillary Clinton bought each of the marshals a slice after they wrapped things up in the pizzeria basement.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • identicon
        teka, 10 Sep 2020 @ 8:08am

        Re: Re: Helping to fuel Q-Anon

        "Bought" Each of The"M" A SL"ICE" After "They" W"rappe"d "THINGS" up "in" the Pizzeri"a"

        It's allllll coming together. the proof is there, sheeple

        /s

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

        • icon
          Stephen T. Stone (profile), 10 Sep 2020 @ 8:27am

          As much as I’d like to joke about Qanon as if it were a whackjob conspiracy theory in the vein of “lizard people” instead of a dangerous collective delusion, what you did in that comment is…uh…kind of how that particular delusion stays alive.

          reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      ECA (profile), 14 Sep 2020 @ 5:26pm

      Re: Helping to fuel Q-Anon

      Its funny about the Old conspiracies, and allot of them have been shown, in PUBLIC to be happening.
      And then what is left, is the Super strange, and helping put that OUT THERE.

      We dont need no help in Proving people are weird. its already a proven fact.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    wshuff (profile), 10 Sep 2020 @ 4:39am

    So here we have the headlines telling us about sex trafficking that really wasn’t, while I can think of at least two recent cases where actual victims of sex trafficking fought back against their trafficker and ended up being charged with murder.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    anon, 10 Sep 2020 @ 5:01am

    good.

    I'm glad I'm not the only person who was infuriated by the headlines in the AJC when this operation was announced. I'm glad that there were children who have been returned to their parents. I'm almost as glad that some were returned to their legal guardian (because I think many custody cases are decided in favor of the mother regardless of her non-biological abilities.)

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    That Anonymous Coward (profile), 10 Sep 2020 @ 5:18am

    And we wonder why peoples trust in everything is racing to the bottom.

    We pretend sex trafficking is happening every .3 seconds, pot will make you sex crazed & rape old women...

    It would be awesome to see actual facts reported instead of 'clickbait' stories to feed into the lies & lead to someone ending up shot again over imaginary threats posed by white vans.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 10 Sep 2020 @ 5:57am

    Meanwhile, back at the ranch .... er I mean the Epstein island of underage girls, the story is sidelined and forgotten so that the rich and famous visitors remain unscathed.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    Bloof (profile), 10 Sep 2020 @ 6:31am

    Sex abuse stories get eyes on screen, unfortunately, doesn't matter how true they are, they're the one issue everyone is outraged about and a story about a ring us clickbait gold. This is why it's used to sell QAnon to the old and the foolish, why minorities are ALWAYS a threat to children according to the right.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 10 Sep 2020 @ 7:16am

      Re:

      A friend kept posting on FB -- "Why isn't the mainstream media covering this amazing news!?!?!" and then proceeded to post 13 other news articles by different mainstream news outlets all covering this same press release.

      Its almost as if the people putting out these news clips understand that the moment you invoke the fear word "sex trafficking" that there will be a Pavlovian response by a portion of the masses that won't question the story and will only look to spread it so that these John Q Publics can show how morally superior they are because they hate this repugnant topic.

      I'm not for sex-trafficking, but I'm also not for this form of "virtue-signaling" either.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • icon
        PaulT (profile), 10 Sep 2020 @ 11:32pm

        Re: Re:

        "Why isn't the mainstream media covering this amazing news!?!?!"

        Generally speaking, if someone is using the term "mainstream media", they're stuck in a right-wing echo chamber and can have their opinions safely ignored. Especially if they're saying "why aren't they covering this", because it usually either means they haven't bothered looking, or that sources outside of the echo chamber are daring to confirm the story.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 10 Sep 2020 @ 7:21am

      Re:

      And when you're a star, they let you do it.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Glenn, 10 Sep 2020 @ 2:40pm

    From the dept: reports you can tell are lies just by hearing them

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    restless94110 (profile), 11 Sep 2020 @ 8:51am

    Informative

    This a great article. Informative, incisive. The attacks on Back Page started with Kamala Harris as Cal AG and claimed to be all about sex trafficking. Instead it was just adult sex workers doing business. This fake nonsense from Harris and others is all you need to know to not vote for her.

    I wonder if one day the phrase sex trafficking will be discarded and we'll just call it what it really is, prostitution.

    We can only hope.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    Scary Devil Monastery (profile), 14 Sep 2020 @ 1:47am

    "I wonder if one day the phrase sex trafficking will be discarded and we'll just call it what it really is, prostitution. "

    It's really interesting that even when you try to appear something other than a raging alt-right bigot you can't help yourself.

    I'll tell you the difference between "trafficking" and "prostitution".
    It's the same as between "voluntary sex" and "slavery".

    Sure, the alt-right may not know or realize that's much of a difference but that says more about you guys than it does about those of us who know that "prostitution" and "sex slavery" are not the same thing.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]


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