Special report: How conspiracy theories keep human trafficking victims from getting help

Grand Strand

MYRTLE BEACH, SC (WBTW) – Horry County has the highest number of human trafficking reports in South Carolina.

Since the coronavirus pandemic, communities here have been outspoken about putting an end to the crime, but along with the increased conversation comes more misinformation spread across social media.

While a group here in the Myrtle Beach area denies conspiracy theory ties, #saveourchildren has been flagged on social media for a believed association with QAnon. A movement the FBI has deemed as a potential domestic terror threat.

Polaris Project, which runs the national human trafficking hotline that receives tips, has been impacted by conspiracy theories firsthand. The organization sends reports to law enforcement and connects victims to help.

One particular conspiracy theory spread so widely, it jammed the phone lines. Social media posts claimed, without evidence, that online retailer Wayfair was trafficking children. The company denied the unfounded allegations.

However, hundreds of people called to report the company, possibly stopping real victims from getting help. “One of the things that it did was it really impacted our availability to speak directly with survivors themselves and vice versa for survivors to contact us,” said Stephanie Marroquin, Polaris case response specialist.

When a call from South Carolina comes into the hotline, Kathryn Moorehead at the South Carolina Human Trafficking Task Force sees it. “Somebody may be reaching out for help and this may be their only opportunity to reach out for help. If it’s jammed up with phone calls about a story that is untrue, you can see how it negatively impacts what we’re trying to do,” said Moorehead, director of the South Carolina Human Trafficking Task Force.

In 2015, the hotline received only 61 reports from South Carolina. The number spiked 128% by 2019.
The task force attributes some of that increase to more education about trafficking, but misinformation hasn’t helped.

“It’s very difficult because some of the information that’s being shared with the public is accurate, and some of it is misinformation,” Morehead said, “so when you combine the two, it can be very confusing for those in the community who want to contribute to anti-human-trafficking efforts.”

Unfortunatley, the harsh truth is, most children who are trafficked know and trust their trafficker.

“When I was 16, I met this guy and we started a relationship,” said Ayesha, a human trafficking survivor. Ayesha lived in Iowa and believed she was in a relationship with a man in his twenties named Mark Spicer.

“About two weeks after the relationship started, he asked me to go with one of his friends to pick up some money. He said that I wouldn’t have to do anything, but once I got to the place to pick the money up, it was a completely different story and I ended up having to do stuff,” said Ayesha.

Ayesha told News 13, Spicer became physically abusive, and over a course of 6 months trafficked her across 5 different states. They ended up in Myrtle Beach.

According to arrest warrants, Myrtle Beach police officers responded to a hotel for a wanted person and a girl possibly being held against her will.

“Then once we got to South Carolina, there was a really bad incident where he almost killed me, and about two days later, the police came to the hotel we were at and he was arrested then,” said Ayesha.

Mark Spicer was sentenced to 20 years in federal court.

Ayesha was then placed into foster care in the state, and her case is just one of many highlighting needs for victims.

“If you start to look at how many children in South Carolina are being identified as trafficking victims, you start to understand the enormity of our problem. Right now, the beds are probably less than 10% of what the need is at this time,” said Moorehead.

To contact the National Human Trafficking Hotline call: 1 (888) 373- 7888

For more information about human trafficking click here https://polarisproject.org/

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