The recent shooting at a popular pizza joint in Washington, D.C. has as much to do with the current hysteria over sex trafficking as it does with the untrammeled spread of fake news on social media. The 28-year-old man who fired an assault rifle inside the Comet Ping Pong told police he was investigating claims that the pizza shop was the center of a child sex trafficking ring masterminded by Hillary Clinton. Even though this particular fake news story has been thoroughly debunked, that didn’t stop Edgar Welch from traveling 350 miles from his home in Salisbury, North Carolina, to see what was going on for himself.
I cannot of course peer inside the mind of a man who would so readily believe such a preposterous tale. But it’s not too far-fetched to assume that Welch, as the father of two daughters, was influenced by the recent hyperbole over sex trafficking. As I discovered in researching my book Getting Screwed: Sex Workers and the Law, anti-trafficking proponents have spread grossly inaccurate and inflated statistics about the number of women and children being trafficked for sex in the United States.
There is little good data out there on the true numbers in large part because even the U.S. State Department continues to conflate prostitution by choice with trafficking. However, one study of indoor sex workers in New York City by the Urban Justice Center found that only eight percent of the study’s respondents were trafficked into the sex trade.
Yet that and similar findings by the FBI hasn’t stopped anti-trafficking proponents from claiming that hundreds of thousands of women and children are being trafficked for sex in this country, claims that mainstream and alternative media sites have breathlessly repeated without bothering to sift for the truth.
So it should come as no surprise that a man who pays attention to such out-of- control fabricators as Alex Jones would believe that child sex trafficking ring is operating from an upscale pizzeria on Connecticut Avenue. After all, one lie builds on another until someone with an assault rifle turns up to do real damage.
Sex trafficking, by the way, was the rationale used by the California prosecutors who arrested the owners and CEO of Backpage, a website that runs ads for sex work, in October. Prosecutors for the California State Attorney General’s office argued that the operators of Backpage should be held criminally liable for posts on their site advertising underage prostitutes, who by federal law, are considered trafficking victims.
Backpage lawyers argued that their site was merely posting third-party content and therefore protected from criminal liability. They also noted that the site has long worked with law enforcement to target advertisers who post content about underage sex workers.
This week a California judge sided with Backpage. In a nod toward protecting free speech, Sacramento County Superior Court Judge Michael Bowman cleared the owners and CEO of Backpage of pimping and other felony charges.
The ruling, issued Dec. 9, has major ramifications. If Backpage had been found guilty of posting sexually explicit content, then other popular websites such as Facebook, Google and Twitter that post third-party content could also have been held criminally liable.
Bowman based his ruling on Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which protects protected online sites from libelous or controversial content posted by third parties.
California State Attorney General Kamala Harris, whose office issued the warrant for the Backpage arrests, said she was disappointed by the ruling and may appeal it.
But any appeal that undermines Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act could pose a serious threat to many websites that post controversial content, civil rights attorneys say. At a conference last year, Emma Llanso, an attorney with the Center for Democracy and Technology in Washington, D.C., said that Section 230 protected operators of interactive online sites from being sued for third-party content posted on their sites.
“This was crucial protection, allowing free speech on the internet,” Llanso said.
In his ruling, it appears as though Judge Bowman agrees with her.
This blog was cross-posted on The Huffington Post.