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Human exploitation in sport

Global Sporting Events: A Hotbed for Human Exploitation

November 17, 2022

In order for Trust & Safety teams to safeguard their platforms against human exploitation in the lead-up to global sporting events, they must recognize the risk and understand the intent and context that accompany their on-platform content.

This article is based on the research of Rhea Singh, ActiveFence Human Exploitation Researcher.

As the global economy experiences an extended slowdown with inflation and increased instability, human exploitation is rising. Estimates on the scale of modern slavery worldwide, (forced labor and forced marriage), grew by 10 million people between 2016 and 2021. In 2021 alone, 6.44 million people were subjected to forced commercial sexual exploitation, four fifths of these people were women or girls.

Commercial sexual exploitation is also increasingly using online platforms to power their business. Traffickers leverage a range of entities across multiple platforms to lure their targets into illegal services with the promise of economic opportunity. This is an especially worrying phenomenon during major cultural and sporting events, such as the 2022 FIFA World Cup, which took place from November 20 through December 18 in Qatar.

Online Human Exploitation Tactics, Techniques & Procedures (TTPs)

The rapid growth of online human exploitation requires Trust & Safety professionals to be aware of the diverse and evolving array of TTPs that perpetrators use as part of their online recruitment. Exploitative, often misleading content can be detected on websites, messaging platforms, social media networks, and job boards, the activity can even be detected on mainstream e-commerce platforms, audio, and video streaming services.

Two common online recruitment tactics include ‘hunting’ and ‘fishing.’

Hunting is a proactive technique. Here, traffickers directly pursue victims in open social media spaces and messaging applications. They approach their targets initially through a friendly introduction with the dynamic becoming more aggressive in nature as the relationship evolves.

On the other hand, fishing involves solicitation through the placement of ads that promote high-paying positions. Traffickers post ads of this nature and then wait for potential victims to respond. This type of activity is not limited to direct messaging activities and may occur on video sharing platforms, messaging boards and forums, classifieds websites, dating sites and even more traditional job boards.

As expected, each type of tactic involves unique TTPs and processes, which evolve rapidly, as expansive commercial sexual exploitation operations utilize various platform types to achieve their objectives. In our network analysis, we have seen illegal sex trade services advertised on mainstream social media, interaction between traffickers and their potential victims on messaging platforms, and surprisingly sexual exploitation activity on e-commerce, city guides, and audio-streaming platforms.

Social media ads, Message boards, forum posts and websites, which were all found to be associated with an apparent sex trafficking operation identified by ActiveFence

A Breeding Ground for Sex Trafficking

As online networks command new techniques to elicit commercial sexual exploitation, high-profile global events present an attractive opportunity. This is seen in the data, with a strong correlation between major sporting events (MSEs) and the prevalence of human trafficking and exploitative behavior that often targets women for commercial sex trade. Some examples of this activity include:

  • In the 2014 Brazil World Cup, sex traffickers exploited the economic distress of the country to prey on members of marginalized local populations, who were particularly susceptible to trafficking.
  • The 2016 Rio Olympic Games produced an increased risk of sex trafficking in connection to the event. Girls as young as eight served as child prostitutes in what experts characterized as an epidemic.
  • During the 2018 Russia World Cup, many reports of child trafficking surfaced. Traffickers exploited the abatement of Russian visa controls to prey on visitors with a FIFA fan pass and a one-way ticket into the country.

2022 FIFA World Cup Case Study

Mirroring trends associated with previous global sporting events, the 2022 FIFA World Cup in Qatar is a prime example of the convergence of global sports and the potential for human exploitation. Trust & safety teams should be aware of this increased risk of human exploitation, and ready to stop any platform misuse for this criminal activity.

One of these risk factors is the legacy of Qatar’s now-outlawed Kafala system (as of 2021), a sponsorship system that bound workers to their employers for the duration of their contract. This involved the relinquishment of their passports to their employers and the loss of their freedom to withdraw labor, resulting in harsh and exploitative working practices in construction and domestic servitude, as well as sexual exploitation.

Moreover, the U.S. Department of State’s 2015 Trafficking in Persons Report, marks Qatar as a destination country for forced prostitution. While prostitution is illegal under United Arab Emirates’ and Islamic law, officials often disregard such activity so long as it is kept covert. However, it is alleged by credible sources that sex work is covertly sanctioned by some government officials, who engage in the trading and selling of residential visas to expats from Southeast Asian or former Soviety Republics who arrive in the UAE and work in the sex industry.

In the lead up to the World Cup, we uncovered a diverse set of related commercial sex exploitation activity particularly utilizing social media posts and advertisements on a range of networks, instant messaging platforms, and websites.

In one example, entities that pose as travel agencies that promote visa services for the FIFA World Cup actually benefit from the legacy of the Kafala system. These alleged agencies work to recruit people into their organizations for sex work and various forms of labor. Meanwhile, related entities that operate as “local Qatari businesses,” work to promote the services of exploited women. Their sexual services are promoted under the guise of “certified massage therapists,” escort services, and Qatar and Doha tourism. Other entities are more explicit, promoting “body to body massages,” “happy endings,” and “female to male body services.”

Exposing Sex Exploitation Amid a Complex Landscape

Detecting and proving the existence of human exploitation is complicated due to challenges inherent in the ability to distinguish between those who are coerced into engaging in involuntary sexual acts, and those who participate in voluntary sexual activities and may attend such events to capitalize on increased monetary opportunities.

This difficulty is compounded by the fact that threat actors are increasingly adept at hiding their activities and evading detection. Traffickers will not use explicit language to describe their activities, opting for practices that allow them to reach the right audience while avoiding getting caught. As such, a cross-platform detection methodology is key. By validating information across various external sources, and analyzing network activity, Trust & Safety teams can identify intent behind this criminal activity. To illustrate, being able to identify that the same individual posing ads for “high paying employment opportunities” on job boards, is also posting prostitution ads on the dark web, allows Trust & Safety teams to be more certain in the intent behind what may appear to be innocuous activity.

To get ahead of this activity, Trust & Safety teams should start by looking out for unusual activity, which has signs of inauthenticity. For example, new or repurposed accounts promoting high volumes of coordinated generic content with high-traction hashtags. Meanwhile, monitoring for recurrent metadata on multiple platforms can lead to the detection of threat networks made up of a range of online entities.

Next Steps

While Trust & Safety teams often tackle a confluence of emerging online threats related to terror and hate speech in the lead-up to MSEs, the prevalence of human trafficking and exploitative behavior, propelled by a surge in related harmful content must not be overlooked.

A significant problem pertaining to global sporting events and the tourists that accompany them is sex trafficking, an issue that has gained traction in the media. This matter is particularly controversial, given the difficulty presented in distinguishing between those who are coerced into engaging in involuntary sexual acts, and those who participate in voluntary sexual activities and may seek to attend such events in an effort to capitalize on the money-making opportunity.

Such online threats have significant implications. They jeopardize the safety of platform users, as well as promote and facilitate the sexual exploitation of marginalized women by positioning them as publicly traded commodities. Platforms themselves are at risk of being implicated in illegal activity. Understanding what is commercial sex exploitation and what activity falls outside of these perimeters is unquestionably complex. In the lead-up to global sporting events, recognizing risk, defining intent, and proactively detecting exploitative content through intelligence and context will be critical to preventing and mitigating ongoing human exploitation abuses before, during and well beyond their conclusion.

To gain more insight into our network analysis on human exploitation, read ActiveFence’s full intelligence report.