The Village Voice posts a devastating debunking of a widely-cited report claiming that sites like Backpage.com are facilitating a spike in the sex trafficking of underage girls.
“An independent tracking study released today by the Women’s Funding Network shows that over the past six months, the number of underage girls trafficked online has risen exponentially in three diverse states,” Richardson claimed. “Michigan: a 39.2 percent increase; New York: a 20.7 percent increase; and Minnesota: a staggering 64.7 percent increase.”
In the wake of this bombshell revelation, Richardson’s disturbing figures found their way into some of the biggest newspapers in the country. USA Today, the Houston Chronicle, the Miami Herald, the Minneapolis Star Tribune, and the Detroit Free Press all repeated the dire statistics as gospel.
The successful assault on Craigslist was followed by a cross-country tour by Richardson and the Women’s Funding Network.
None of the media that published Richardson’s astonishing numbers bothered to examine the study at the heart of her claim. If they had, they would have found what we did after asking independent experts to examine the research: It’s junk science.
After all, the numbers are all guesses.
The data are based merely on looking at photos on the Internet. There is no science.
The group based its estimates on guesses of the ages of women depicted in escort service ads on sites like Craigslist and Backpage.com. (Backpage is owned by Village Voice media, which has resisted pressure to shut down its adult services section). And that’s just how they got the raw numbers. They then magnified the error by applying those numbers in all sorts of misleading and statistically dubious ways. There wasn’t an academic or statistician among the group that authored the study. This was PR.
Nevertheless, the “study” spawned hysterical media reports, outrage from indignant attorneys general, and sweet government grants for groups like the Women’s Funding Network. Most astonishing is this admission from one peddler of sex panic:
“We pitch it the way we think you’re going to read it and pick up on it,” says Kaffie McCullough, the director of Atlanta-based anti-prostitution group A Future Not a Past. “If we give it to you with all the words and the stuff that is actually accurate—I mean, I’ve tried to do that with our PR firm, and they say, ‘They won’t read that much.’”
That about says it all.