Nicholas D. Kristof was wrong about the most devastating ‘fact’ in his Sunday, March 18th, column in The New York Times regarding Backpage.com.
He wrote about an underage victim of human trafficking: “Alissa says pimps routinely peddled her on Backpage.”
A video that accompanied his online op-ed was headlined: “Age 16, She Was Sold on Backpage.com”
That is not true.
According to Alissa’s court testimony, she was 16 in 2003. Backpage.com did not exist anywhere in America in 2003.
According to Alissa’s court testimony, she left the streets, where she’d been viciously savaged, and came to the FBI’s attention in August, 2005. She was quickly relocated away from the corners and hotels she worked in Boston, New York, Philadelphia, and Atlantic City, streets where thugs had pimped out the underage victim.
In the summer of 2005 Backpage.com did not exist in Boston, New York, Philadelphia or Atlantic City.
Had Kristof followed any of The New York Times’ standards of journalism, he would have known this. He could have read the court transcripts. He could have read the testimony of A.G. (the victim). He could have read the testimony of FBI agent Tamara Harty. He could have Googled the case and read the coverage in The Boston Globe which reported: “Soon after meeting (agent) Harty in 2005, (she) was moved out of state to a home for troubled youth.”
Neglecting to do any of the above, Kristof could still have asked us.
Despite extensive correspondence with our attorney, he never mentioned Alissa or sought confirmation about her purported link to Backpage.com at the age of 16.
Instead, he concocted a story to suit his agenda and then asked his readers to boycott Village Voice Media.
When Village Voice Media contacted Kristof last night, he initially speculated that Alissa, subsequent to the events described in his column, returned to prostitution. In her court account, she testified that as an adult, she briefly returned to sex work in Philadelphia in 2006, thought it unsafe and, after a couple of days moved to New Jersey.
Backpage.com did not operate in New Jersey in 2006.
Kristof followed up telling us: “She was sold in many cities besides Boston, all around the country. As I said, I did check and confirm that Backpage operated in at least 11 cities in 2004, and in at least 30 cities by 2005.”
Yes, Mr. Kristof, but not in the cities she testified she worked in.
And, more to the point, Backpage.com did not exist in any city when you claimed she was trafficked at the age of 16 on our site.
The brutalization the underage victim suffered on the street was horrific. But that’s precisely the point. Alissa escaped the notice of law enforcement as long as she remained on the street. It wasn’t until she was stomped by a pack of predators and wound up in the hospital, where she lost the child she was carrying, that she came to the attention of the FBI.
For the first time in the history of sex work, law enforcement has, because of the Internet, the ability to shine a light upon those who would abuse children. With internet records the police can trace runaways and those who would take advantage of them.
Backpage dedicates hundreds of staff to screen adult classifieds in order to keep juveniles off the site and to work proactively with law enforcement in their efforts to locate victims. When the authorities have concerns, we share paperwork and records and help them make cases.
In an evolving discussion, serious researchers argue that the data on the internet is the very best tool to combat trafficking. This emerging work includes the University of Southern California’s Annenberg Center on Communication Leadership and Policy study entitled “Human Trafficking Online: The Role of Social Networking Sites and Online Classifieds” as well as analysis at Harvard University’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society.
As safety standards spread among Internet sites, society needs to address the very real needs of shelter and counseling for children, like Alissa, caught up in human trafficking.
Kristof’s uninformed crusade would drive victims back to the shadows, back to the streets that Alissa fled.