02 September 2011

The Bill Hillar Debacle: Who's to Blame?

If you don't know who Bill Hillar is, or you haven't heard the latest news on how he frauded law enforcement, military personnel and the anti-trafficking movement into thinking he had significant special-ops military experience "rescuing" victims of sex trafficking around the world, read here.

Hillar not only lied about his military past, but plagiarized news coverage and stories from the media, even claiming that the film Taken was based on his own life. He provided training for law enforcement, military personnel, and even counseled trafficking survivors. All based on a lie.

How could he do this? How did he do this? While there is no doubt that Hillar himself is the first person to blame, we should also consider some other factors.

There's no doubt - the international anti-trafficking movement is growing very quickly. While it is a positive thing that international media have picked up on spreading the news that "slavery still exists" in our own backyards, this type of mass media explosion also comes with negative consequences. Mass media avenues sensationalize their stories. Journalists want to lure people in, capture their audience's attention, excite the masses, appeal to the emotions, etc - even to the extent that the facts are compromised.

So yes, people are learning that human trafficking is out there, but they are also picking up on information that omits the facts, distorts the truth, and focuses on a purely emotional response.

Yes, human trafficking is a terrible tragedy, and we should be upset about it. But human trafficking is also incredibly complex, with numerous push/pull factors, and evidence-based research tell us there are appropriate (and inappropriate) responses. Human trafficking is not just about sex, it is not just about children, and it is not about vigilante rescue. Unfortunately, many people are unknowingly drawn into the spectacle of mass media, and unfortunately many of these people then turn around and spread information the same way.

So what does this have to do with Bill Hillar? We need to ask ourselves why Hillar did this in the first place. Hillar says people "assumed" he was in the military due to his passionate teaching. He never denied people's assumptions, and then he eventually "adopted" them. While this kind of behavior is certainly unacceptable, we have to honestly consider whether what Hillar was telling people was what they wanted to hear. Hillar was able to manipulate people because he had the kind of information everyone was looking for - heart-wrenching, dramatic, emotional stories of rescue. His sensationalized stories were what was compelling about him; it's why people wanted to hear him speak, and it's why he was so successful at manipulation.

Unfortunately, people aren't always interested in hearing the facts. Facts do not make human trafficking less true or less horrifying (human trafficking is terrifying), but facts are also not as racy, not as emotional; and let's face it - Hollywood movies, TV thrillers and undercover cop shows, etc. have made us all a bit obsessed with sensationalized reality. The issues and organizations that often get the most attention are those that choose to go this route - unfortunately, "racy" doesn't always mean quality work, nor does it mean quality information.

Hillar's story only started to unravel when a former Green Beret began to question the sensationalism and facts of Hillar's stories.

We must learn a valuable lesson here. We must think about the information we receive and evaluate whether it lines up with the facts. We must move away from the sensationalized, purely emotional response to human trafficking, and move into a strategic plan. True abolitionists are knowledgeable about the facts, not only the stories. Frankly, it took far too long for Hillar's lies to be recognized and dragged into the limelight.

Add'l news coverage:
Los Angeles Times
Washington Post
Associated Press