Given the amount of time some of us spend online, on social media and on messaging apps, the idea that technology can offer a source of comfort may seem obvious. The reverse might also be a no-brainer — that without technology, some people may feel isolated.

But what happens when you apply these understandings to the various circumstances surrounding human trafficking?

The lack of research on the relationship between technology and labor trafficking in particular pushed researchers at the Center for Communication Leadership & Policy at the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism to examine this issue. The findings, recently released in a new report, have found that migrant workers — anyone who might leave their families and homes for an extended period of time for work — are more vulnerable to human trafficking, forced labor and exploitation when they are isolated from technology and social networks.


An outdoor market beneath a subway station in Manila, the capital of the Philippines. Photo by Sonia Paul.

“There have been some studies on sex trafficking and technology, but almost nothing has been written on these issues as pertained to labor trafficking,” said Mark Latonero, the principal author of the study. And before the study began, much of the understanding on technology and labor trafficking came from different perceptions and narratives the researchers had been familiar with — but nothing with which they had concrete evidence to substantiate these claims.

“I’d heard many stories of cell phones being taken away form migrants, or them being disconnected from the Internet,” he told PBS MediaShift. “But in order to truly understand, we needed to understand what the migration process was like from a certain country’s perspective.”

The decision to focus on the Philippines came from the fact that it’s a huge source country for labor, with tens of millions of Filipinos traveling every year for work. According to the World Bank, the country received $25 billion in remittances in 2013.

The Philippines also had a key quality essential for the study — like other countries in southeast and east Asia, it’s extremely technologically saturated, and many Filipinos love to be on social media.

The report begins with this brief case study that encapsulates many of the concerns:

While interviewing survivors of labor trafficking for this report, researchers heard from a young woman in the Philippines who applied for domestic work in the Middle East. She recounted the way her friend, already working abroad, had called and sent texts of encouragement and eventually put her in touch with a recruiter. She was promised that her documents would be arranged with an employer before her flight to begin work. Upon her departure, the recruiter said that plans had changed. She was told her work papers and airline ticket would be issued in Malaysia. The woman was put on a boat and spent over a week crossing the Sulu Sea from one island to another. She was isolated. Her only means of communication was her mobile phone. Not wanting to worry her family (they had high hopes for her employment), she communicated only with her friend, asking for advice and reassurance. Even if she had been able to access the Internet, it is unclear whether she possessed the skills or knowledge to search for the appropriate online resources. Once in Malaysia, she was put into a van with others. While traveling to an unknown destination they were apprehended by police. Interrogated and imprisoned, the young woman managed to sneak her phone into jail and made one last call. Finally, the friend passed along word of her plight and the Philippine government intervened. After a month in prison she was repatriated and is currently in a rehabilitation shelter in Manila.


Photo by Flickr user and reused here with Creative Commons license.

Because so many of our interactions are shifting online, the space for horizontal networks — communications with different people along the same medium — to organically manifest is much easier now, Latonero said. People are keeping in touch with their friends, families and peers on social platforms like Facebook and Twitter. But these same communications could also take place with illegal recruiters or others with the potential to exploit workers — with the target person not even realizing the vulnerability.

“Technology can play an important role in both perpetuating and addressing labor trafficking,” said Ed Marcum, vice president of investments at Humanity United, a U.S.-based foundation. “Yet, little evidence-based research has been done on the relationship between the two.”

Navigating the full range of human behavior that appears online presents opportunities for both public and private sectors to help in the fight against labor trafficking, the researchers argue. By advocating for and ensuring that workers have free access to various technologies and social networks, researchers can also monitor something that might not ordinarily happen in the public eye.

“When something is online, we can actually see it. It’s visible,” Latonero told PBS MediaShift. “People are commenting on Facebook and message boards, and it’s giving us a sense of how someone is living abroad.”

With the evidence gathered from the report, the hope is to inform policy makers, Facebook, Google and other stakeholders to do something, Latonero said.

An example? “When the Philippines does a memo of understanding with Saudi Arabia [a top destination labor country], they ensure or specify that cell phones must not be taken away,” he said.

For more information on the report, check out the video below.

Sonia Paul is a freelance journalist based in India, and is the editorial assistant at PBS MediaShift. She is on Twitter @sonipaul.

This piece originally published on March 17, 2015, on PBS MediaShift.


A new survey on the relationship between social media and stress from the Pew Research Center has found that social media use alone does not have a direct relationship with a person’s stress levels.

But, the increased awareness of stressful events in other people’s lives — which one might come to know about from the use of these digital technologies — plays a role in increasing stress levels among social media users, especially among women. The survey refers to this as “cost of caring.”


Image by Jeremy Hiebert and used here with Creative Commons license.

Among the survey’s major findings is that women are much more likely than men to feel stressed after becoming aware of stressful events in the lives of others in their networks.

“Stress is kind of contagious in that way,” said Keith Hampton, an associate professor at Rutgers University and the chief author of the report. “There’s a circle of sharing and caring and stress.”

Women in general are already more likely to report higher stress levels than men. This could be attributed to a number of reasons, such as that women have increased demands in their lives or that men don’t care or pay attention to their own stress levels as much, Hampton said.

Overall, however, women who were regular users of social media actually reported lower stress levels than women who did not use these digital technologies, the survey found.

“It could be that there is something valuable about social sharing, and that it actually helps them manage their stress in a low-demand way,” Hampton told PBS MediaShift.

Compared with men, women are also typically more likely to be aware of the happenings of their friends and families. But the survey results show the loop effect of sharing and consuming tense information online also changes according to the familiarity of the person.

The biggest predictor of stress for women was knowing that someone close to them had experienced the death of a loved one. Yet the survey also found that knowing that about someone who was more of a distant acquaintance changed the reaction.

“It gave them less stress,” said Hampton. Instead of the “fear of missing out” that can be common when witnessing events online, it was almost a “joy of missing out” that could be interpreted as an extension of the cost of caring.

“When women see more-distant acquaintances struggling with stressful events, it might have the effect of inducing relief that this particular event has not happened to someone closer to them,” the survey’s report said. “It is a reminder that the lives of close friends/family could, after all, be much worse.”


Technology has changed the scale in which we experience stress in part because it has changed the way we communicate and keep up with others. Figure courtesy of the Pew Research Center.

The Pew survey evaluated answers from 1,801 adults using an established measurement of scaling stress called the Perceived Stress Scale. The influence of digital technologies was then applied to this traditional stress scale.

While it’s expected that finding out about upsetting circumstances in the lives of others might cause someone distress, digital technology has changed the scale in which we find and experience this information — because this technology has changed the way we communicate. This has changed the magnitude of the different emotions resulting from this connection.

“For many, the new social reality is that people are pervasively and persistently connected through social media,” said Lee Rainie, the director of internet, science and technology research at the Pew Research Center. People are now connected with acquaintances who might have been long forgotten and have a steady stream of information on the lives of others at the tip of their fingers. People might only be “sipping” the bits of information people are sharing, but the cumulative effect of that has its own toll.

“In fact, all these little sips add to a big gulp,” Hampton told PBS MediaShift.

More detailed information on the survey’s findings are available at the Pew Research Center’s website.

Sonia Paul is a freelance journalist based in India, and is the editorial assistant at PBS MediaShift. She is on Twitter @sonipaul.

This piece published originally on January 16, 2015, on PBS MediaShift.


Social media platforms and cell phones are playing increasingly important roles in how people are accessing information about politics and election news, according to a new Pew survey. Photo by Esther Vargas on Flickr and used here with Creative Commons license.
Social media platforms and cell phones are playing increasingly important roles in how people are accessing information about politics and election news, according to a new Pew survey. Photo by Esther Vargas on Flickr and used here with Creative Commons license.

A new national survey by the Pew Research Center released this week found that social media platforms and mobile phones are playing increasingly important roles in how people are accessing information about politics and election news.

Compared to the 2010 midterm elections, the percentage of people who are using their phones this year to track the campaigns has doubled, from 13 to 28 percent. The proportion of Americans who are following candidates and other political figures on social media has also increased substantially, from 6 percent in 2010 to 16 percent this year. Continue reading

With the 2014 U.S. midterm elections just days away, attention is on voter habits and concerns, as well as how political campaigners are leveraging different methods to target their voter base. The Pew Research Center’s recent report on how liberals and conservatives inhabit different media worlds underscores the influence media has on voter awareness. Reports have also shown howsavvy campaigners have become — employing smartphone apps and data-driven research alongside old-school canvassing to appeal to a voter’s sensibilities — and how online video has become a force for marketing and name-shaming.

But, voters now also have more tools than ever to help them sort through all the information, spin or otherwise. This election cycle has grown a slew of online tools to track different issues, compare candidates and experiment with data to gain perspective against the onslaught of information. They follow in the footsteps of apps like PolitiFact’s “Settle It!” and Talking Points Memo’s “PollTracker,” both of which came out during the 2012 elections and have been updated with information for this year’s midterm elections. PBS MediaShift assembled a few of these online initiatives that level the playing field for voter awareness.


Ahead of voting day, journalists at the social media news agency have been publishing aninteractive video map twice a week showing where news has been trending. The point, according to Storyful’s blog, is “to help newsrooms find the signal amid the noise.” Users can zoom in to the different videos on the map to view them, or navigate through the campaign trail from the beginning on the video embed below the map.

Users can zoom in on the different YouTube videos populating Storyful's interactive map to watch the news from that area, and the video and context for it will appear below. Screenshot courtesy of Storyful's website.


The New York Times’ policy and politics venture Upshot, launched this past spring, has an election forecasting model called Leo that relies on data from different polls, fundraisers and other variables to predict outcomes. Now the Upshot has adjusted Leo’s settings so that users can see the effects of the different variables themselves and create their own election forecasts. It’s an interactive game of sorts, and the person who submits the best election forecast has a chance at winning what the Times calls “the coveted Upshot Cup for Excellence in Election Forecasting.”

All the original polling data used in the Upshot's election forecaster Leo have been removed so the user can manipulate the data herself and see the influence of different variable. Screenshot courtesy of the New York Times' website.


National Journal has brought its “Hotline Race Tracker” — previously available only to members — in front of the pay wall these past couple of weeks before the elections. Audiences can look at different aspects of campaigns state-by-state and race-to-race, and the Race Tracker will show everything from campaign finance and issue rankings to candidates’ election histories and social media presence. According to the Journal, the Race Tracker uses “more data points than any other similar tool” to give the most comprehensive look at the elections for anyone who wishes to follow it closely.

The National Journal's Race Tracker shows side-by-side comparisons of different states and candidates. The following two images show the social media follows and presence of California's gubernatorial candidates. Screenshots courtesy of the National Journal's website.

With the side-by-side comparisons, it's easy to tel that although California's incumbent governor Jerry Brown has more social media followers, his competitor Neel Kashkari is far more active on social media.


Similar to the National Journal’s Race Tracker, Bing has also released a comprehensive guide to the elections at, where users can search through different maps, up-to-date predictions and personalized “Voter Guides.” “Politics aside, our goal with Bing Elections and the personalized Voter Guide is to arm voters so they can make decisions based on the most comprehensive and best information available,” Bing wrote on its blog.


This free browser plug-in developed by 16-year-old Nick Rubin follows the premise, “Some are red. Some are blue. All are green,” to draw attention to the role of money in the elections. The plug-in highlights the names of different Congress members on any webpage, and when one hovers the mouse over the name, a box pops up showing the amount of funding the candidate has, and from which sources. The data is taken from Although Rubin is too young to vote, hetold the Washington Post that the scale of the problem made it necessary to have this information more publicly available and accessible. “Even kids my age are able to see this data and recognize it’s a problem; we’ll be growing up in this political system,” he told the Post.

With Greenhouse's browser plug-in, the names of different Congress members' are highlighted on any webpage, and information on their funding sources are readily available. Screenshot courtesy of the Washington Post.

Sonia Paul is a freelance journalist based in India, and is interim editorial assistant at PBS MediaShift. She is on Twitter @sonipaul.

This piece was originally published on October 30, 2014, on PBS MediaShift.

Twitter and Facebook have become default resources for journalists, newsrooms and ordinary citizens during news events, but where does Instagram fit into that picture? That was the question a team of researchers at CUNY’s Graduate Center asked while watching the protests in Ukraine unfold this past February. After months of analyzing more than 13,000 Instagram photos shared by around 6,000 people in the central square of Ukraine — known as the Maidan — the team has recently released the study “The Exceptional & the Everyday: 144 Hours in Ukraine.” It’s the first project to analyze the use of Instagram during a social upheaval.

Instagram is known as the visual social network, but according to Lev Manovich, a computer scientist and the lead researcher for the project, it’s much more of a “communication medium.” Whereas newsrooms might scour Instagram for photos to showcase breaking news, the study found that ordinary Instagram users detail how they’re relating to news as well — which may be just as important.

Continue reading

Harassment has become intrinsic to life online for the 89 percent of American adults who are Internet users. Nearly three-quarters of adult Internet users have witnessed some form of online harassment and 40 percent have personally experienced it, according to a new Pew Research survey on the topic that’s the first of its kind.

Young women in particular reported hostile experiences online, according to Maeve Duggan, a research analyst at Pew and the main author of the report. Continue reading

Voting during the Indian elections lasts an exhaustive six weeks, but election fever was already in the air — and online — long before polls opened on April 7. In what’s widely being hailed as India’s first social media election, regular news reports and commentaries were joined by a number of websites and online parodies that popped up to poke fun at the elections.

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Narendra Modi (@narendramodi)
Narendra Modi, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)’s candidate for prime minister, caused a stir on Wednesday when he delivered a political speech and snapped a selfie of himself holding up a cutout of a lotus flower with his ink-stained finger after voting in his home state of Gujarat. The lotus flower is the party symbol of the BJP.

The problem is that what he did is against the rules of India’s Election Commission, the federal authority that monitors electoral processes in the country. Continue reading

The new Indian news website has started an Instagram feed documenting the Indian elections. The project aims to give a more intimate look at the elections by capturing the photos and stories not necessarily picked up by mainstream media.

“It is pointless to take photographs of Sonia Gandhi’s face, because everyone gets those,” said Ritesh Uttamchandani, a photographer with Open magazine and one of the project’s two curators, in an interview with Livemint: “It’s about the little dots you connect to each other to get a larger idea of how the elections really work.”

The project is funded partly by Instagram and is a collaborative effort of photographers spread out across the country [full disclosure: I am one of those participating]. The “virtual newsroom” for the team is a WhatsApp group where everyone can discuss ideas and critique photos that may or may not make the Instagram feed. Since the photographers are taking nearly all the photos on a phone, the WhatsApp platform is a convenient way to upload the photos and receive feedback.

Check out some more of the photos and stories below:


This piece was originally published on April 29, 2014, on Link TV’s World News website.

The surging Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has had a lively social media presence during this year’s elections in India. Anyone who has ever combined a hashtag with “Modi,” “BJP,” “NaMo,” (a nickname of Narendra Modi here in India) or anything else related to Modi or the BJP has surely encountered Modi supporters either praising or defending their views. These “Moditards,” as some journalists have dubbed them, are generally passionate professionals who want nothing more than for Modi to lead the country, though some accounts are also suspected of being social media robots.

But an enterprising Indian who obviously has some programming skills did some investigating and found that most of these accounts are, in fact, fake Modi supporters.

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