Thursday, May 27, 2010

To anyone who thinks the Internet is a waste of time...

AskMetaFilter is a site that allows users to ask questions of the Great Internet Abyss, and hopefully get something approaching a useful response. Usually the questions range from Why is my lawnmower suddenly racing? to Liberal hipster dude thinking about attending BSU, will I hate it?

A week ago, though, the user 'fake' showed up with a different kind of problem.
Help me help my friend in DC.

My friend and former student K arrived in DC yesterday, along with a friend. She came over on some kind of travel exchange program put together by a Russian travel agency called 'XXXXX'. They paid about 3K for this program.

The program promised a job offer in advance, but didn't deliver. They said they would send one via email, but failed there, too.

Her contact in the USA barely speaks English, doesn't answer her calls but does answer mine. He has asked her and her friend to meet in NYC tonight around midnight, with promises of hostess work in a lounge. Yes, I know how horrific that sounds- that's why I am working all possible angles here.

She is not going to NYC but I need some help handling and understanding how to handle this- I have a friend helping them with a cheap hotel for the night, but that's all at the moment. I am presently driving to LA and could fly her and her friend to meet me there on Saturday, but couldn't house them indefinitely. I will be monitoring this thread over the next hour.
Other users immediately recognized the signs of a human trafficking case, and the thread became a real-time desperate race to convince the two young women not to meet with their sketchy contact in New York. Consulate, State Department, and local PD phone numbers were bandied about, investigations were made into the legitimacy of the supposed 'lounge' (HIGHLY sketchy strip club), and when the girls got on an NYC-bound bus despite their friend's pleas not to go, local MetaFilter users descended on the station in a last-ditch effort to intercept them and save them from a life of forced prostitution.

And, incredibly, it worked.

There have been studies recently about how the semi-anonymous nature of the Internet often leads to a dehumanized view of other users. (A conclusion that most Internet users would greet with a resounding, "DUH.") But in this instance, MetaFilter users went to great lengths and were willing to risk their own welfare in an effort to save complete strangers.

Me, I don't believe that the Internet is a great devil, or a great savior. There is no nebulous mass consciousness that has any particular personality or inclination towards this or that behavior, no idle whim that demands we troll the IMDB message boards or vandalise Wikipedia articles or bend our bytes only for the powers of good. It is whatever it's used to be. We're all still people in here: meaningless, often; occasionally magnificent.

ETA: Mother Jones has picked up the story and has a more detailed account, including interviews with the MetaFilter user who intercepted the girls.

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