According to the 2,800-word article published in Wall Street Journal, the Meta-owned company and one of the most popular social networks enabled hashtags related to child abuse. Those included graphic terms like #pedowhore, #preteensex, #pedobait, and #mnsfw.
The researchers claim that the hashtags linked visitors to accounts that allegedly offered to sell pedophilic material through “menus” of content. Those involved videos of youngsters injuring themselves or engaging in bestiality. Some of the accounts even enabled customers to “commission specific acts” or arrange “meet ups.”
Algorithms connecting people
As researchers explained, it’s not Instagram that hosts these horrific activities, it’s the algorithms that boost them.
“Pedophiles have long used the internet, but unlike the forums and file-transfer services that cater to people who have interest in illicit content, Instagram doesn’t merely host these activities. Its algorithms promote them. Instagram connects pedophiles and guides them to content sellers via recommendation systems that excel at linking those who share niche interests,” the Wall Street Journal reports.
The reaction of the company
The spokesperson of Meta stated, the company is constantly seeking ways to defend against such illicit behavior. Furthermore, the company has established an internal task force to examine the claims and deal with them promptly.
Meta admitted that instances of child abuse had been occasionally reported, but did nothing to address them. The company alleged that a software error hindered them from being processed. According to Meta, the issue has since been resolved. Furthermore, it revised guidance for the content reviewers to facilitate identification and removal of predatory accounts.
According to the company, Meta’s policy enforcement teams “dismantled 27 abusive networks” between 2020 and 2022. In January this year, over 490,000 accounts were removed for breaking child-safety rules. In 2022 Q4, Meta’s technology had taken down over 34 million pieces of content containing child sexual exploitation from Facebook and Instagram. Over 98% of this content was discovered before it was reported by users.
Technical and legal hurdles
Wall Street Journal alleges technical and regulatory challenges that make it difficult for anybody outside of Meta to exactly pinpoint the actual number of pedophiles on Instagram. The article reports that the Stanford Internet Observatory research team detected 405 sellers of what the team termed “self-generated” child-sex material. This refers to accounts that were allegedly managed by minors themselves.
The sellers were discovered by employing hashtags connected to underage sex. The WSJ article also included data from Maltego, a network mapping program, which revealed that 112 of those profiles had a total of 22,000 unique followers.
As per the Journal, Instagram accounts that advertise the sale of illegal pornographic material “generally don’t publish it openly” and frequently link to “off-platform content trading sites.” Researchers discovered that Instagram allowed users to search “explicit hashtags such as #pedowhore and #preteensex” which connected them to accounts employing the phrases to advertise the sale of child sex material.
When researchers used test accounts to browse one of these accounts, they “were appalled by ‘suggested for you’ recommendations of alleged child-sex-material dealers and purchasers, along with accounts leading to off-platform content trade sites. It just took a few of these suggestions to completely fill a test account with child-sexualizing content.
Other social networks
In terms of other social media platforms, Snapchat and TikTok do not seem to support networks of pedophiles looking for child abuse content the way Instagram does. On the other hand, The Stanford Internet Observatory team found 128 accounts on Twitter advertising child sex abuse content.
According to the researchers, Twitter didn’t promote these accounts as much as Instagram, plus, it did remove them much faster.
How these findings will affect Instagram and its parent company Meta, time will show. What is certain is that this report was published at the worst possible time for Meta. Namely, the company, along with other social media platforms, faces investigation over their efforts to censor and stop the spread of offensive content on their platforms.
In April, the FBI and Interpol were among a group of law enforcement organizations that expressed concern over Meta’s plans to increase end-to-end encryption on its platforms. As a result, this may effectively “blindfold” the company from identifying hazardous content pertaining to child sex abuse.