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Damning probes find Instagram is key link connecting pedophile rings – Ars Technica | #childsafety | #kids | #chldern | #parents | #schoolsafey

Instagram has emerged as the most important platform for buyers and sellers of underage sex content, according to investigations from the Wall Street Journal, Stanford Internet Observatory, and the University of Massachusetts Amherst (UMass) Rescue Lab.

While other platforms play a role in processing payments and delivering content, Instagram is where hundreds of thousands—and perhaps millions—of users search explicit hashtags to uncover illegal “menus” of content that can then be commissioned. Content on offer includes disturbing imagery of children self-harming, “incest toddlers,” and minors performing sex acts with animals, as well as opportunities for buyers to arrange illicit meetups with children, the Journal reported.

Because the child sexual abuse material (CSAM) itself is not hosted on Instagram, platform owner Meta has a harder time detecting and removing these users. Researchers found that even when Meta’s trust and safety team does ban users, their efforts are “directly undercut” by Instagram’s recommendation system—which allows the networks to quickly reassemble under “backup” accounts that are usually listed in the bios of original accounts for just that purpose of surviving bans.

A Meta spokesperson told Ars that the company works “aggressively to fight” child exploitation on all its platforms “and to support law enforcement in its efforts to arrest and prosecute the criminals behind it.” Because criminals’ tactics “constantly change,” Meta said it has enacted “strict policies and technology to prevent them from finding or interacting with teens on our apps” and hired “specialist teams who focus on understanding their evolving behaviors so we can eliminate abusive networks.” These efforts led Meta to dismantle 27 abusive networks between 2020 and 2022 and ban 490,000 accounts violating child safety policies in January 2023, the spokesperson reported.

But these tactics do not appear to be doing enough to combat the problem, researchers said. UMass Rescue Lab director Brian Levine told Ars that it took his team minutes to uncover pedophile rings operating on Instagram after identifying “simple tags” used to help connect buyers and sellers. The Wall Street Journal reported that the hashtags researchers identified could be obvious, like “pedowhore,” or rely on code words, like “cheese pizza,” which shares initials to allude to child pornography.

Levine said that since Instagram’s trust and safety team has broader access to search the platform, it should be able to monitor for hashtags more effectively than outside researchers. However, the team does not seem to be effectively monitoring the situation, as it’s missing easily discoverable hashtags.

This was the first time Levine’s lab looked into Instagram, Levine told Ars, as part of the team’s work to research online child victimization and build tools to prevent it.

“I think their trust and safety team needs a lot of help,” Levine told Ars.

In research published yesterday investigating self-generated CSAM (SG-CSAM) allegedly posted by minors advertising their own content, Alex Stamos, Stanford Internet Observatory (SIO) director, told Ars that his team didn’t specifically target Instagram. But the team found that the platform’s recommendation system “plays a particularly important role as the discovery mechanism that introduces buyers to sellers.” Levine told Ars that Instagram has an obligation to ensure its recommendation system does not promote abusive content.

The Journal revealed that Instagram repeatedly failed to ban hashtags, take down content, and prevent promotion once content was detected. After the Journal sent inquiries, for example, Meta confirmed that it was “in the process of removing” hashtags promoting illegal materials like “pedobait” or “mnsfw” (minor not safe for work) and admitted that it “permitted users to search for terms that its own algorithms know may be associated with illegal material.” A Meta spokesperson told Ars that it has already “restricted thousands of additional search terms and hashtags on Instagram.”

The WSJ reported that Instagram was so ineffective at stopping pedophile rings from forming that it would sometimes display a pop-up screen when users searched for known abusive content, warning users that “these results may contain images of child sexual abuse.” Users could then choose to “see results anyway” or “get resources” regarding the harms of consumption of abusive content. Meta told the Journal that it was removing this option but failed to explain why the option was ever given in the first place.

Meta also admitted that it has repeatedly failed to act on reports of child abuse on Instagram because of “a software glitch” preventing reports from ever being processed. This bug has reportedly since been fixed. Now Meta said it will provide additional training for content reviewers and assemble an internal task force “to investigate these claims and immediately address them.”

Demanding Meta do more to protect kids

Not everyone trusts that Meta’s response has been enough to protect kids on Instagram, though. Today, European Union industry chief Thierry Breton announced that he will meet with Meta on June 23 to demand the company do more to remove harmful content targeting children and protect kids on its platforms, Reuters reported.

“#Meta’s voluntary code on child protection seems not to work,” Breton tweeted. “Mark Zuckerberg must now explain.”

Levine told Ars that if Meta continues to let pedophile networks proliferate and expand on Instagram, Google’s and Apple’s app stores should update Instagram’s rating as unsafe for teens and possibly consider removing the app entirely until the problem is addressed. He also said that Meta should be transparent and publish a report following its internal task force’s investigation.

Stamos told the Journal that Meta needs to stop relying on automated content reviews and reinvest “in human investigators.” He told Ars that stopping buyers and sellers from connecting on Instagram could meaningfully help disrupt vast pedophile networks that currently depend on Instagram to discover abusive content that is then sold elsewhere online.

“Instagram is the most important because it is the start of the process and accelerates the problem with recommendation algorithms that introduce buyers to new sellers and allow sellers to survive their accounts being suspended,” Stamos told Ars.

The problem is bigger than Instagram

While Stamos’ team found that “Instagram is currently the most important platform for these networks, with features that help connect buyers and sellers,” Twitter also emerged as a key platform. Unlike Instagram, which doesn’t appear to be hosting CSAM being promoted on these networks, Twitter under Elon Musk “had an apparent regression allowing CSAM to be posted to public profiles, despite hashes of these images being available to platforms and researchers.”

Twitter does not respond to requests for comment and recently lost its trust and safety chief.

The SIO found that Instagram and Twitter helped serve as the glue connecting wide pedophile networks. After connecting on those platforms, buyers were able to purchase SG-CSAM that was then delivered on private channels, including on apps like Telegram, Discord, and Snapchat. Content is also shared on file-sharing services like Dropbox, Stamos told Ars. Payments were processed using apps like CashApp and PayPal, or by the use of gift card markets on G2G, Amazon, PlayStation Network, or DoorDash.

“The self-generated CSAM networks are a multi-platform phenomenon; the sellers have effectively re-created their own OnlyFans equivalent by using four to five different platforms with different purposes,” Stamos told Ars.

Because the problem goes way beyond Instagram, the SIO recommends a broader effort to dismantle entire pedophile rings, encouraging platforms to cooperate to quash the problem. Such an effort would require more proactive efforts by Instagram and Twitter to block keywords and hashtags, and the platforms would need to share information from internal investigations with other platforms and create models to detect buyers, sellers, and gift-card-related transactions on all platforms. Perhaps most significantly, the SIO wants to see a total reevaluation of recommendation systems allowing these networks to proliferate. The group also suggested offering education and resources to help prevent recidivism whenever accounts are banned for child safety violations.

While the EU demands answers from Meta, researchers recommend stronger enforcement from the platforms, which are in many ways more equipped to police the problem than actual law enforcement.

Meta has vowed to continue tightening up enforcement.

“We’re committed to continuing our work to protect teens, obstruct criminals, and support law enforcement in bringing them to justice,” Meta’s spokesperson told Ars.

Levine told the Journal that more urgency is needed, though, because Meta’s efforts so far have been “unacceptable.”

“Pull the emergency brake,” Levine told the WSJ. “Are the economic benefits worth the harms to these children?”


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