Did you know that “From January to September 2022, Facebook reported more than 73.3m pieces of content under “child nudity and physical abuse” and “child sexual exploitation” and Instagram reported 6.1m.” As you would expect, tech companies extol the virtues of the tech that they propagate. Most technologies however have a dark side which is revealed only once the use of that tech has seeped deep into the pores of our society. The Guardian’s “two-year investigation suggests that the tech giant Meta is struggling to prevent criminals from using its platforms to buy and sell children for sex”.’

The long read (which contains descriptions of child sex abuse and should not be read by the faint hearted) begins by explaining the modus operandi used by child sex traffickers: “Maya Jones was only 13 when she first walked through the door of Courtney’s House, a drop-in centre for victims of child sex trafficking in Washington DC. “She was so young, but she was already so broken by what she’d been through,” says Tina Frundt, the founder of Courtney’s House. Frundt, one of Washington DC’s most prominent specialists in countering child trafficking, has worked with hundreds of young people who have suffered terrible exploitation at the hands of adults, but when Maya eventually opened up about what she had been through, Frundt was shaken.

Maya told Frundt that when she was 12, she had started receiving direct messages on Instagram from a man she didn’t know. She said the man, who was 28, told her she was really pretty. According to Frundt, Maya told her that after she started chatting with the man, he asked her to send him naked photos. She told Frundt that he said he would pay her $40 for each one. He seemed kind and he kept giving Maya compliments, which made her feel special. She decided to meet him in person.

Then came his next request: “Can you help me make some money?” According to Frundt, Maya explained that the man asked her to pose naked for photos, and to give him her Instagram password so that he could upload the photos to her profile. Frundt says Maya told her that the man, who was now calling himself a pimp, was using her Instagram profile to advertise her for sex. Before long, sex buyers started sending direct messages to her account, wanting to make a date. Maya told Frundt that she had watched, frozen, what was taking place on her account, as the pimp negotiated prices and logistics for meetings in motels around DC. She didn’t know how to say no to this adult who had been so nice to her. Maya told Frundt that she hated having sex with these strangers but wanted to keep the pimp happy.”

Ironically, the two-sided network effects that the tech platforms like to boast about is what makes Meta’s platforms so effective for child sex trafficking. As the Guardian explains: “what makes social media platforms so powerful as a tool for traffickers – far more powerful than the back pages of a newspaper in which Frundt was advertised as a teenager – is the way that they make it possible to identify and cultivate relationships with both victims and potential sex buyers. Traffickers can advertise and negotiate deals by using different features of the same platform: sellers sometimes post publicly about the girls they have available, and then switch to private direct messages to discuss prices and locations with buyers.”

The Guardian goes on to say that “child sexual exploitation has become one of the biggest challenges facing tech companies. According to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), the internet is used by human traffickers as “digital hunting fields”, allowing them access to both customers and potential victims, with children being targeted by traffickers on social media platforms. The biggest of these, Facebook, is owned by Meta, the tech giant whose platforms, which also include Instagram, are used by more than 3 billion people worldwide. In 2020, according to a report by US-based not-for-profit the Human Trafficking Institute, Facebook was the platform most used to groom and recruit children by sex traffickers (65%), based on an analysis of 105 federal child sex trafficking cases that year. The HTI analysis ranked Instagram second most prevalent, with Snapchat third.”

So, in this world full of sin and sorrow what is to be done? On the face of it, Meta and its iconic founder are trying their best to stem the rot: “Mark Zuckerberg, Meta’s founder, wrote in a memo to staff in 2021. In a statement responding to a detailed list of the allegations in this piece, a Meta spokesperson said: “The exploitation of children is a horrific crime – we don’t allow it and we work aggressively to fight it on and off our platforms. We proactively aid law enforcement in arresting and prosecuting the criminals who perpetrate these grotesque offences. When we are made aware that a victim is in harm’s way, and we have data that could help save a life, we process an emergency request immediately.” The statement cited the group director of intelligence at the charity Stop the Traffik, who is former deputy director of the UK’s Serious Organised Crime Agency, who has said “millions are safer and traffickers are increasingly frustrated” because of their work with Meta.”

However, the Guardian says that year by year the scale on which child sex trafficking is being perpetrated on Meta’s platforms is growing: “…over the past two years, through interviews, survivor testimonies, US court documents and human trafficking reporting data, we have heard repeated claims that Facebook and Instagram have become major sales platforms for child trafficking. We have interviewed more than 70 sources, including survivors and their relatives, prosecutors, child protection professionals and content moderators across the US in order to understand how sex traffickers are using Facebook and Instagram, and why Meta is able to deny legal responsibility for the trafficking that takes place on its platforms.”

Read the full article in the Guardian to understand in detail how children are being bought and sold for sex on Meta’s platforms.

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