Eko Hot Blog reports that an alarming report by the Wall Street Journal has detailed how Instagram’s recommendation algorithms linked and even promoted a “vast pedophile network” that advertised the sale of illicit “child-sex material” on the platform.
According to WSJ, researchers at Stanford University and the University of Massachusetts Amherst told the news agency that Instagram allowed users to search by hashtags related to child-sex abuse, including graphic terms such as #pedowhore, #preteensex, #pedobait and #mnsfw — the latter an acronym meaning “minors not safe for work.”
The researchers added that the hashtags directed users to accounts that purportedly offered to sell pedophilic materials via “menus” of content, including videos of children harming themselves or committing acts of bestiality.
Some accounts allowed buyers to “commission specific acts” or arrange “meet ups,” the Journal reported.
Sarah Adams, a Canadian social media influencer and activist who calls out online child exploitation, told the news outlet that she was affected by Instagram’s recommendation algorithm.
Adams said one of her followers flagged a distressing Instagram account in February called “incest toddlers,” which had an array of “pro-incest memes.” The mother of two said she interacted with the page only long enough to report it to Instagram.
After the brief interaction, Adams said she learned from concerned followers that Instagram had begun recommending the “incest toddlers” account to users who visited her page.
Meta, which owns Instagram, confirmed to the Journal that the “incest toddler” account violated its policies.
When reached for comment by The New York Post, a spokesperson for Instagram’s parent company, Meta, said it has since restricted the use of “thousands of additional search terms and hashtags on Instagram.”
The spokesperson added that Meta is “continuously exploring ways to actively defend against this behavior” and has “set up an internal task force to investigate these claims and immediately address them.”
The company said it disabled more than 490,000 accounts that violated its child safety policies in January and blocked more than 29,000 devices for policy violations between May 27 and June 2.
Meta also took down 27 networks that spread abusive content on its platforms from 2020 to 2022.
The Journal noted that researchers at both Stanford and UMass Amherst discovered “large-scale communities promoting criminal sex abuse” on Instagram.
When the researchers set up test accounts to observe the network, they began receiving “suggested for you” recommendations to other accounts that purportedly promoted pedophilia or linked to outside websites.
“That a team of three academics with limited access could find such a huge network should set off alarms at Meta,” Alex Stamos, the head of the Stanford Internet Observatory and Meta’s former chief security officer, told the Journal.
Stamos called for Meta to “reinvest in human investigators.”
Meta said it already hires specialists from law enforcement and collaborates with child safety experts to ensure its methods for combating child exploitation are up to date.
The WSJ’s findings came as Meta and other social media platforms face ongoing scrutiny over their efforts to police and prevent the spread of abusive content on their platforms.
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