Child sex abuse content is exploding online. We’re losing the fight against it.
Posted For: Le Bouffon du Génocide
The mayor of College Park, Maryland, was arrested and charged last week with 56 counts of possession and distribution of child pornography. Authorities say he uploaded a variety of images depicting child sexual abuse to a social media account.
He’s not the only alleged predator in the headlines recently.
Consider Andrew Tate, the social media influencer arrested in December on charges of human trafficking and rape. The self-proclaimed misogynist operated an online webcam business that sexually exploited women. He has repeatedly used the internet to encourage violence against women, brainwashing young men and teen boys into a culture of hate.
The two news stories are indicative of a larger and long-running pattern. Online sexual predators often act with impunity, emboldened by power, anonymity or the knowledge that law enforcement and tech platforms will struggle to hold them accountable. To protect millions of children, that must change.
The amount of child sex abuse material online has skyrocketed in the past five years, aided by the ubiquity of smartphones and the COVID-19 pandemic. According to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, monthly reports of such material doubled from about 1 million in March 2019 to 2 million a year later. Reports increased by an additional 35% from 2020 to 2021.
Abusers use social media to spread images and recruit victims
At the same time, abusers have become more adept at using social media to share files, find like-minded communities and groom potential victims. They use coded communications, end-to-end encryption, live streaming and other advanced technology to avoid detection.
And the victims are getting younger. A new report by the Center for Countering Digital Hate, which analyzed more than a million posts on a prominent site for “Incel” – short for involuntarily celibate – found a 2022 spike in posts that express approval for child sexual assault. More than half of members of the same forum openly support pedophilia.
The FBI reports that digital child sex abuse material is so voluminous, the agency must prioritize images involving infants and toddlers.
How did we get to this shocking place?
Federal law requires tech companies to report abusive material if they find it, but companies have no obligation to actively search their platforms. Some social media companies employ specialist in-house teams to root out illegal material, but tracking and reporting is uneven overall.
Facebook, for example, has a “zero tolerance” policy for child sex abuse material and reported more than 20 million such images in 2020. Google reported about 550,000 images the same year. But it’s not clear that Facebook hosts more child pornography – it might simply be finding and reporting images more aggressively than other sites. In 2020, Snapchat reported 145,000 images and TikTok 22,000.
Twitter also claims to have a “zero tolerance” policy, and when new CEO Elon Musk took ownership last year, he declared that combating child sex abuse materials was a priority.
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Yet, an investigation by NBC News in January found dozens of accounts and hundreds of tweets offering to sell such images. Accounts that had been suspended for illegal activity were up and running again, using hard-to-detect code words and encrypted file sharing. And Musk’s layoffs gutted the team that once monitored content for illegal material.
National policy has failed to keep up with the problem. According to a recent report by the Government Accountability Office, the initiatives in the 2008 PROTECT Our Children Act – the federal law designed to combat the sexual exploitation of children – have been chronically underfunded.
Tips about child exploitation skyrocket
On top of that, technology has evolved dramatically in the past 15 years. Online tips reporting suspected child sexual exploitation have increased 2,800% from 2012 to 2021. Already under-resourced, the state and local task forces that investigate internet crimes against children can’t catch up.
We can do better. Policymakers, law enforcement, tech companies and the public all have a role to play in keeping children safe from exploitation.
For guidance, lawmakers can look to a new blueprint from Keep Kids Safe, a child advocacy initiative from National Children’s Alliance, RAINN, Darkness to Light and several other organizations. They make policy recommendations, from increasing federal resources for investigating online child sexual abuse and exploitation to passing the EARN It Act, which would incentivize tech companies to take child exploitation on their platforms more seriously.
Recent headlines are unfortunate reminders that too many abusers feel confident they can get away scot-free. It’s time to show them otherwise.