Instagram Algorithms Promoted Vast Pedophile Networks

According to the Wall Street Journal, a report from researchers at Stanford University and the University of Massachusetts Amherst shows that Instagram’s recommendation algorithms linked and even promoted a “vast pedophile network” that advertised the sale of illicit “child-sex material” on the platform.

Instagram allowed users to search by hashtags related to child-sex abuse, including graphic terms such as #pedowhore, #preteensex, #pedobait, and #mnsfw.

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, the researchers said.

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According to the report, some accounts allowed buyers to “commission specific acts” or arrange “meet-ups,”

Sarah Adams, a Canadian social media influencer and activist who calls out online child exploitation, told the Journal 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.


Adams learned from followers that Instagram had begun recommending the “incest toddlers” account to users who visited her page.

Meta confirmed to the Journal that the “incest toddler” account violated its policies. The company said it disabled over 490,000 accounts that violated its child safety policies in January.

Meta also took down 27 networks that spread abusive content on its platforms from 2020 to 2022.

The Journal noted that Stanford and UMass Amherst researchers 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.

In another bizarre development, the Journal noted that Instagram’s algorithm had previously sent users a pop-up warning that specific searches on the platform would yield results that “may contain images of child sexual abuse.”

The screen purportedly directed users to either “get resources” on the topic or “see results anyway.”

The report said Meta disabled the option allowing users to view the results anyway but would not say why it was ever offered in the first place.

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The Journal’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.

In April, law enforcement agencies, including the FBI and Interpol, warned that Meta’s plans to expand end-to-end encryption on its platforms could effectively “blindfold” the company from detecting harmful content related to child sex abuse.

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