Instagram's algorithms actively promote underage-sex content, catering to pedophiles searching for content sellers, according to investigations by The Wall Street Journal and researchers at Stanford University and the University of Massachusetts Amherst. The popular social media site's recommendation system enables people to search explicit hashtags such as #pedowhore and #preteensex and connected them to accounts that used the terms to advertise child-sex material for sale. The promotion of underage-sex content violates rules established by Instagram's parent company, Meta Platforms, as well as federal law. Meta said it has in the past two years taken down 27 pedophile networks and is planning more removals. But it acknowledged problems within its enforcement operations and said it has set up an internal task force to address the issues raised. “Child exploitation is a horrific crime,” the company said, adding, “We’re continuously investigating ways to actively defend against this behavior.”
Technical and legal hurdles make determining the full scale of the network hard for anyone outside Meta to measure precisely. Because the laws around child-sex content are extremely broad, investigating even the open promotion of it on a public platform is legally sensitive. In its reporting, the Journal consulted with academic experts on online child safety. Stanford’s Internet Observatory, a division of the university’s Cyber Policy Center focused on social-media abuse, produced an independent quantitative analysis of the Instagram features that help users connect and find content. The Journal also approached UMass’s Rescue Lab, which evaluated how pedophiles on Instagram fit into the larger world of online child exploitation. Using different methods, both entities were able to quickly identify large-scale communities promoting criminal sex abuse. Alex Stamos, the head of the Stanford Internet Observatory and Meta’s chief security officer until 2018, said that getting even obvious abuse under control would likely take a sustained effort. “That a team of three academics with limited access could find such a huge network should set off alarms at Meta,” he said, noting that the company has far more effective tools to map its pedophile network than outsiders do. “I hope the company reinvests in human investigators,” he added.