Facebook has been widely used by predators to sexually abuse children, according to a new analysis by the Tech Transparency Project, which found hundreds of U.S. cases in which suspected pedophiles used the social network to groom minors and trade images of their sexual abuse.
Following repeated pleas from abuse survivors and their parents, the company has promised to prevent its platform from being used by criminals who target children. “Child exploitation is one of the most serious threats that we focus on,” CEO Mark Zuckerberg told lawmakers in October 2019. “We build sophisticated systems to find this behavior.”
However, the review showed that Facebook’s systems are failing to eliminate such abuse. Using a customized code, TTP scanned the text of announcements on the Justice Department’s U.S. Attorneys website and collected any that mentioned Facebook. Analysts then identified 366 individual criminal cases involving alleged predators who used the social network for child exploitation, including distributing sexual abuse images, recruiting children and sex trafficking.
In the vast majority of these cases, Facebook didn’t provide the initial tip-off to authorities. Instead, officials said they relied on information from the public, leads from other investigations or sting operations to identify suspects.
Across America: Children targeted on Facebook
The cases detailed by the Justice Department took place across the country. They include a Kentucky man accused of sending thousands of messages to multiple children through Facebook; a Rhode Island man who allegedly posed as a teenage girl to lure boys into livestreaming sexual activity on Facebook Messenger; and a convicted Missouri sex offender who allegedly used Facebook Messenger to communicate with a 13-year-old girl.
Among the top findings from TTP’s analysis, which examined Justice Department press releases from January 2013 to December 2019:
- The review identified 366 federal criminal cases over seven years that featured suspects using Facebook for child exploitation.
- It also found such cases are becoming more frequent, from as many as 10 per quarter in 2013 to as many as 23 per quarter in 2019. (During that same period, the number of Facebook users also grew significantly.)
- Only 9% of the cases were initiated because Facebook or the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (which receives cyber tips from Facebook) reported them to authorities, raising questions about the effectiveness of Facebook’s monitoring of criminal activity targeting children.
- The number of cases in which Facebook reported child exploitation began to increase following passage of the FOSTA-SESTA law, which for the first time made the company liable to civil penalties for sex trafficking on its platform. This suggests Facebook may have become more proactive due to the potential for litigation, despite its initial opposition to the law.
The Justice Department press releases describe notable cases that have resulted in federal criminal charges or prosecutions; they do not cover all federal investigations or capture violations of state law. The cases reviewed represent the tip of the iceberg of a far larger problem that remains unsolved by Facebook in the U.S. and around the world.