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"I need you all to understand how pervasive this issue is": User efforts to regulate child sexual offending on social media



This chapter examines the phenomenon of internet users attempting to report and prevent online child sexual exploitation (CSE) and child sexual abuse material (CSAM) in the absence of adequate intervention by internet service providers, social media platforms, and government. The chapter discusses the history of online CSE, focusing on regulatory stances over time in which online risks to children have been cast as natural and inevitable by the hegemony of a “cyber-libertarian” ideology. We illustrate the success of this ideology, as well as its profound contradictions and ethical failures, by presenting key examples in which internet users have taken decisive action to prevent online CSE and promote the removal of CSAM. Rejecting simplistic characterizations of “vigilante justice,” we argue instead that the fact that often young internet users are being forced to act against online CSE and CSAM puts a lie to libertarian claims that internet regulation is impossible, unworkable, and unwanted. Recent shifts towards a more progressive ethos of online harm minimization are promising, however, this ethos risks offering a new legitimizing ideology for online business models that will continue to put children at risk of abuse and exploitation. In conclusion, we suggest ways forward toward an internet built in the interests of children, rather than profit.
Chapter 42
I Need You All to Understand How
Pervasive This Issue Is: User Efforts to
Regulate Child Sexual Offending on Social
Michael Salter and Elly Hanson
This chapter examines the phenomenon of internet users attempting to
report and prevent online child sexual exploitation (CSE) and child sexual
abuse material (CSAM) in the absence of adequate intervention by internet
service providers, social media platforms, and government. The chapter
discusses the history of online CSE, focusing on regulatory stances over time
in which online risks to children have been cast as natural and inevitable by
the hegemony of a cyberlibertarianideology. We illustrate the success of
this ideology, as well as its profound contradictions and ethical failures, by
presenting key examples in which internet users have taken decisive action to
prevent online CSE and promote the removal of CSAM. Rejecting simplistic
characterizations of vigilante justice,we argue instead that the fact that
often young internet users report feeling forced to act against online CSE and
CSAM undercuts libertarian claims that internet regulation is impossible,
unworkable, and unwanted. Recent shifts toward a more progressive ethos
of online harm minimization are promising; however, this ethos risks
offering a new legitimizing ideology for online business models that will
continue to put children at risk of abuse and exploitation. In conclusion, we
suggest ways forward toward an internet built in the interests of children,
rather than prot.
The Emerald International Handbook of Technology Facilitated Violence and Abuse, 729748
Copyright © 2021 Michael Salter and Elly Hanson
Published by Emerald Publishing Limited. This chapter is published under the Creative
Commons Attribution (CC BY 4.0) licence. Anyone may reproduce, distribute, translate and
create derivative works of these chapters (for both commercial and non-commercial purposes),
subject to full attribution to the original publication and authors. The full terms of this licence may
be seen at
Keywords: Sexual abuse; social media; children; sexual exploitation;
image-based abuse; justice; self-help
The title of this chapter comes from a tweet made by Twitter user @AvriSapir (a
pseudonym) on May 1, 2020,
in which she describes her efforts to have videos of
her own child sexual abuse removed from Twitter. In this chapter, we examine the
phenomenon of internet users attempting to report and prevent online child
sexual exploitation (CSE) and child sexual abuse material (CSAM) in the absence
of adequate intervention by internet service providers, social media platforms,
and government. With reports of online CSAM to US authorities increasing by
50% per year for the past 20 years (Bursztein et al., 2019), it is now undeniable
that the structure, administration, and regulation of online services and infra-
structure have created a highly enabling environment for online CSE. We discuss
the history of online CSE, focusing on regulatory stances over time in which
online risks to children have been cast as natural and inevitable by the hegemony
of a cyberlibertarian ideology that posits a factual and normative order in which it
is not only impossible to regulate the internet but where such regulation is
inherently authoritarian and unethical (Hanson, 2019). We illustrate the success
of this ideology, as well as its profound contradictions and ethical failures, by
presenting key examples in which internet users have taken decisive action to
prevent online CSE and promote the removal of CSAM. Rejecting simplistic
characterizations of vigilante justice,we argue instead that the fact that often
young internet users feel compelled to act against online CSE and CSAM (CBC
News, 2018;Pauls & MacIntosh, 2020) undercuts libertarian claims that internet
regulation is impossible, unworkable, and unwanted. The chapter argues that
scholars of online abuse and policymakers need to pay closer attention to the
ways in which exploitative modes of technological design and administration and
government inaction have been mystied by cyberlibertarianism and contributed
to the contemporary crisis of CSE and CSAM. Recent shifts toward a more
progressive ethos of online harm minimization are promising; however, this ethos
risks offering a new legitimizing ideology for online business models that will
continue to put children at risk of abuse and exploitation. In conclusion, we
suggest ways forward toward an internet built in the interests of children, rather
than prot.
The History of Online Child Sexual Exploitation
While technology companies have been vocal in their commitment to child
protection, the history of online CSE shows that industry has been largely
unwilling to prioritize child safety over prots, a posture that has been
accepted and, arguably, tacitly endorsed by governments. The authenticity of
industry and government expressions of surprise at escalating reports of online
CSE and CSAM is undermined by evidence that the use of the internet by
730 Michael Salter and Elly Hanson
pedophiles has been known at the highest levels since the early days of net-
worked computing. In 1986, the US Attorney General noted that the trade in
CSAM had shifted online: recently a signicant amount of the exchange has
taken place by the use of computer networks through which users of child
pornography let each other know about materials they desire or have avail-
able(US Attorney General, 1986, p. 407). Nonetheless, the approach of US
legislators to internet regulation has been notoriously lax and oriented toward
the growth and protability of technology companies rather than child pro-
tection. This approach is exemplied in the passage of the Communications
Decency Act (CDA) in 1996, a pivotal moment in the development of the
modern internet. Section 230 of the CDA effectively immunized online service
providers against legal liability for the content uploaded or provided by their
users, paving the way for an internet whose consumer appeal and business
model was based on the frictionless circulation of users preferred content. The
alignment of US legislators with the nancial interests of the technology sector
has created a powerful bloc that has dominated internet governance for a
quarter of a century (Carr, 2015).
A pervasive cyberlibertarianism played a major role in legitimizing an anti-
regulation ethos within industry and government despite recognition of the likely
costs to children. Hanson (2019) denes libertarianism as a distinct political
stance and moral psychology whose guiding principle is the freedom of individ-
uals, in particular from interference by the state(p. 4), where concern for indi-
vidual liberty from control and regulation is prioritized over altruistic moral
values and responsibility to others. Libertarianism and new technologies emerged
from the sociopolitical foment of the 1960s and 1970s as strange but intimate
bedfellows and played a formative role in the culture and practices of Silicon
Valley. From the 1970s, inuential American counterculturalists came to believe
that networked technology was the ideal instrument for personal liberation and
alternative community building (Turner, 2010). They drew in particular on the
libertarian rather than socialist and collectivist strains of the counterculture in
ways that framed the developing internet as a transgressive, anarchist space, a
new frontier full of possibilities and free of legal regulation. This characterization
has been amplied in inuential ctional and futurist portrayals of the internet as
a parallel disembodied universe or cyberspace(Salter, 2017). As the internet
and technology industries have taken center stage as global corporate behemoths,
their marketing has enthusiastically adopted a countercultural style and promoted
the view that their products are conducive to personal and collective freedoms.
This view and its encompassing anarchist mystique have been prominent in media
coverage and academic analysis of new technologies, promoting an idealized view
of the lawlessness of the internet as both antiauthoritarian and radically demo-
cratic, despite it being anything but (Dahlberg, 2010). As the following section
makes clear, cyberlibertarianism has mystied the monopolistic capture of online
technologies by select corporate giants whose platforms closely regulate and
manipulate user behavior (Zuboff, 2019, p. 109).
By the late 1990s, it was evident that CSAM and CSE were expanding online
at an exponential rate. The prevalence and severity of this material was such that
even skeptics such as sociologist Philip Jenkins, whose prior research had argued
I Need You All to Understand How Pervasive This Issue Is731
that community concern over child sexual abuse was characterized by moral
panicand overreaction, would declare CSAM an escalating and intolerable crisis
(Jenkins, 2001). In 2002, as investigations into and prosecutions of CSAM in the
United States underscored the seriousness of the problem, then-US Attorney
General John Ashcroft held a meeting with the major technology companies
calling them to action. In response, they formed an industry body called the
Technology Coalition with the stated mission of eradicating online child sexual
exploitation(Farid, 2017, para. 9). For 5 years, the Technology Coalition did
not develop or deploy any effective technological solutions against the spread of
CSAM. The Technology Coalition served instead to signal the concerns of
technology companies to government and the public in the absence of measurable
action or impact.
It was during this period of industry abeyance that major social
media platforms were established and became the dominant players online. On
social media, prot maximization depends on recruiting as many users as possible
to circulate content and engage with each other as much as possible; whether this
content and engagement is abusive or not does not impact the bottom line.
Accordingly, social media platforms have a poor track record of addressing the
specic needs and vulnerabilities of children or inhibiting sexual misconduct and
Social media platforms have sought to elide their responsibilities to users by
describing their platforms as neutral, apolitical facilities,comparable to the
water system or electricity grid (Salter, 2017). In this model, the risk of online
CSE and the availability of CSAM are positioned as a natural artifact beyond the
control of any company or government. It was only in 2008 that Microsoft
partnered with Professor Hany Farid to develop PhotoDNA technology, which
enables the automatic matching of images against a database of known CSAM
(Farid, 2017). This technology was then provided for free to appropriate orga-
nizations in order to identify and remove known CSAM. PhotoDNA technology
is widely recognized as a major turning point in the ght against CSAM, and the
determining factor in the dramatic numbers of CSAM currently being notied to
US authorities. PhotoDNA made it possible, for the rst time, to screen all
images uploaded by users to ensure they were not sharing known CSAM.
Nonetheless, it took large companies such as Google as long as ve years before
they were willing to implement PhotoDNA on their services (Farid, 2017).
Furthermore, there has been a lack of signicant industry investment in the
further development and deployment of the technology. For example, Photo-
DNA cannot detect new images of CSAM, nor can it scan video les; a signicant
drawback as reports of video CSAM are now more common than images (Dance
& Keller, 2020). While a new tool, PhotoDNA for Video, was developed around
2018, the extent of its use across the sector is unclear.
In 2018, both Google and Facebook launched technology designed to detect
new CSAM images this is a positive step forward although they still require
screening by a human moderator, which is necessarily an expensive proposition
for platforms and comes with signicant risk of harm and trauma to content
moderation teams (Gillespie, 2018).
The cost of underinvestment in human
moderation is exemplied in the history of Tumblr, the social media platform and
732 Michael Salter and Elly Hanson
blogging site. In November 2018, the Tumblr app was removed from major
online stores, effectively preventing new users from joining the platform. It sub-
sequently emerged that the Tumblr app was removed due to the presence of
CSAM on the platform (BBC News, 2018). While Tumblr used PhotoDNA to
prevent the uploading of known CSAM to the site, an audit of Tumblr content
identied that the platform was being used to circulate new CSAM that is
undetectable to PhotoDNA (Silverstein, 2018). Such material can only be iden-
tied through human moderation. In December 2018, Tumblr announced that it
was banning all pornographic content from the site, using an algorithm trained to
automatically detect and delete photos with nudity (Liao, 2018). Users com-
plained that the algorithm was producing a high level of false positives, with
cartoons, dinosaur images, and even pictures of food wrongly agged as sensi-
tivecontent (Leskin, 2019). Within a year of the ban, Tumblrs unique monthly
visitors decreased by more than 20%, and the site was sold in August 2019 for
reportedly less than US$3 million, compared to its US$1.1 billion price tag in
2013 (Leskin, 2019).
Some nongovernment organizations have been able to integrate PhotoDNA
into highly effective software platforms that proactively detect CSAM and request
and other technological developments will make it easier to identify
offenders and victims from images. However, these efforts are typically driven by
civil society rather than industry. Meanwhile, the public condemnations of online
abuse by industry gures too often segue into calls for more parental responsi-
bility and internet safety programs for children, which effectively devolve
responsibility for child safety to parents, schools, and children. Necessarily, these
strategies are most effective at reaching the least at-risk children, that is, the
children with engaged parents who are regularly attending school. Research has
consistently shown that the children who are most at risk of online abuse are those
who are already vulnerable ofine due to disadvantage and prior experiences of
abuse and neglect (Jones, Mitchell, & Finkelhor, 2013). Furthermore, a signicant
proportion of CSAM is, in fact, created by parents and other family members; an
inconvenient fact that has been consistently sidestepped by industry and gov-
ernment authorities for decades despite the cumulative evidence (Itzin, 2001;
Salter, 2013;Seto, Buckman, Dwyer, & Quayle, 2018). The focus of industry and
other voices on educatingchildren and parents neglects the children who are
most likely to be abused, while deecting attention from those features of internet
services that put children at risk and occluding corporate responsibility for the
harms that are facilitated by their online products. Furthermore, this selective
focus on education, with its frequent emphasis on the importance of children
keeping themselves safe online,works to blame those who have been victimized
(or go on to be) and reinforces the impact and messages of the abuse (Hamilton-
Giachritsis, Hanson, Whittle, & Beech, 2017, p. 33). Nonetheless, these strategies
remain consistent with the industrys preferred cyberlibertarian approach to CSE
with a focus on individual risk and responsibility, even where those individuals
are children. This approach is part of a broader rhetorical campaign aimed at
responsibilization of targets of many other forms of technology-facilitated
I Need You All to Understand How Pervasive This Issue Is733
violence and abuse (see Henry and Witt, this volume; Marganski and Melander,
this volume).
User Regulation of Child Sexual Exploitation on Social
Media Platforms
The inevitable result of 30 years of deferring responsibility for online CSAM and
CSE has been that, in 20182019, US authorities received 70 million reports of
suspected CSAM (Dance & Keller, 2020). As of 2018, there was a backlog of
millions of suspected CSAM images and videos in need of assessment while police
reported being overwhelmed by the increase in cases and the increased volume
and severity of CSAM in each case (ECPAT, 2018), and given reported increases
in online CSE activity during the pandemic (INTERPOL, 2020) that backlog may
well have expanded. While tech and social media companies accumulate billions
in prots, CSAM victims and survivors report an almost total lack of access to
affordable, effective mental health care or practical assistance with the ongoing
impacts of abuse (C3P, 2017;Salter, 2013). As the scale of the crisis has become
undeniable, governments are now shifting to a more interventionist posture (see
also Henry and Witt, this volume). For example, the UK government has begun
developing a legislative regime around online harmsthat aims to hold tech-
nology companies directly responsible for social and individual impacts (HM
Government, 2019). This move initiated the global drafting and endorsement
of a global set of voluntary principlesto prevent online CSE for industry
implementation as a precursor to formal government regulation.
In 2018, the
United States enacted the Fight Online Sex Trafcking Act (FOSTA, 2017) which
removed internet companiesSection 230 protections from liability if they are
found to knowingly facilitate sex trafcking, and there is now a further bipartisan
proposal to remove these protections from those deemed to be failing to act on
online CSE and CSAM (Keller, 2020). Meanwhile, governments such as
Australia have been encouraged to move away from a coregulationmodel with
industry in recognition of industry failure to comply with internet safety principles
(Briggs, 2018). This shift in the tone and approach of governments to the tech-
nology industry is also evident in academic scholarship. Over the last 10 years,
celebratory academic accounts of the new possibilities of the internet and glob-
alization have given way to more pessimistic assessments of the impact of the
internet on inequality, cultural homogenization, and democratic legitimacy. This
so-called techlashis now interrogating the monopoly power of the technology
industries and their role in violating consumer privacy and circulating (and
arguably promoting) malicious, deceptive, and illegal content (Hemphill, 2019).
The techlashhas come to encompass the issue of online CSE as an urgent
priority. We are at a critical juncture where the cyberlibertarian posture of
industry is being challenged rather than endorsed by governments, some tech-
nology companies are themselves asking to be regulated (Bloomberg, 2020), and
the prevalence of online CSE and CSAM is such that it has become visible to
everyday social media users. No longer the province of secret subcultures, CSAM
734 Michael Salter and Elly Hanson
is prevalent on social media sites, le sharing networks, and free adult pornog-
raphy streamingservices (Solon, 2020). The fact that these same sites and
services do not have adequate measures in place to prevent CSAM circulation
(notwithstanding statements of zero tolerance for CSAM) has never been more
evident, leading to increasing expressions of concern about lack of accountability
and transparency (Pauls & MacIntosh, 2020) and a rapidly changing policy
environment, at both industry and government levels.
To illustrate the hypoc-
risies and contradictions of this historical moment, this section describes the
efforts of social media and internet users to police CSAM and CSE on their
platforms. In doing so, this section reveals two key facts. First, there are amoral
consequences arising from cyberlibertarianism, in which corporate and govern-
ment responsibility for the prevention of CSE and CSAM has been deferred to the
point where internet users themselves are performing this basic civic function.
Perhaps the most shocking illustration of this regulatory vacuum is that self-
identied CSAM survivors, some only teenagers, are themselves active in seeking
out and reporting images and video of their abuse, despite the psychological and
legal risks this may entail (C3P, 2020a, pp. 45; CBC, 2018;Pauls & MacIntosh,
2020). Second, the section undercuts claims by some in the technology industry,
certain privacy advocates, and some in government that the proactive detection of
CSAM is difcult or impossible from a practical standpoint. The fact that self-
organizing networks of social media users and researchers have (sometimes
accidently) identied and interrupted the tactics of online abusers, as indicated in
the examples below, suggests that the problem of CSE and CSAM regulation has
been at least partially one of political and corporate will.
There are multiple examples in which the efforts of users, rather than plat-
forms, have been efcacious in identifying and publicizing the ways in which CSE
is taking place on various services. Frequently, these efforts expose not only the
presence and activities of child sexual abusers online but also the shortcomings of
platform design that facilitate CSE and make reporting difcult. For example,
YouTube is the popular online site in which users can make and upload their own
video content. Despite stated policies against child abuse and exploitation, users
have uploaded videos to YouTube of children in revealing clothing, and children
restrained with ropes, sometimes crying or in distress. Some videos have remained
online for years and accumulated millions of views before being removed, only
after media reporting and public outcry (Warzel, 2017). In February 2019,
YouTube user Matt Watson (who later faced criticism for his tactics and for
content that he himself had posted (Alexander, 2019)) uploaded a viral video to
YouTube documenting the way in which the YouTube recommendsystem
the machine learning process that automatically suggests and curates videos for
users was linking together self-created videos of young children engaged in
activities such as dancing, doing gymnastics, and swimming (Orphanides, 2019).
Once YouTube detected a user preferentially seeking out and watching content of
young children, the recommendsystem would then generate a playlist of similar
content. In doing so, the algorithm was proactively curating videos of scantily
clad children for those users who particularly enjoyed such content, that is,
pedophiles (Kaiser & Raucheisch, 2019;Orphanides, 2019).
I Need You All to Understand How Pervasive This Issue Is735
In the same month, WIRED reported nding videos on YouTube relating to
similar kinds of images with high numbers of views and comments seeming to
show pedophiles using the commentfunction of YouTube to provide time
stamps for parts of the videos where the child may inadvertently expose body
parts, posting links to other provocative YouTube videos of children, or
exchanging contact details with one another (Orphanides, 2019). WIRED
reported that these videos had been monetized by YouTube, including preroll and
banner advertisements (Orphanides, 2019). After all, the videos themselves were
not illegal content; rather, it was the recontextualization of those videos by the
YouTube recommend system that generated what Matt Watson
called a soft-
core pedophile ringon the platform (Alexander, 2019). YouTubes initial
response to the scandal was to delete accounts and channels of those leaving
disturbing comments, report illegal conduct to police, turn off the comment
function on many videos depicting minors and delete inappropriate comments,
while employing an automated comment classier to detect inappropriate com-
ments with greater speed and accuracy (Wakabayashi & Maheshwari, 2019; see
also; YouTube, 2019).
In June 2019, The New York Times reported that three researchers from
Harvards Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society had stumbled upona
similar issue while doing research about another topic on YouTube (Fisher &
Taub, 2019). In all of these cases, action was seemingly only undertaken in the
aftermath of signicant reputation damage and the advertiser boycotts that fol-
lowed the reports (Fisher & Taub, 2019). A critical point here is that this dis-
turbing situation is a direct, though unintended, result of business models like
YouTubes which seek to maximize prot by keeping users consuming online
content in order to sell ads (Maack, 2019). In order to keep people consuming
content, YouTubes algorithmic curation of user preference promotes, recom-
mends, and disseminates videos in a manner that appears to constantly up the
stakes(Tufekci, 2018, para. 6). Some have characterized this as a rabbit hole
effectthat can sometimes lead viewers to incrementally more extreme videos or
topics which are thought to hook them in(Fisher & Taub, 2019). YouTubes
2020 Transparency Report provides an update on policies relating to child safety
(YouTube, 2020).
TikTok is the hugely popular music-based social media platform with a
particular focus on teenage users. While TikTok states that users under the age of
13 are not permitted to use the platform, the apps age verication system can be
bypassed by entering a false birthdate (Common Sense Media, 2021). TikTok
provides short clips of popular music for users to video themselves miming and
dancing to. As a result, the platform features videos of children performing to
sexually suggestive or explicit songs. TikToks default privacy settings had been
criticized for being low, with many child users not adjusting these settings to make
their accounts private or disallow contact from strangers (Broderick, 2019). As
was pointed out, the platforms inherent incentives discourage increased privacy
settings which would reduce the number of views and interactions with user
content (BBC News, 2020). Journalists have identied an active community of
TikTok users who appear to be soliciting nude images from children, while minor
736 Michael Salter and Elly Hanson
users are complaining about repeated solicitation for sexualized images (BBC
News, 2020;Cox, 2018). As of 2018, some TikTok user proles reportedly
included open statements of interest in nude images and the exchange of sexual
videos, including invitations to trade material via other apps (Cox, 2018). The
presence of sex offenders on the app is further evident by reported instances of
sexual comments left by men on videos of children (BBC News, 2020;Broderick,
2019). In response, networks of young users have been collecting those usernames
who they accuse of sexual misconduct and sharing that information across social
media platforms with the aim of shaming offenders and promoting safety on
TikTok (Broderick, 2019). Concerned TikTok users have set up social media
accounts that focus specically on creepyTikTok interactions, and specic
alleged offenders on TikTok have been widely discussed by users on various
forums, alongside reports of lax or no response from TikTok to user reports and
concerns (BBC News, 2020;Broderick, 2019). The fact that TikTok users are
resorting to the self-policing of pedophile activity on the platform raises signi-
cant concern about the level of proactive regulation and monitoring of users who
seek to engage in the sexual exploitation of children; however, at present, social
media platforms are not obliged to publicly report their child protection standards
and processes. In 2021, following considerable public pressure, TikTok amended
its policies relating to users under 18, which included a change, so that the default
setting for accounts created by users aged 1315 is automatically set to private
(Peters, 2021).
In 2020, TikTok removed an Australian account that was purporting to
huntpedophiles on social media by posing as children and luring men into
meetings, which were then lmed (Taylor, 2020). This account was part of a
broader pattern of online vigilantes who seek to entrap child sexual abusers by
posing as children on social media. This phenomenon has been met with a mixed
reception. Australian police have urged people with concerns about online abuse
to report to law enforcement (Taylor, 2020) and so have UK police; nonetheless,
research by the BBC found that over half of UK prosecutions for grooming in
2018 drew on evidence gathered by online vigilante groups (BBC, 2019). Previous
dismissive accounts of online vigilantism have given way to more nuanced ana-
lyses of civilian efforts to prevent internet sexual offending, which situate the so-
called pedophile huntingwithin an increase in citizen-led, digitally mediated
security initiativesoperating alongside, and often with the cooperation, if not
endorsement, of state police and the private sector (Hadjimatheou, 2019, p. 2).
Pedophile huntingrefers to the proactive luring and entrapment of suspected
child abusers using social media (Hadjimatheou, 2019). In the cases described
above, social media users are not seeking out sex offenders; they are not vigi-
lantesin any meaningful sense. Instead, they are users who are reacting to the
ubiquity of sexual misconduct and offending on popularly used platforms, and
they are taking action in an attempt to improve their own and otherssafety.
Unlike vigilantegroups, who frequently seek police intervention for suspected
online misconduct, this form of social media activity tends to rely on social media
platforms to take action, and in the absence of a response from platforms, they
may seek publicity via online media and mass media. In effect, these users are
I Need You All to Understand How Pervasive This Issue Is737
reacting to the failure of content regulation of which online abuse and exploita-
tion is a symptom, and they are seeking to institute their own mechanisms of
regulation where platforms and the state have failed.
In recent years, there has been signicant debate over the status of pedophiles
and the regulation of CSAM on social media platform Twitter (Gorman, 2020).
Twitter is a major social media platform that was launched in 2006 and grew to 330
million monthly active users and 145 million daily users in 2019.
Unlike platforms
such as Facebook, which aim to connect users with their friends and family, Twitter
is famous for its town hallapproach, in which users tweetshort public mes-
sages which can be commented on by any other user. This focus on interaction
between strangers has lent the platform a somewhat alienating and combative
online culture that has inhibited its growth. However, it remains one of the most
inuential platforms among journalists, academics, and policymakers. Twitter is
also one of the most libertarian of all social media platforms and was notoriously
described as the free speech wing of the free speech partyby a senior executive in
2012 (Halliday, 2012, para. 1). This enthusiasm for an online free for allon
Twitter has been tempered over the last decade by the emergence of organized
misogyny and far right groups on the platform, and a high prevalence of hate
speech, which has directly impacted Twitters reputation, share price, and investor
appeal (Salter, 2018). Twitter has made a number of concessions to its critics,
including providing users with more options to limit abuse online.
In a dramatic development, a group of self-identied survivors of CSAM took
to Twitter to claim that videos and images of their abuse were circulating on the
platform. The most prominent of these survivors is Avri Sapir(a pseudonym),
who stated on Twitter that she is a teenaged woman who was abused and
exploited in CSAM from infancy until the age of 15 (Gorman, 2020).
joined Twitter in October 2018 and became increasingly vocal about the presence
of her own CSAM on Twitter from early 2020. Along with a group of supportive
users, Avri actively sought to police CSAM on the site by identifying and
reporting accounts sharing illegal content to Twitter and US authorities. As a self-
identied CSAM survivor, Avri received signicant abuse and harassment. In a
number of viraltweets, Avri has provided screenshots of messages she has
received on Twitter from CSAM offenders.
These include messages from men
claiming that they have previously watched her material, and, in one case, a user
who described her daily activities in a fashion that indicated he had been
following her. She has also provided screenshots of messages from Twitter users
asking for links to her abuse material. On February 27, 2020, she stated:
I have to live with the knowledge that my abuse will never end,
and that every second of every day, someone could be almost
certainly is watching my torture and abuse. Even once Im dead,
my degradation will continue. I will never be able to escape it. This
trauma is innite.
Child porn is not a victimless crime, and it is the worst form of
torture a person can be forced to endure. We must wake up to the
738 Michael Salter and Elly Hanson
realities of this pervasive and wide-spread abuse, and push past the
discomfort of the topic, because I dont have that privilege. We
must hold accountable the people, companies, policies, laws, and
cultural beliefs that allow this type of abuse to continue and thrive.
We must listen to and defend survivors and put an end to the
gaslighting, victim-blaming, and excuses that allow this issue to be
As Avris prominence on Twitter grew, she began intersecting with and
amplifying existing accounts who identied themselves as antipedophile; that is,
they proactively sought out and reported CSAM and CSE accounts on Twitter to
the platform, as well as to authorities such as the National Center for Missing and
Exploited Children.
A recent report analyzing CSAM reporting options on
popular Web platforms concluded that it is extremely difcult to report content
as CSAM on Twitter(C3P, 2020b, p. 15). When a user encounters a problematic
tweet, Twitter offers four categories of reportoptions, including that a tweet is
abusive or harmful.However, subsequent options do not allow users to report
CSAM. Instead, users have to search to nd a separate online form in order to
bring CSAM or a CSE issue to the attention of Twitter moderators.
One of the
key functions of antipedophile Twitter is to increase awareness of this form and
encourage followers to mass report identied CSAM abusers. Faced with the
signicant concerns raised not only by users but also by agencies such as the
Internet Watch Foundation (Wright, 2019) and C3P (2020b) regarding CSAM on
the site, Twitters communications team has stated that Twitter has zero toler-
ance for any material that features or promotes child sexual exploitation
(de Gallier, 2020, para. 8).
In October 2020, in the face of sustained pressure (Dodds, 2020), Twitter
published a signicant revision of its CSE policy that explicitly disallowed efforts
to normalize or promote pedophilia as a sexual orientation or identity on the
platform. The new policy provided expanded detail on the forms of abusive and
exploitative behavior that would be considered a breach of terms of service,
including the circulation of drawn or computer-generated abuse images and the
sharing of links to abuse material (Twitter, 2020). While this is a positive devel-
opment, the policy contains no information on resourcing or enforcement. As yet,
there are no rigorous reporting and transparency requirements that would oblige
Twitter to publicly account for their CSAM problem and proposed solutions.
A recent civil suit against Twitter describes another user who, as a young
person, struggled to have his abuse material removed from the platform. In the
suit, the now 17-year-old complainant alleges that Twitter failed to remove abuse
videos of him as a 13 year old boy after he repeatedly notied them of the content.
The suit alleges that Twitter only removed the content, ve weeks after the rst
report, once it was escalated by law enforcement (Fonrouge, 2021). It appears
that, in the absence of adequate efforts from Twitter, CSAM regulation has
become the province of users and, in some cases, victims and survivors them-
selves. As they identify and report CSAM on Twitter and elsewhere, Avri and
other antiabuse activists expose themselves to signicant trauma and other risks:
I Need You All to Understand How Pervasive This Issue Is739
vitriol and attacks from pedophiles and other users on the site, as well as exposure
to sexually abusive imagery that carries with it a high likelihood of traumatiza-
tion. From late 2020, Avri became the subject of a concerted online campaign
which attempted to attack her credibility in various ways, including the claim that
her narrative had been invented as part of a religiously motivated antipornog-
raphycampaign. This claim was advanced despite Avris public statements in
support of sex workers, in which she made clear distinctions between CSAM and
consensual adult content.
However, as momentum for online regulation and
harm reduction builds apace, due in part to an increasingly vocal CSAM survivor
contingent, it is triggering backlash by libertarian activists and coalitions for
whom a regulated internet is a censorious one.
Analysis and Reection
The rhetoric of cyberlibertarianism has powerfully shaped the landscape of the
internet, justifying the regulatory stance of technology companies and states in
which corporate discretion has been prioritized over user safety. This strategy
owes its success to a conuence of factors including the correspondence and
mutually reinforcing relationship between cyberlibertarianism and entrenched
free-market neoliberalism as well as with some forms of progressiveidentity
politics, in which the online proliferation of sexual freedom and self-expression is
considered a prima facie public good. Nagle (2017) observes the naivete of opti-
mistic academic and media accounts of online transgression as politically eman-
cipatory, pointing to the deeply amoral and nihilistic strains of internet culture
that have been facilitated by cyberlibertarianism. However, the catastrophic
consequences of cyberlibertarianism for children have been obscured by its often
self-interested narration as a bearer of straightforward goodssuch as freedom
of speech,”“connection,and opportunity,and effective use of vagaries and
platitudes to hide its contradictions and distasteful aspects. The cyberlibertarian
narrative of maximal online freedom with minimal state regulation does not, and
cannot, accommodate the categorical differences in vulnerability between children
and adults, the moral prerogatives of child protection, or childrens internation-
ally recognized and acclaimed human rights. Hence, children, similar to other
groups socially marginalized by racism, sexism, homophobia, and other oppres-
sions, are simply not taken into account by cyberlibertarianism. During the
formative decades of the internet, the core principle of cyberlibertarianism was
that it is, by default, the right thing to maximize online freedom,dened as
freedom from interferencefor corporations and individuals alike. The myopic
focus on maximal freedom from regulation and oversight was an appealing
alternative to the demanding and messy work of adjudicating a plurality of
competing interests and even competing freedoms, all of which need to be care-
fully considered and weighted to achieve a fair and transparent system in which
the most egregious harms are prevented.
Few would deny that CSAM survivorsrights to privacy and dignity are
violated where images of their abuse are shared online, or where the men who
740 Michael Salter and Elly Hanson
have viewed those images stalk and harass them. However, their assertion of their
right to privacy from other social media users and criminal abusers is considerably
broader than the narrow formulation championed by cyberlibertarians, under-
stood solely in terms of freedom from interference from the state. Having lost
faith in the willingness of social media platforms to protect them, CSAM survi-
vors and other users instead publicly name and shamethe platforms who host
images and videos of their abuse. They seek external intervention in order to
secure their privacy and other basic human rights from the Web 2.0 business
model in which abusive and illegal content circulates with de facto impunity. Civil
and cyberlibertarians have responded to the prospect of increased state inter-
vention in social media and online content by pointing to the (very real) potential
for state and police overreach in the name of child protection; however, they are
persistently unwilling or unable to take into account the broader claims to privacy
asserted by self-identied CSAM survivors like Avri and others like her. Indeed,
the narrow formulation of online privacyadvanced under cyberlibertarianism
continues to justify measures that are in direct conict with the rights and interests
of CSAM victims and survivors. For example, Facebook and Twitter are
currently seeking to implement end-to-end encryption on their messenger func-
tions, which would necessarily facilitate CSAM distribution and protect CSAM
offenders. It is estimated that Facebooks encryption plans would reduce reports
of online CSE in the United States by two-thirds (Valentino-DeVries & Dance,
2019) and reduce arrests for online CSE in the United Kingdom by up to 2,500
per year (Murgia, 2019). Despite ongoing and high-level resistance to Facebooks
plans, due to their serious implications for global child protection efforts, Twit-
ters Head of Product Kayvon Beykpour has stated emphatically that Twitter is
also seeking to encrypt its Direct Message (DM) function (Marino, 2019). In this
example, the libertarian formulation of privacy in terms of the capability of users
to share content (including CSAM) without consequence is prioritized by tech-
nology companies over the human rights of CSAM survivors to privacy, dignity,
and safety. By (either explicitly or implicitly) adopting the cyberlibertarian
narrative, industry, governments, and individuals have effectively given them-
selves license to see online harms, including child abuse and exploitation, as
inevitable necessary evilsthat should be tolerated or ignored given the necessity
of online freedom.This position dovetails with the general societal discomfort
with anti-CSAM activists like Avri name, enabling people to remain within their
comfort zone, not seeing or recognizing what should be shocking and attention-
grabbing levels of child abuse. While the need for greater regulation has been
recognized by some governments and other principles for the online environment
are now being delineated and asserted, progress, where it happens, is slow
(particularly in contrast to the fast speed of innovation for prot), and decisions
continue to be made by corporations and states that ow from cyberlibertari-
anisms fundamentally unethical premises. For example, some technology com-
panies choose not to screen for known CSAM, arguing that this would constitute
an invasion of privacy (IICSA, 2020, p. 48), despite their very business model
being based around surveillance and the invasion of privacy (Zuboff, 2019).
Hypocrite and contradiction loom large, yet are hidden through sleights of hand
I Need You All to Understand How Pervasive This Issue Is741
and platitudes that remain largely unchallenged. While governments and their
inquiries have started to ask pressing questions about the persistent and growing
problem of online child abuse, regulation is still seen as a last resort, a regrettable
alternative to the supposedly higher plane of collaborationwith industry. Too
often the questions asked are not ambitious enough, they work within, rather than
identify and challenge, the overarching cyberlibertarian construction of online
freedom,without critically examining whose freedomit is that we are talking
about. One consequence of all of this is a situation in which mainstream platforms
are beset with CSAM, and users, too often children and/or survivors, are those
tasked with its identication and attempts at its removal.
As noted, reports indicating that survivors and other internet users are
frequently nding and taking action against CSAM, grooming, and other online
pedophilic activity challenges the notions that regulation is unwarranted,
unwanted, or unworkable as well as the alternative argument that adequate
safeguards are already in place. While the determination and resourcefulness of
these individuals is to be applauded, their efforts should never have been neces-
sary, and the fact that they are points to a deeply troubling state of affairs. The
role they are compelled to undertake in the absence of corporate and government
action carries numerous personal costs and risks. There is the traumatizing impact
of exposure to illegal material, including, in some cases, images of their own
abuse, alongside the legal risks involved in following the pathways to it. There is
also the risk that speaking out leads to harassment and further abuse of oneself or
others, and in particular for survivors, there can be the distressing impact of
societal invalidation. Invalidation can be one of the hardest aspects of child sexual
abuse to deal with: the message conveyed through the words and actions of the
offender(s) that the childs self, agency, and feelings are unimportant (Salter,
2012). When technology companies fail to prevent survivorsCSAM circulating
or fail to robustly act when it is brought to their attention (or in other ways fail to
take a survivors abuse seriously), the invalidating message of the original abuse is
echoed by the system.For some survivors, the impact of wider society falling in
step with their abuser can be catastrophic, conrming deep-rooted fears about
their lack of self-worth and effectively sending them into free fall. It can be the
shattering of fragile hopes that the offender(s)stance toward them did not reect
the truth.
Ways Forward
Continuing technological innovations designed to detect online child abuse,
together with recent actions and positions taken by governments, are promising,
while the hegemony of cyberlibertarianism has been destabilized and its self-
serving rhetoric exposed by multiple colliding world events. Many of the sup-
posed democratic benets of social media and the internet have been found
wanting, and cascading developments have corroded public trust in the technol-
ogy industry, including the monopolization of the internet by a few mammoth
companies, the manipulation of social media to spread disinformation and con-
spiracy theories, privacy breaches including the Cambridge Analytica scandal,
742 Michael Salter and Elly Hanson
and the use of social media as a surveillance tool by private sector, governments,
and police. As conicts between the public good and the private interests of the
technology industries come into focus, civil society and some governments are
starting to articulate new, more ethical paradigms of online freedoms that include
a duty of care, childrens rights, social justice, and an orientation toward human
rather than capital ends. These paradigms move beyond libertarian scaremon-
gering in which online privacy is an all-or-nothing proposition, either total
freedom from regulation and censorship, or a Big Brother style panopticon of
state censorship. Instead, a range of stakeholders are situating online harms
within a critique of the ways in which online architecture and administration
constitutes its own mode of regulation, albeit one designed for capital rather than
public interests.
In many regards, these shifts can be tied toward wider moves toward pro-
gressive capitalism(Stiglitz, 2019) that seeks to reembed markets within gov-
ernment control and social responsibility. It is undoubtedly the case that a
coherent, ethical, and accessible philosophical framework is a necessary basis
from which to ask the right questions about online child safety and protection and
then set about answering them, and this will surely lead to progress, although it is
unclear whether notions of progressive capitalismultimately are up to the task.
For example, legislating a statutory duty of caremay turn corporate attention
toward the minimization of potential harms embedded in online services and
products but does not directly address the cause of those harms. The current
formulation of social media business models generates enabling conditions for
abuse and exploitation, structuring user incentives in a way that creates
competitive and often alienating hierarchies in an effort to maximize engagement
and advertising revenue while harvesting user data (Salter, 2017). In other words,
social media companies are invested in maintaining online environments that are
conducive to abuse. There is a continuity between an increasingly outmoded
cyberlibertarianism and the friendlier face of a progressive capitalism,in that
they both legitimize the exploitation of users (including children) in the interests
of prot, albeit the former proposes that such exploitation is natural and inevi-
table, while the latter seeks to build in basic safeguards. It should, therefore, not
be a surprise if sexual exploitation persists on platforms built for user exploitation,
regardless of the stipulated corporate philosophy of the platform itself. A more
fundamental question is: What would an internet built in the interests of children
and other users look like? This is the truly ethical question we need to begin with,
journey on from, and keep bringing ourselves back to.
1. The Twitter account of Avri Sapir remains limited to followers; however, this
tweet was made on May 1st at 11.47 a.m. At the time of publication of this book,
as with most tweets, no allegation made by Avri has been proven in court.
2. The Technology Coalition has recently announced a Plan to Combat Online
Child Abusethat includes research and development funds for technological
toolsto prevent online child sexual exploitation (CSE) and the publication of an
I Need You All to Understand How Pervasive This Issue Is743
annual progress report charting industry efforts, see
3. Media reports indicate that reliance on human content moderators has been
reduced in the context of COVID-19 (Dwoskin, 2020).
4. For example, see Project Arachnid (
5. For example, see Five Country Ministerial. (n.d.). Voluntary Principles to Counter
Online Child Sexual Exploitation and Abuse. Retrieved from https://static1.squar-
6. While we have done our best to reect changes in this rapidly evolving policy
environment, the realities of publication mean that more recent changes may not
be incorporated in this chapter.
7. See MattsWhatItIs. (2019, February 17). Youtube is Facilitating the Sexual
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public account @AvriSapir, which is privateatthetimeofpublication.Republication
of these Twitter postings has been made with the consent of the owner of @AvriSapir.
11. Sapir, A. [@AvriSapir] (2020, 27 February 6.45 a.m.). This is what its like to be
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12. Sapir, A. [@AvriSapir] (2020, 27 February 6.45 a.m.).
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Twitter account allegedly sharing child sexual abuse material (CSAM) on the
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favor and report (redacted) using Twitters CSE form do NOT scroll through the
account, just report it please[Tweet].
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748 Michael Salter and Elly Hanson
... In addition, we must consider the ongoing psychological trauma that results from Victims / Survivors knowing that their abuse is available for others to view in perpetuity online, with feelings of helplessness, powerlessness, shame and fear common experiences for Victims / Survivors (von Weiler et al., 2010). This can create a sense of constant vigilance and concern that people they know may find the material online and identify them in the images (Leonard, 2010;Paulino et al., 2020;Salter & Hanson, 2021). ...
... This scholarly tradition of scepticism provides an important backdrop to a contemporary CSAM crisis. The undeniable proliferation of online CSAM and an increasingly vocal group of CSAM victims are highlighting a long-standing policy failure to recognize and address the multiple and acute needs of CSAM victims and the scale of demand for the material (Salter and Hanson, 2021). This policy and service gap can be linked to the cumulative delegitimization of victim reports that occurred during the 1980s and 1990s. ...
Full-text available
Child sexual abuse material is now recognised as a major social problem however, prior to the internet, disclosures of victimisation in abuse material were the subject of sceptical scholarly commentary. The veracity of the sceptical position has been subject to limited empirical scrutiny. The aim of this study is to analyse the content of a sample of 1004 images of pre-internet abuse material. The pre-internet sample was analysed according to the characteristics of victim/s, perpetrator/s and severity and setting of abuse, which were then compared to a pre-existing dataset of 34,561 contemporary abuse images. The findings of the study underscore the severity of pre-internet abuse material. The comparison between the pre-internet and contemporary sample found that the average age of girls abused in abuse material has decreased, and the severity of the material has increased. The study highlights the significant abuse experienced by abuse material victims prior to the internet, and suggests the popularisation of the internet is linked to a trend towards more serious offending against children in abuse material. The consistent role of the home as the major site of abuse material production poses significant challenges to prevention, early intervention and prosecution.
Full-text available
The central theory presented in this chapter is as follows: the ideology of cyber-libertarianism, combined with organizational social processes and the impact of power, have contributed to tech corporations acting in ways that facilitate child sexual exploitation (both directly and indirectly), and relatedly, have contributed to online spaces and processes being understood and approached as freer from social and moral concerns than others. Four key (interrelated) online routes to increased CSE are highlighted involving: a) online sex offending psychology, b) the online porn industry, c) online ‘escort’ agencies, and d) the interaction of social media and gaming platforms with adolescent developmental proclivities.
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Most users want their Twitter feed, Facebook page, and YouTube comments to be free of harassment and porn. Whether faced with “fake news” or livestreamed violence, “content moderators”-who censor or promote user-posted content-have never been more important. This is especially true when the tools that social media platforms use to curb trolling, ban hate speech, and censor pornography can also silence the speech you need to hear. In this revealing and nuanced exploration, award-winning sociologist and cultural observer Tarleton Gillespie provides an overview of current social media practices and explains the underlying rationales for how, when, and why these policies are enforced. In doing so, Gillespie highlights that content moderation receives too little public scrutiny even as it is shapes social norms and creates consequences for public discourse, cultural production, and the fabric of society. Based on interviews with content moderators, creators, and consumers, this accessible, timely book is a must-read for anyone who’s ever clicked “like” or “retweet.”.
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- Impact of child sexual abuse - Impact of online sexual abuse - also known as technology-assisted sexual abuse - Young people's views of professional responses to abuse - Young people's views on how sexual abuse could be better prevented and responded to - Dynamics of online sexual abuse
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In 2014, an orchestrated campaign of online abuse known as Gamergate overtook the global video game industry, calling unprecedented attention to the scope of gendered harassment on social media. Using Gamergate as an example, this paper argues that explanations of online abuse that focus on its cultural or technological dimensions fail to capture the mediating role of online platforms in rationalizing harassment and reputational damage. The concept of technological rationality pulls into focus the shared logics that shape platform design and administration as well as practices of online abuse. Proposed solutions to online abuse that fail to address technological rationality will ultimately leave in place the sociotechnical arrangements that make such abuse possible and impactful.
Citizen involvement in the provision of security is often presented as a win–win way to relieve pressure on police resources while building stronger, more responsible and democratically engaged communities. Governments in countries such as the United Kingdom and the Netherlands have adopted a ‘strategy of responsibilisation’ designed to encourage, enable and support citizens to take on tasks otherwise left for police. Yet, this strategy conspicuously ignores the growing number of citizen-led digital policing initiatives which operate independently without the encouragement or guidance of police. This article considers the implications of this trend for democratic norms in policing. It uses the phenomenon of self-styled paedophile hunters – which are now active in countries around the world – as a case study. The article makes comparisons between such initiatives and other, relatively well-theorised informal security providers, such as vigilante groups and civilian policing. It argues that, like vigilantes, citizen-led digital police often challenge democratic principles of transparency, accountability and the rule of law. Yet, like other civilian policing initiatives, they increase empowerment and participation, and rely for their success on the presence of strong and legitimate institutions of justice, to which they ultimately defer. These characteristics present a discreet set of opportunities and challenges for contemporary policing, which this article argues can only be addressed by strategic police engagement.
Conference Paper
Over the last decade, the illegal distribution of child sexual abuse imagery (CSAI) has transformed alongside the rise of online sharing platforms. In this paper, we present the first longitudinal measurement study of CSAI distribution online and the threat it poses to society's ability to combat child sexual abuse. Our results illustrate that CSAI has grown exponentially-to nearly 1 million detected events per month-exceeding the capabilities of independent clearinghouses and law enforcement to take action. In order to scale CSAI protections moving forward, we discuss techniques for automating detection and response by using recent advancements in machine learning.
In 2018, major social media companies became the focus of a ‘techlash’ in America. The business practices of Facebook, Google, Amazon, and Twitter came under intensive media and U.S. government scrutiny on a range of troubling issues, including wielding monopoly power, facilitating fake news, violating consumer privacy, and involvement in Russian disinformation campaigns during the 2016 U.S. Presidential election. An alternative private ordering approach to incorporating responsible innovation is proposed in lieu of public regulation: the self-regulating organization (SRO). A recent HarrisX poll found that only 31% of U.S. adults believe that the federal government is capable of regulating large technology companies; this provides an opportunity for the tech industry to develop an effective SRO. Yet, to be successful it will require a high degree of organizational transparency and accountability, and trade-offs made among the competing values of various industry stakeholders, including consumers, government representatives, small tech companies, civil society organizations and advocacy groups.
How is social media changing contemporary understandings of crime and injustice, and what contribution can it make to justice-seeking? Abuse on social media often involves betrayals of trust and invasions of privacy that range from the public circulation of intimate photographs to mass campaigns of public abuse and harassment using platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, 8chan and Reddit – forms of abuse that disproportionately target women and children. Crime, Justice and Social Media argues that online abuse is not discontinuous with established patterns of inequality but rather intersects with and amplifies them. Embedded within social media platforms are inducements to abuse and harass other users who are rarely provided with the tools to protect themselves or interrupt the abuse of others. There is a relationship between the values that shape the technological design and administration of social media, and those that inform the use of abuse and harassment to exclude and marginalise diverse participants in public life. Drawing on original qualitative research, this book is essential reading for students and scholars in the fields of cyber-crime, media and crime, cultural criminology, and gender and crime.