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A massive cleanup job

TRENDING | Twitter has made moves to remove child porn, but there’s still a lot of work to do

Illustration by Shonagh Rae

A massive cleanup job
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IN A FEDERAL LAWSUIT against Twitter, two boys say they were sexually exploited on the social media platform. One of the boys said that when he was 13, an online predator posed as a 16-year-old girl and ­solicited explicit photos. Three years later, the boy learned the photos were being distributed on Twitter.

He says Twitter denied his and his mother’s request to remove the photos, which garnered 2,000 retweets and 160,000 views, and did not remove the photos until the Department of Homeland Security became involved. The case is now before the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

Several Twitter accounts with content that reportedly sexually exploits children racked up more than 10 million views before Elon Musk took over the company, according to a report in December from an independent cybersecurity and data analyst working with Twitter’s new management. More than 95 percent of the active Twitter accounts with exploitative videos had “acted with impunity for years,” the analyst, Andrea Stroppa of the cybersecurity group Ghost Data, said in a tweet.

Eliza Bleu, an advocate and a trafficking survivor, claimed Musk told her over the phone before his Oct. 27 purchase of Twitter that ridding the platform of child porn was his top priority. Since his takeover, Musk has said publicly it is “Priority #1.” On Nov. 19, Bleu tweeted that one of the most popular hashtags used to sell child porn “is almost completely cleaned out.”

Meanwhile, Twitter’s safety team touted improved detection and enforcement ­methods, which it said led to more accounts containing child pornography being suspended in November than in any previous month in 2022. It also reinstated a reporting mechanism for minors experiencing sexual exploitation on the platform. Stroppa said in a tweet that the platform removed 44,000 accounts apparently involving child pornography, including 1,300 attempting to bypass Twitter’s detection efforts.

The Twitter logo is posted on the exterior of Twitter headquarters in San Francisco.

The Twitter logo is posted on the exterior of Twitter headquarters in San Francisco. Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

In a Dec. 9 Twitter Spaces audio session, Bleu accused past leadership of being more concerned about censoring users’ speech and ideas than removing child sexual abuse material. Both Musk and Ella Irwin, who was recently promoted to Twitter’s trust and safety head, attended the session.

Bleu is among the anti-trafficking advocates who say they are cautiously hopeful that the company may better police the ­platform for child porn.

For several years in a row, the National Center on Sexual Exploitation (NCOSE) has placed Twitter on its “Dirty Dozen” list for its failure to stop pedophiles and predators from trading child porn on the platform. NCOSE’s own research detected child porn on Twitter and repeatedly reported accounts and hashtags to the company. But the accounts were not removed and continued amassing views, Lina Nealon, NCOSE’s director of corporate and strategic initiatives, told me on a phone call. In 2021, the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children received nearly 87,000 reports of child porn on the platform.

Nealon says that while Musk appears in public comments and some recent actions to care about cleaning up child porn, “we’re also seeing plans and actions that could mitigate that movement.”

Unlike Facebook and Instagram, Twitter permits adult pornography and has no mechanism to verify age or consent. Under Musk, the company has considered adding a paywall video ­feature similar to the lucrative porn sharing site OnlyFans, according to an internal email obtained by The Washington Post. Anti-trafficking advocates—and Twitter’s own analysts in a study earlier this year—said the feature would make child porn and trafficking harder to detect and likely cause it to proliferate further.

Critics of Musk say Twitter’s skeletal staff is even less capable of managing the rampant child pornography on the platform.

Nealon and other anti-trafficking advocates note that while Instagram, TikTok, and YouTube banned Pornhub, a porn website known for sexually exploiting children, Twitter has allowed the site to maintain its account.

In a Twitter dispute with Musk, the company’s co-founder and past CEO Jack Dorsey defended the company’s track record on child porn. But two former staff members told The Washington Post that previous executives had not dedicated enough resources to combating such content.

Critics of Musk, including former employees, say the company’s skeletal staff is even less capable of managing rampant child pornography on the platform. Irwin, the Twitter safety chief, has disputed that claim, telling Bleu during the Twitter Spaces conversation that the company is “moving faster than we’ve ever moved.” Irwin said when she joined the company last June, she found “gaping holes” in staffing and resources devoted to child safety. Under Musk, she believes, the company will implement much-needed changes.

Nealon is measured in her optimism since she says child porn is still too easy to find on Twitter. “It’s too early to applaud Musk as completely changing the platform,” she said. “It’s been an ecosystem of exploitation. The things that have made it that have not changed yet.”

Mary Jackson

Mary is a book reviewer and senior writer for WORLD. She is a World Journalism Institute and Greenville University graduate who previously worked for the Lansing (Mich.) State Journal. Mary resides with her family in the San Francisco Bay area.



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