Instagram Algorithm Readily Spreads Underage Sexual Content, WSJ Investigation Finds

Meta, saying “child exploitation is a horrific crime,” launches a task force to handle the problem, though details are scarce

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Instagram is spreading child pornography due to a lack of oversight and recommendation algorithms that don’t adequately discriminate good from bad, the Wall Street Journal has found.

The platform makes it easy to find by permitting searchable hashtags that explicitly seek out underage content, the WSJ discovered, through its investigation in coordination with researchers at Stanford and the University of Massachusetts Amherst.

Meanwhile, Instagram’s algorithms promote underage-sex content by directing customers toward sellers with those materials for sale.

Some Instagram users utilize codes to very thinly veil their activity. A map emoji could represent an account appealing to “minor-attracted persons,” while “cheese pizza” could stand for child pornography.

Because of how Instagram is set up, those who accidentally stumble upon such content start getting algorithmic recommendations for more and more of it. In addition, Meta is failing to effectively moderate numerous instances of content overtly signaling child-porn-related subject matter.

In response to the Wall Street Journal, a Meta spokesperson acknowledged the company’s policy enforcement and moderation failures and said it has launched an internal task force to combat the problem on Instagram, though details of the task force’s plans were scarce. “Child exploitation is a horrific crime,” Meta told the Journal.

Meta has taken down 27 pedophile networks in the past two years, but its moderation work is far from over. It’s now taken the step of blocking thousands of hashtags dedicated to facilitating child sexualization content on Instagram. The company is working on system improvements that will stop Instagram from offering recommendations that help connect pedophiles and their content.

“That a team of three academics with limited access could find such a huge network should set off alarms at Meta,” said Alex Stamos, the head of the Stanford Internet Observatory and former Meta chief security officer.

Meta did not immediately respond to TheWrap’s request for comment.