Investigative journalists writing for The Guardian Mei-Ling McNamara and Katie McQue spent two years looking into reports that sex traffickers were using Facebook and Instagram to exploit children, sell their images online and sell the children themselves to real-world sexual abusers. Cormac Ó hEadhra spoke to Mei-Ling about her work on Drivetime; the contents of their conversation may be upsetting to some readers and listeners.

Mei-Ling says her investigation set out to cover real-world harms that are suffered by children, to what degree social media platforms could be playing a part in this, what Facebook and Instagram and their parent company Meta say they are doing to combat child trafficking, and finally whether platforms are doing what they say they are doing to fight the sexual exploitation of minors. The problem is vast, Mei-Ling says:

"Over half of the Federal child sex trafficking cases in the United States are being found on Facebook and Instagram and we wanted to see why this was happening."

Child trafficking does not necessarily mean moving children across borders, Mei-LIng explains. Child sex trafficking is the sexual exploitation of a child specifically as part of a commercial transaction, she says. Under international law, children cannot legally consent to sex acts, so anyone who profits from or pays for a sex act involving a child or a sexually exploitative image of a child is considered a human trafficker.

Mei-Ling says that some children are uniquely vulnerable online and predators are using social media to find the most vulnerable among them. She and her colleague wanted to find out what kind of steps were being taken by platforms to protect those children:

"For us, it was looking at what measures are in place by the platforms to warn these individuals, to have a duty of care. To what extent are there content moderation practices, stopping adults from interacting with minors."

There are several steps in the process of exploiting a child online, starting with grooming. Mei-Ling tells the story of one girl in the US who fell prey to their tactics:

"Maya Jones was 12 years old when she was first contacted by an adult male over Instagram. This person groomed her. And grooming, just to be clear, is the process of getting somebody to like you, to feel flattered by you, to feel that they are dependent on you. And this person flattered this very young pre-teen and eventually, she fell into this trap and she was basically asked to take photos for him was sold online, was sold on Instagram to sex buyer snd that subsequently involved years of being trafficked."

Cormac asked Mei-Ling if the traffickers are just flagrantly advertising on Facebook and Instagram? She says that sex trafficking has been going on for a very long time and it pre-dates social media, but social platforms can make things easier for predators in certain respects:

"What social media has done, is it’s allowing predators to connect with victims much quicker and it’s allowing those predators to sell those victims online to sex traffickers or to sex buyers a lot easier."

Based on her investigation for The Guardian, Mei-Ling says that she thinks tech giants like Meta (owners of Facebook and Instagram) should be doing much more to protect children than they are at present. Cormac went through part of a statement from Meta which appeared in the reporting by McNamara and McQue:

"They say they work with experts and law enforcement agencies, working to aggressively fight against the exploitation of children, they say, we don’t allow it, we work to aggressively to fight the exploitation of children, on and off our platforms. We respond to law enforcement’s legal requests, which aid the arrest and prosecution of the criminals who perpetrate these grotesque offences, they say."

According to their statement, Meta says that the UK's serious crime agency has said that traffickers are "increasingly frustrated" by the measures they are taking. Mei-Ling says that the company does make some efforts to speak to law enforcement and they have a zero-tolerance for trafficking policy statement on their website. However, she says that her investigation sought to put Meta's claims to the test, to see if there was evidence that they stood up to scrutiny. She says they did not find much evidence for this:

"What we really found in this case, we received a subpoena request shown to us, that for a decade, from 2009 to 2019, the company only reported 3 cases of child sex trafficking to the Federal agency that is supposed to be used as a clearing house for law enforcement."

The numbers of cases that were reported to the relevant federal agencies were in single figures, the investigation found:

"What we were also hearing from META in the interview with them, was that they report 10s of thousands of cases of child sex trafficking and child sexual abuse material but the federal agency came back and said that they don’t. So, there’s a big discrepancy here in what they say and what we’re finding, in terms of gaps in reporting and in terms of knowledge."

In the course of reporting for The Guardian, Mei-lin says that she personally met many more young people trafficked online than the three that Federal agencies say Facebook/META reported to them in a 10-year period. She lists some of her sources: law enforcement warrants and subpoenas they had issued to META as well as victims and service providers who work with victims of child trafficking. Some of these service providers had tried and failed to get content relating to children taken down from META platforms like Facebook and Instagram.

"So there’s a lot of contradicting evidence that we found."

Listen back to Cormac's full interview with investigative journalist Mei-Ling McNamara here.

If you’ve been personally affected by any issues that came up in this article, you can find details of support services here.