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Ad Featuring Young Girl Shown to Sex Offenders on Instagram

Meta disputes 'New York Times' test as a 'manufactured experience'
By Arden Dier,  Newser Staff
Posted May 14, 2024 10:10 AM CDT
Ad Featuring Young Girl Shown to Sex Offenders on Instagram
The Instagram logo is seen on a cellphone in Boston on Oct. 14, 2022.   (AP Photo/Michael Dwyer, File)

Instagram's algorithms are putting innocent photos of children in front of men with pedophilic tendencies, the New York Times reports, offering data from its own tests as evidence. The outlet began investigating after a maker of children's jewelry who paid to advertise her products to a mostly female audience on Meta's Instagram found the ads featuring a 5-year-old girl in a tank top were largely shown to adult men. The Times launched its own test ads using an image of the girl wearing the jewelry and another showing the jewelry against a simple background, which were to be directed at people interested in children and parenting, identified by Meta as mostly women.

But in one test, ads featuring the jewelry alone were shown to men 64% of the time, while ads featuring the child were shown to men 95% of the time. Most alarming, the ads "drew the attention of convicted sex offenders and other men whose accounts indicated a sexual interest in children or who wrote sexual messages," the Times reports. Four convicted sex offenders and five other men with arrest records involving crimes against children interacted with the ads through likes, comments, or messages. Two accused sex offenders tried to reach the accounts by phone. Meanwhile, one man asked if the girl wanted to have sex; another unidentified man offered to pay for sex acts with the girl.

According to the Times, Meta's algorithms are part of the problem. They "compare new images with existing ones on the platform and identify users who previously showed interest in them." Dozens of men who interacted with the ads followed child influencer accounts. Nearly 100 followed accounts featuring or advertising adult pornography, which is banned under Instagram's rules. The Times reported the accounts of the convicted sex offenders, who are also banned under Instagram's rules, but they weren't removed until the paper notified a company rep directly, about a week later. The outlet notes one of the men was required by law to register his email address on a state list, which is shared with Meta and other social media companies each week.

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A rep for Meta claimed the tests were a "manufactured experience" that ignored "the many factors that contribute to who ultimately sees an ad." The rep also said the "low quality" of the ads contributed to them being shown to more men. The company adds it has "spent years building technology to combat" child exploitation. However, Meta was recently criticized for rolling out encryption for direct messages. In December, former Meta engineering director David Erb told the Wall Street Journal he resigned in protest of the initiative in 2019, fearing encryption would prevent the detection of child sex abuse on the platforms. Around that time, "there were millions of pedophiles targeting tens of millions of children," he said. (More Meta stories.)

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