On Instagram, a jewelry ad attracts requests for sex with a 5-year-old child

When the children’s jewelry maker began advertising on Instagram, it promoted photos of a 5-year-old girl with a sparkly charm to users interested in parenting, children, ballet and other topics that Meta identified as appealing mostly to women.

But when the marketer got the automated results of his Instagram ad campaign, the opposite happened: the ads almost exclusively reached adult men.

Confused and concerned, the businessman contacted The New York Times, which has published several articles about child abuse on social media platforms in recent years. In February, the Times investigated the Instagram accounts parents ran for their young daughters and the dark underworld of men who interacted sexually with those accounts.

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With photos from jewelry ads in hand, the Times set out to understand why they attracted an unwanted audience. Test ads run by the Times, using the same photos without text, not only replicated the marketer’s experience — they attracted the attention of convicted sex offenders and other men whose accounts indicated sexual interest in children or who wrote sexual messages.

The Times opened two Instagram accounts and promoted posts showing a 5-year-old girl with her face turned away from the camera, wearing a tank top and charms. Separate posts showed clothing and jewelry without the child model or with a black cabinet hiding her. All of the paid ads were promoted to people interested in topics like childhood, dance and cheerleading, which Meta’s audience tools estimated to be predominantly female.

In addition to reaching a surprisingly high proportion of men, the ads received direct responses from dozens of Instagram users, including phone calls from two accused sex offenders, offers to pay a child for sex acts and love offers.

The results suggest that the platform’s algorithms play an important role in directing men to photos of children. And they echo concerns about the prevalence of men using Instagram to track and contact minors, including those who have been arrested for using the social media to solicit children for sex.

New Mexico Attorney General Raúl Torrez announced on Facebook Wednesday the arrests of three men who were caught in a sting operation trying to arrange sex with underage girls. Calling it “Operation MetaPhile,” Torrez said Meta’s algorithms played a key role in directing these men to “decoy” profiles created by law enforcement agencies.

“We could start a brand new secret account posing as a minor child on this platform, and probably within minutes, if not days, that child will be inundated with sexually explicit material,” he said, highlighting the real-world harm they can cause online platforms.

A Times investigation in February found that thousands of parent-managed Instagram accounts were attracting sexualized comments and messages from grown men. While some parents described the attention as a way to increase their daughters’ followers, others complained about hours of user bans and said they did not understand how the men found the accounts.

An analysis of users who interacted with ads published by the Times found that the two worlds overlap. About three dozen men followed parent-run child influencer accounts previously studied by the Times; one followed 140. In addition, nearly 100 men followed accounts containing or advertising adult pornography, which is prohibited under Instagram’s rules.

Dani Lever, a spokeswoman for Meta, dismissed the Times ad tests as a “manufactured experience” that failed to take into account “the many factors that contribute to who ends up seeing an ad” and suggested it was “flawed and unhealthy”. draw conclusions from limited data.

When asked about the arrests in New Mexico, Meta said in a statement that “child exploitation is a terrible crime, and we’ve spent years building the technology to combat it.” The company described its efforts as an “ongoing fight” against “determined criminals.”

“The Men Engage”

Researchers and former employees who worked with algorithms at Meta, which owns Instagram and Facebook, said the image classification tools probably deserve some of the blame.

The tools compare new images with existing ones on the platform and identify users who have previously shown interest in them, said Dean Eckles, a former data scientist at Facebook who studied its algorithms and is now a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Test accounts set up by The Wall Street Journal last year found that Instagram’s recommendation algorithm delivered sexualized photos of children and adults to accounts that were followed only by young gymnasts, cheerleaders and other children.

Although Meta’s advertising system isn’t exactly the same as a referral system, there are “tremendous similarities” between the models, Eckles said.

Former Meta employees familiar with its recommendation and ad serving systems said security teams struggled to detect malicious ads, such as those promoting fraud or illegal drugs, but found it more difficult to identify innocuous ads delivered to inappropriate — and potentially harmful — to the audience.

Meta allows advertisers to target specific audiences by topic, and while the Times selected topics that the company said were female-dominated, ads were shown to men on average about 80% of the time, according to Instagram’s audience analysis. data. In one set of tests, photos of the baby went to men an average of 95% of the time, while photos of the objects themselves went to men 64% of the time.

Piotr Sapiezynski, a researcher at Northeastern University who specializes in testing online algorithms, said advertisers were competing with each other to reach women because they dominate American consumer spending. As a result, Sapiezynski said, the algorithm likely targeted highly engaged and easier-to-reach men who interacted with similar content.

“The men got involved,” he said. “The machine does exactly what you want it to do.

In a statement, Meta acknowledged the competitive landscape of ads for female viewers and said the “low quality” of the Times ads — from new accounts, with images but no text or explanation — contributed to them being shown to more men. Additionally, Meta said its Audience Insights data “only shows an estimate of who is potentially eligible to see an ad,” not a guaranteed audience.

Sapiezynski said that while the system flagged the test ads as “low quality,” it didn’t explain why more men viewed ads with children than ads without children.

‘Hi honey’

Hours after the first ad was published, one of the Times’ test accounts received a message and a phone call from a man arrested in 2015 in Oklahoma after allegedly using Facebook to try to arrange group sex with girls ages 12 and 14.

“Hi honey,” another man wrote. He was arrested in 2020 after contacting a 14-year-old girl in upstate New York via Snapchat and offering to pick her up for sex. The charges against him were dismissed after a court found him mentally incompetent.

A third Tennessee man who “liked” one of the photos has four convictions for child sex offenses — including “sex with a child” in 1999 while sharing a photo of a three- to five-year-old on Facebook in 2018. “was anally or vaginally penetrated” and used Instagram in 2020 to solicit nude photos from a 12-year-old girl he called his “sex slave”. (Instagram’s rules prohibit 12-year-olds.)

A fourth man, whom the Times could not identify, offered to pay for sexual acts with the girl in the photo.

The Times reached out to anyone involved with the ads via Instagram chat, explaining that they were tests of the journalist-run platform’s algorithm. The man in New York continued to send messages asking about the girl, asking if she was in his bedroom and if she wanted to have sex. He also tried to call her several times through the app.

In total, the Times identified four convicted sex offenders who sent messages, liked photos or left comments on the accounts. Their Instagram accounts used real names and pictures, or were linked to Facebook accounts that did. Convictions were found by comparing this information to sex offender databases and other public records.

Five other men, including one who posted a video on Instagram of a girl known to be a victim of child sexual abuse, have arrest records involving crimes against children, according to the Canadian Center for Child Protection. The men whose trials the Times records were able to review either pleaded guilty to a lesser charge or were deemed mentally unfit to stand trial.

Instagram’s rules prohibit convicted sex offenders from holding accounts, and the Times used the Meta tool to report the men. The accounts remained online for about a week until the Times reported them to a company spokesman.

Asked about the accounts, Lever said: “We ban convicted sex offenders from our platforms and have removed accounts that have been reported to us.

One of the men convicted of sexually assaulting a 4-year-old girl in New York falls under a state law — known as E-Stop — that requires sex offenders to register their email address. Every week, the state shares addresses with tech companies, including Meta.

Lever did not address how the company uses the information or how the man was able to create an Instagram account.

Some of the men said they responded to the ad out of fear.

One man, who is on parole after spending 46 years in a California prison for murdering his wife, said he was surprised to come across a 5-year-old girl in his feed, which featured mostly photos of scantily clad or nude adults.

“I had no problem looking at naked women, especially after 46 years in prison,” he wrote. But he continued: “My position on people who engage in child pornography or touch a child is quite simple: Don’t do it.”

The inclusion of men in the ads didn’t surprise some small business owners the Times spoke with. Morgan Koontz, founder of Bella & Omi, a West Virginia children’s clothing store that promotes itself on social media, said the company received “inappropriate, almost pedophilic, perverted comments” from men when they started advertising on Facebook in 2021.

“Our models were uncomfortable and we were uncomfortable,” she said.

When the company expanded to Instagram, she and co-owner Erica Barrios decided to avoid the problem by targeting only women, even though their regular customers include fathers and grandfathers.

Lindsey Rowse, who owns Tightspot Dancewear Center in Pennsylvania, also limits her ads to women. When she didn’t exclude men, she said they made up 75% of her audience and few bought her products. Separately, she limits how often she shares photos of child models in her non-advertising posts because they often attract men, she said.

“I don’t know how people will find it,” she said. “I would like to block all the guys.

Other business owners expressed similar confusion about how their ads were distributed. Young Days, a Utah-based children’s clothing company, has seen the share of men reach its ads more than double since January without major changes in targeting criteria, according to Brian Bergman, who oversees e-commerce. The shift toward men hurt sales, he said, and the company has since focused on reaching women.

“It’s not a lucrative business for us, but the algorithm keeps pushing us towards men,” he said.

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