Researcher Lara Putnam alleged that Facebook has a problem with “child predation.”
Putnam, a history professor at the University of Pittsburgh, was working on a project about “disinformation” when she said she discovered some concerning things about the platform.
Putnam alleged in Wired that she had searched for the 10th, 11th, or 12th wards of the City of Pittsburgh when the phrase “Buscando novi@ de 9,10,11,12,13 años.” The meaning of the phrase? “Looking for a 9-year old girlfriend.”
“The page’s aesthetic was cartoon cute: oversized eyes with long lashes, hearts, and pastels,” Putnam wrote. “The posts that made explicit references to photographed genitalia were gamified and spangled with emoticons: ‘See your age in this list? Type it into the replies and I’ll show ‘it’ to you.”
Putnam appeared to be horrified.
“Most often posts were just doorways to connection, the real danger offstage. ‘Looking for a perverted girlfriend of 11,’ read one post, with purple background and heart emojis. Replies asked for friend requests to continue via Messenger, or offered entry to private groups or WhatsApp chats—away from the eyes of even a digital passerby.”
Part of the horror was the visibility of the search results on Facebook.
“[A]s late as January 2022—three months into my efforts to get action taken against them—if I searched 11, 12, 13 on the platform, 23 of the first 30 results were groups targeting children of those ages, with group names that included the words boyfriend/girlfriend, novio/a, or niños/niñas, sometimes along with ‘pervertidos,’ ‘hot,’ etc,” Putnam wrote. “They totaled over 81,000 members.”
It should be noted that no one under the age of 13 is “allowed” to join Facebook. However, in one study forty-five percent of US children aged 9 to 12 reported using the platform every day.
Putnam stated multiple Facebook rules had been violated in such posts, but she found them easily in multiple languages from multiple countries.
“Everyone interacting in such a group is by definition a child violating Facebook policies by being on Facebook, an adult violating Facebook policies by impersonating a child, or an adult openly acting as an adult as they violate Facebook policy (and multiple state and international laws) by seeking sexualized contact with children,” she added.
Horrifically, Facebook reportedly said the group did not violate any of the platform’s rules after Putnam reported it. Putnam argued that “AI-driven algorithms” were the problem.
“If your local mall had a whole section of storefronts advertising ‘Boys and girls 10, 11, 12 years old, come find your sexy romance here’—with open doors leading back into a warren of hidden photo booths—and the mall owners set up a free on-demand shuttle service to pick up any child at any time—would we shrug and say, oh well, nothing to be done? Blame the parents, look away?” she asked.