Sexual exploitation victim advocates encourage parents to become ‘experts in social media’

Problem Solvers

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — In the wake of OnlyFans’ decision to continue hosting explicit content, online human trafficking victim advocates are reminding the public of the risks associated with the anonymity of the Internet.

Content creators relying on OnlyFans for income exhaled a sigh of relief at the reversal, but victim advocates warn of just how easy it is for someone to record or steal pornographic material, and dangers minors face in the digital age.

“I have a great fear of that and I think it’s something that we need to pay attention to,” said Stephany Powell, director of law enforcement training and survivor services at the National Center of Sexual Exploitation.

Loopholes in online moderation?

A 2020 report released by the Internet Watch Foundation (IWF), which works internationally to minimize the availability of online sexual abuse, identified 68,000 cases of “self-generated imagery” shared online, referring to photos, videos, and other visual media created by victims of exploitation.

Girls aged 11 to 13 made up 80% of self-generated imagery last year, with 153,369 URLs containing or advertising child sexual abuse imagery – 44% of which was photographer or filmed by the victims, themselves, according to the report.

IWF experts, who spend entire shifts finding and removing child sexual abuse online, warned this content makes up almost half of materials taken offline. 

That’s why Alison Phillips, consultant at the Human Trafficking Training Center, said pornographic sites should be held accountable for those who are exploited on its platforms.

She said online predators would have far less access to potential victims absent of platforms like OnlyFans.

“If you listen to survivors talk about what it is that they’re purchased for, it’s not just ordinary sex,” Phillips said.

“A lot of them (buyers) are doing it because they want to have sexual access to a child, or they want to act out really violent types of things that you would never ask somebody that you care about to do.”

In May, a BBC News investigation found numerous accounts launched by minors on OnlyFans, some as young as 12-years-old, revealing loopholes in the website’s moderation procedure. 

The investigation points specifically to one 14-year-old who used their grandmother’s passport to gain access, along with a minor who hosted graphic videos on an adult account in Nevada, and others.

According to Polaris’ website, which connects survivors of human trafficking to victim services, 55% of domestic minor sex trafficking survivors who entered into the sex trade in 2015 or later reported meeting their trafficker for the first time using text, a website, or a mobile app.

Ami Gan, a spokesperson for OnlyFans, said the platform’s verification process is stringent.

“Prior to onboarding, all creators must provide their legal name, government-issued ID and a photograph of themselves holding their identification document,” she said. “This information is then verified using a variety of advanced technologies and manually cross-checked by trained professionals against the creator’s online presence.” 

Claire, 23, who started an OnlyFans account in February 2020, said she believes OnlyFans is better at moderation than other pornography websites.

“I know so many girls that got their page deleted for not providing the model releases in a set amount of time, or even like, guys who try to role play with you about meeting,” she said. 

“There’s no plans made to meet in any physical location. I know females that were just deleted for that, so even trying to organize any prostitution services is not allowed.”

Gan said the platform is firmly dedicated to protecting user content and pursuing litigation against any websites that refuse to remove stolen materials from OnlyFans.

“Takedown success rates are extremely high across offending image hosting sites, torrent providers, and cyberlockers,” Gan said in an email. “In addition to the services we provide through concerns raised to our DMCA (Digital Millennium Copyright Act) Support team by our users, OnlyFans also works with third-party providers to proactively identify and remove stolen content from the platform.”

But Powell said moderation isn’t enough because anyone can record or photograph a computer screen with their own phone before moderators track it down.

“You can’t control that,” she said. “Now, that person puts it on other pornography websites, or that person has it in their possession.”

Parenting on Platforms

Powell said parents should become experts in content platforms so they have a better understanding of online culture.

“The guidance that I would give to parents is they need to learn everything they need to know about those platforms that are out there, regardless if it’s OnlyFans or TikTok or Snapchat, to understand how it works,” she said. 

Powell said technology has made it easier for videos and photos to be manipulated or distorted, meaning filters and emojis often used to cover private body parts can be removed.

This became especially evident to her after TikTok users began participating in the #SilhoutteChallenge, a video trend in which people of all sizes flaunt their frames, while slightly concealed using a red filter, she said.

What started as an empowering movement for women to celebrate their bodies, quickly turned into an exploitive opportunity, as users began sharing tips and tutorials on how to remove the red filter to expose people’s naked bodies without their consent.

“You had these young kids doing the silhouette challenge thinking that because there is a red filter, that nobody would ever see that either, they hardly had anything on, or they had on nothing at all,” Powell said.

“I think that’s the beginning of a conversation to say, ‘Okay, even though what you might be doing, you might not see as dangerous, but there are people that are out there that can figure out ways to make this dangerous and this is how it puts you at risk.’”

She said conversations with children about the risks of social media are beneficial because kids might not understand how easy it is for someone online to discover their identity or exploit their content.

She also said creating explicit content online can have lasting effects and unintended consequences for the future.

“What happens when you’re not doing it anymore and you want to go into other things in your life, but you have established this footprint that’s going to follow you?” Powell said.

“The violence is one thing, but it’s that other footprint that is involved, because it’s not something that is socially accepted amongst all parts of society. Sometimes, those things can come back to bite you.”

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