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Social media users exposed to extreme child sexual exploitation material through criminal pyramid scheme

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Kristin Shorten
The Nightly
4 Min Read
Social media users are being unwittingly exposed to extreme child sexual abuse through the use of viral marketing techniques.
Social media users are being unwittingly exposed to extreme child sexual abuse through the use of viral marketing techniques. Credit: Art by William Pearce/The Nightly

Social media users are being unwittingly exposed to extreme child sexual abuse material through the use of a viral marketing technique, in a disturbing new trend that rewards criminals for spamming some of the most popular platforms with links to illegal content.

New data, released by the Internet Watch Foundation on Tuesday, reveals the public faces an “escalating risk” of accidental exposure to traumatic exploitation material by clicking on links that lead to “invite child abuse pyramid” sites, or ICAP sites for short.

The illegal sites incentivise buyers of child sexual abuse content to “spam” or share thousands of links widely on the open web that, once clicked on, lead to the viral sites.

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The IWF says links are frequently shared in chat rooms related to child sexual abuse, but also on unrelated platforms easily accessible to the public, like social media sites and even digital music apps.

Users are incentivised to share links to child sexual abuse sites far and wide in a “scattergun” approach which spams links to a variety of social media platforms, with the aim of recruiting as many “buyers” as possible.

The criminals running the sites benefit from increased web traffic and additional income with offenders potentially buying further videos of child sexual abuse and creating their own links to spam to others.

IWF chief executive Susie Hargreaves says the trend is “really, really disturbing”

“It’s insidious and is being treated like a game or marketing ploy by these criminals,” she said.

“It’s an astoundingly callous way of profiteering from the abuse, rape and sexual torture of children.

“The links are an attempt to attract new users into viewing abhorrent videos that they were not expecting to see.”

This comes as the IWF’s annual report, released today, reveals it is facing more child sexual abuse imagery online than ever before in its 28-year history.

Overall, in 2023, the IWF found 275,655 web pages containing child sexual abuse – a record-breaking amount.

The IWF, a UK-based organisation that hunts down and removes child sexual abuse material from the internet, first identified ICAP sites in mid-2022.

Since then, its hotline has received thousands of reports about this method of distribution.

“We’ve seen in this past year how the commercial landscape is changing and how viral marketing techniques – pyramid scheme-type sites – are being used to increase the number of people who see child sexual abuse material,” a spokesperson said.

“This technique has resulted in thousands of public reports being made to us.”

Last year 14,892 reports of ICAP sites were identified by IWF analysts as containing child sexual abuse images.

“It is essentially a pyramid scheme, but this one where the ‘commodity’ is imagery showing the sexual abuse of children,” a spokesperson said.

“ICAP sites often contain videos of babies, toddlers and young children up to six years old.

“They also almost always contain category A content, which is the most severe category.”

Experts at the IWF point to criminal gangs operating viral commercial child sexual abuse sites as the reason for the significant increase in reports.

“Stumbling upon child sexual abuse material is a shocking and frightening occurrence for many people,” a spokesperson said.

“Nearly all our reports of ICAP sites, and sites which contain links to ICAP sites, originate from the public who have stumbled across them, as opposed to us proactively finding them.”

ICAP websites are notorious as ‘repeat offenders’ that can persist online after the original version has been taken down as the sites jump from one hosting provider to another.

“ICAP links tend to be fleeting – they appear and often come down quickly – but they are fast spreading,” its annual report said.

“These links have become a prolific source for distributing this criminal content and, disturbingly, they are being posted in highly public places online.

“This means that the public is vulnerable to being exposed to child sexual abuse material.”

During a live study of the trend, the IWF carried out a search in Google, by typing in the name of one of the ICAP sites which had been actioned by IWF analysts.

“It returned several results. The top result was a publicly accessible account on a well-known social media platform,” its report said.

“Clicking on it led to an innocuous-looking video of a young girl playing on a loop. She was jumping into a swimming pool whilst on holiday.

“However, the posts on the account told a very different story.”

Ms Hargreaves has warned users to avoid clicking on unsolicited links or suspect posts and to report any suspected child sexual abuse material on the internet.

“In each video, and each image on these sites, there is a real victim. A childhood forever marked by the horror of that abuse,” she said.

“These sites revictimise children by spreading the abuse further, and they risk exposing unexpecting members of the public to this material.

“Material which can be traumatic to see and which can stay with people for life.”

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