July 3, 2019

How Instagram Can Stop Sexual Grooming, Abuse, and Trafficking On Its App

On behalf of our 300+-member Coalition to End Sexual Exploitation and the tens of thousands of concerned citizens who serve as our supporters, the National Center on Sexual Exploitation thanks Instagram for its efforts to promote digital wellbeing and online safety. However, despite these efforts, there is still rampant grooming for sexual abuse, sex trafficking, and child pornography happening on Instagram.

Given Instagram’s commitment to improving users’ experience and safety, we request that Instagram make these additional advances:

  • Formally recognize the intersectional connection between self-produced pornography or “sexts” and sexual extortion or sex trafficking, and take this into account when creating safety policies and procedures;
  • Make privacy settings more visible in order to increase awareness of safety tools;
  • When an account is private, remove the ability for strangers to send unsolicited direct messages to that account and remove the ability for that person’s account to be visible in the Likes or Comments on other posts—similarly to how Twitter hides the names of accounts when they are set to private;
  • Create an alert that appears in the direct messages area whenever a new person sends a user a direct message – which alerts the user to the fact that they can report accounts. Many teenagers and adults are unsure how to define sexual harassment, so we encourage Instagram to also include a link within that safety alert to the following definition of sexual harassment: Sexual harassment includes but is not limited to, unwanted sexual advances or attention including physical actions, speech that is sexually provocative, and unsolicited sending of or requests for pornography or nude images/videos. This kind of notification could mirror Instagram’s efforts on self-harm as outlined here: by also giving them the option to connect with services;
  • Include more information about sexual harassment, the dangers of sexting in relation to sexual extortion, and grooming for sexual abuse or trafficking in the Parenting Tips and Safety Tips sections of the website and the Instagram Parent’s Guide;
  • Define the behavior that younger users are likely to see in the app descriptions, include in places like Google Play, Apple Store, and your website.
  • Verify the real person behind every Instagram account in order to cut down on the number of fake accounts run by pimps, sex traffickers, or abusers. Using email alone as a verification tool is not enough considering the ease of creating new email accounts if one gets banned;
  • Create a flagging system so that individuals are flagged for sending more than a certain number of Direct Messages to non-contacts in a given time period or for harassing multiple users, then after a certain number of flags this person’s account should come up for review and may be banned from creating any other account. This flagging system should also be used to identify abusive networks, such as individuals with numerous flags who are networking in group chats or targeting certain victims.

Some Current Problems on Instagram

Privacy Settings

It takes four clicks to turn on privacy settings, which are not intuitive. Please move the privacy settings to the first page of the menu, potentially under “Your Activity” in order to promote awareness of this safety feature.

Examples of Coercion in Posting Pornographic Videos or Ads for Sex Acts on Instagram

Several 15-year-old girls who survived sex trafficking told NCOSE that girls were often forced to perform sex acts, or nude dances, on Instagram Live in a manner that made it look as if they were consenting during the act even though their trafficker stood in the corner the whole time.

Another young girl shared her story online about how being direct messaged by a pimp on Instagram as a minor eventually led to her being sold for sex on the streets.

Another anonymous girl shared with NCOSE that she was solicited on Instagram to send nude images, and after she did, that person used it to blackmail her into sex trafficking.

A California man has been charged with sex trafficking after forcing a San Jose woman he met on Instagram into a life of prostitution all over the western United States, authorities say.

A Texas pimp/trafficker created a dedicated Instagram page for selling 15-20 women for sex. “Get a glimpse of the life of these Macknificent ladies!” he wrote. He also created a Facebook page for the women with a “book now” option. Police referred to the women in his Instagram posts as being “controlled” by him. According to Felicia Grantham, human trafficking coordinator for the Fort Worth Police Department, there have been “53 at least semi-identified victims.”

A Nashville man was been sentenced to 15 years in federal prison in a sex trafficking case involving a 13-year-old girl. He met Instagram in 2016 and recruited her on that platform.

Examples of Grooming/Soliciting Direct Messages

A child advocate ally created a 15-year-old girl account, which liked a few celebrities and “cute boys” accounts.  Within two hours she got a message from a man soliciting for nude pictures and send her some.

A young college student told NCOSE there are accounts on Instagram targeting her sorority friends attempting to groom them for commercial sexual exploitation in a “sugar baby” relationship. Given insurmountable student debt facing many college students, they are particularly economically vulnerable to this kind of sexual exploitation.

We hope that Instagram will take a more proactive approach to ending sexual harassment, abuse, and exploitation on its platform.

Dawn Hawkins

Chief Executive Officer

Dawn Hawkins is CEO of the National Center on Sexual Exploitation, the leading organization exposing the connections between all forms of sexual exploitation, including sex trafficking, prostitution, pornography, and child sexual abuse. Dawn’s energy, creativity and mobilization skills are deployed to build a world free from sexual violence, with freedom and human dignity for all.

Dawn is deeply committed to bipartisan political solutions at the federal and state level. Her issue expertise, visionary initiatives, and innovative strategy have led to groundbreaking change in the legislative arena and in multimillion-dollar corporate policies.

Dawn has been instrumental in re-imaging the National Center on Sexual Exploitation. She has centered the need to address buyer demand for commercial sex, called out corporate entities facilitating exploitation through the annual Dirty Dozen List, fostered an international movement, and constantly: advocates for survivors. Her work has sparked change at Google, Hilton Worldwide, Comcast, Walmart, the Department of Defense, Instagram, TikTok, and other influential firms. Dawn has appeared on many television programs, including CNN, Fox & Friends, and Good Morning America. She regularly authors articles and speaks around the country addressing the public health harms of pornography, curbing demand for sex trafficking, protecting children and families in our digital world, and more.

Further Reading