Internet-based sexual exploitation of minors in Kenya was found to be more rampant on Facebook than on any other site, according to the newly released Disrupting Harm report -- making the tech giant’s platform exceedingly unsafe for children.
The report by Interpol, UNICEF’s Office of Research-Innocenti and End Violence against Children, found that Facebook accounted for more than 90% of all the instances of online sexual exploitation and abuse of minors in the East African country last year. The report was informed by data from the U.S. National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC), interviews with minors, their parents, policing agencies and legal representatives.
Alongside Facebook, WhatsApp, Instagram and YouTube made up other platforms where child sex abuse imagery and videos were commonly “possessed, manufactured and distributed”. This report comes in the wake of data from NCMEC showing that globally, Facebook reported more than 20 million child-sex abuse images last year, 37 times more than those reported by Google, which ranked second. It also succeeds investigations showing that Instagram seriously affects the mental health of teenage girls -- even as Meta, Instagram’s parent company, mulled plans to launch the currently paused Instagram Kids for minors under 13 years.
Meta told TechCrunch that it has taken several measures to protect minors using its platforms including using “sophisticated technologies” like PhotoDNA -- which detects and removes images that exploit children -- and by working closely with law enforcement agencies to stem the vice.
“We have no tolerance for this abhorrent abuse of children and use sophisticated technologies to combat it,” said Meta, Eastern Africa communications manager, Janet Kemboi.
“We encourage anyone who sees content they think violates our community standards to report it using our in-app reporting tools. We’ve recently made it easier to report content for violating our child exploitation policies, and now offer a dedicated option to report content that ‘involves a child’ on Facebook and Instagram. These reports are prioritized for review,” she said.
Overall, incidents of online child sexual abuse in Kenya also increased by six percentage points, to 14,434 occurrences, according to CyberTipline reports from the NCMEC. The CyberTipline is a centralized system for reporting incidents of sexual exploitation of minors. Kenya is the only country in East Africa that is connected directly to NCMEC's reporting system through its Directorate of Criminal Investigation's (DCI) Anti-Human Trafficking & Child Protection Unit (AHTCPU) and Interpol’s International Child Sexual Exploitation Database.
“WhatsApp and Facebook or Facebook Messenger were the social media and instant messaging apps via which children were most commonly targeted. This is probably because Facebook and WhatsApp – the two most popular social media platforms in Kenya – are where children spend much of their time online,” the report said.
Mueni Mutisya, the AHTCPU in-charge, told TechCrunch that the authority receives about 22 cybertip reports daily. She said the country has experienced a spike in cases recorded since the start of the COVID pandemic, a situation that has also been fueled by the use of social sites.
“Social media has enhanced sharing, production and distribution of online sexual exploitation and abuse (OCSEA). It has become much easier for predators to trick young people into sharing explicit images of themselves and falling prey to an overly sexualized culture.”
WhatsApp is the most popular social app in Kenya followed by Facebook and YouTube according to this social media landscape report. To date, more than three quarters of Kenya’s population is connected to the internet, making sites like Facebook and WhatsApp easily accessible.
In what looks like a shift in how offenders’ prey on children, more than half of the victims interviewed for the report said the request for sexual materials were made online rather than offline -- as one in five minors said they were approached in person. Minors aged 12 to 17 were most at risk of facing online sexual exploitation, according to the study which also reported that both girls and boys faced the same level of risk online.
The offenders were found to be often known to the victims and used gifts or money (sexual extortion) to sway the minors to meet with them or to share imagery or videos. The offers were commonly done through “Facebook or Facebook Messenger, WhatsApp and through YouTube”. A few cited Instagram and ByteDance’s platform TikTok. However, others were blackmailed or threatened into sharing or taking part in obscenities.
The report further indicated that foreign law enforcement agencies found Kenya to be a source of commercial forms of livestreaming of child sexual abuse. Google search engine trends showed that sex offenders in the country were in search of images and videos “depicting sexual activity with and between teenagers, with children and babies. Reports of security agencies identified Kenya as a hotspot for foreign traveling child-sex offenders too.
Online grooming of children for sexual purposes with the intent of manipulating them into generating and sharing abuse material, without any intention of meeting or abusing them in person, was also rife on social sites. The report said that this is one of the forms of OCSEA (together with livestreaming) that is not treated as a criminal offense in Kenya currently. Offenders can only be charged based on the Computer Misuse Act, which penalizes the perpetrators for exposing a child to sexualized content and the Sexual Offences Act that criminalizes child pornography.
“In Kenya, the provision of the upcoming Children Bill 2021 addressing online grooming will only cover online grooming with the intent of meeting the child and may not therefore apply to situations where, for example, a child is asked to send sexual content to an offender via online platforms,” the report noted.
The bill, which is currently going through legislative approval, was submitted in 2020. A fortnight ago, lawmakers invited the public to make recommendations for the new law -- providing an opportunity for this gap to be plugged.
“It is hoped that a provision outlawing grooming where the sexual abuse occurs online could still be included,” the report said.
Owing to the cross-border nature of these crimes, Kenya works closely with international and local authorities to track the activities of the offenders and to make arrests. Kenya’s DCI AHTCPU also works with the country’s communications regulator to alert the public of the nature of these crimes and to encourage them to make reports.
“Because of the Global nature of internet crimes, the DCI AHTCPU has partnered with other national and international strategic partners to help in the fight against OCSEA. We use Interpol to issue notices in case of cross border OCSEA cases,” said Mutisya.
“We also work closely with the International Liaison Officer at the British High commission and the FBI legal attaché at the U.S. Embassy (in Kenya) as well as our international counterparts to seek justice for victims of online abuse and follow up on offenders. This is in addition to public outreach and school visits to educate, create awareness and sensitize,” she said.
Disrupting Harm authors hope the findings made in the report will offer a road map for the adoption of strategies for dealing with the online sexual abuse of children.
The story has been updated to include a response from Meta.