Facebook asked users if pedophiles should be able to ask kids for ‘sexual pictures’
SAN FRANCISCO — Facebook is under fire for asking users whether pedophiles should be able to proposition underage girls for sexually explicit photographs on the giant social network.
The survey is the latest in a series of missteps by the Silicon Valley company, which has been criticized for allowing content that exploits children.
From violence on its Live streaming service to hate speech to divisive messages sent by Russian operatives trying to to meddle in the U.S. presidential election, toxic content flowing through its platform has heightened scrutiny of Facebook.
Facebook scrapped the survey that posed questions about teens being groomed by older men after it was spotted by media outlets in the United Kingdom. It now says the survey could have been better “designed.”
The company routinely uses surveys to get feedback from the social network’s more than 2 billion users. More recently, Facebook has been relying on user surveys to take their pulse on everything from the “fake news” epidemic to whether Facebook makes them happy as people have stopped spending as much time there.
But the two questions in Sunday’s survey shocked and angered Facebook users.
“In thinking about an ideal world where you could set Facebook’s policies, how would you handle the following: a private message in which an adult man asks a 14-year-old girl for sexual pictures,” Facebook asked.
Sexual contact with minors online, part of a “grooming process” in which adults seek to gain trust and lower inhibition, is often a precursor to sexual abuse.
The possible responses Facebook offered to the question ranged from “this content should not be allowed on Facebook, and no one should be able to see it” to “this content should be allowed on Facebook, and I would not mind seeing it.”
Another question asked who should decide whether an adult man can ask for sexual pictures on Facebook, with options ranging from “Facebook users decide the rules by voting and tell Facebook” to “Facebook decides the rules on its own.”
Jonathan Haynes, digital editor at the Guardian newspaper, tweeted: “I’m like, er wait is making it secret the best Facebook can offer here? Not, y’know, calling the police?”
“That was a mistake,” Guy Rosen, a vice president of product at Facebook, responded.
“We run surveys to understand how the community thinks about how we set policies,” he wrote on Twitter. “But this kind of activity is and will always be completely unacceptable on (Facebook). We regularly work with authorities if identified. It shouldn’t have been part of this survey.”
“It is hard to believe that Facebook could be so utterly tone-deaf when it comes to this issue,” said Diana Graber, founder of Cyber Civics and CyberWise which teach digital literacy to kids and parents. “The fact that Facebook would even pose this question theoretically is disgusting.”
In a statement, Facebook said the survey referred to “offensive content that is already prohibited on Facebook and that we have no intention of allowing.”
Stacey Steinberg, a law professor at the University of Florida and author of Sharenting: Children’s Privacy in the Age of Social Media, says the Facebook survey sent a “terrible message” and, worse yet, normalizes predatory behavior.
Facebook shouldn’t be asking users whether such behavior is acceptable, it should be educating families on the risks posed by online predators, she said.
“Working with law enforcement is an important first step, but Facebook can do even more. Instead of asking questions such as the ones posed in this survey, Facebook can use its reach to help families and victims,” Steinberg said.
Digital citizenship expert and technology ethicist David Ryan Polgar chalks up the flap over the survey to “massive growing pains” as Facebook wrestles with its social responsibility.
“The misstep with the survey seems to be a situation of good intentions that did not fully appreciate the rightful anger and frustration the general public feels towards the current online environment,” he said.
International attention to how pedophiles use social media to target and prey on children has grown in recent years.
An investigation by the BBC in 2016 uncovered numerous private Facebook groups by and for men with a sexual interest in children to share images, with one run by a convicted pedophile. Photos of children taken from their parents’ Facebook accounts have also been found on pedophile sites.
Facebook faced criticism again in 2017 when the BBC flagged dozens of images and pages containing child pornography. Of the 100 reported images,18 were removed by Facebook, according to the BBC. At the time, the BBC said Facebook asked to be sent examples of the images and then reported the broadcaster to the child exploitation unit of Britain’s National Crime Agency.
Verified child sex abuse images are sent to the U.S. National Center for Missing and Exploited Children and other organizations that work with law enforcement to find offenders. Facebook also combats the spread of child pornography with technology that detects and blocks content from being uploaded.
“We have prohibited child grooming on Facebook since our earliest days,” the company said. “We have no intention of changing this, and we regularly work with the police to ensure that anyone found acting in such a way is brought to justice.”