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America: A Child Pornocracy

Stunning NYT report on the severity and quantity of child porn raises the question: can humanity survive the Internet?
Child abuse  - Concept Photo

I still can’t get over the big story in Sunday’s New York Times about the explosion in child pornography in the age of the Internet: last year, investigators found over 45 million videos and images of child pornography on the Internet — over twice what had been reported in the previous year.

None of these photos accompany the piece, obviously, but at one point, deep in the story, there are brief descriptions of some of the material that investigators have found — descriptions of the filmed sexual torture of children so horrible that I warn you in the strongest terms not to read the story if you aren’t prepared for this. When I read this part of the piece, I very nearly cried tears of anger, and immediately wished there were hit teams dispatched to take out anyone who produces this material. It’s exactly that evil.

So: you have been warned. I won’t quote from that particular material in this post, so you can read on without having to worry. I want you to keep in mind as you proceed here that I’m talking about the sexual torture of children filmed and distributed widely for the pleasure of adults.

Here is the lead section:

The images are horrific. Children, some just 3 or 4 years old, being sexually abused and in some cases tortured.

Pictures of child sexual abuse have long been produced and shared to satisfy twisted adult obsessions. But it has never been like this: Technology companies reported a record 45 million online photos and videos of the abuse last year.

More than a decade ago, when the reported number was less than a million, the proliferation of the explicit imagery had already reached a crisis point. Tech companies, law enforcement agencies and legislators in Washington responded, committing to new measures meant to rein in the scourge. Landmark legislation passed in 2008.

Yet the explosion in detected content kept growing — exponentially.

An investigation by The New York Times found an insatiable criminal underworld that had exploited the flawed and insufficient efforts to contain it. As with hate speech and terrorist propaganda, many tech companies failed to adequately police sexual abuse imagery on their platforms, or failed to cooperate sufficiently with the authorities when they found it.

Law enforcement agencies devoted to the problem were left understaffed and underfunded, even as they were asked to handle far larger caseloads.

The Justice Department, given a major role by Congress, neglected even to write mandatory monitoring reports, nor did it appoint a senior executive-level official to lead a crackdown. And the group tasked with serving as a federal clearinghouse for the imagery — the go-between for the tech companies and the authorities — was ill equipped for the expanding demands.

paper recently published in conjunction with that group, the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, described a system at “a breaking point,” with reports of abusive images “exceeding the capabilities of independent clearinghouses and law enforcement to take action.” It suggested that future advancements in machine learning might be the only way to catch up with the criminals.

The next section:

The Times reviewed over 10,000 pages of police and court documents; conducted software tests to assess the availability of the imagery through search engines; accompanied detectives on raids; and spoke with investigators, lawmakers, tech executives and government officials. The reporting included conversations with an admitted pedophile who concealed his identity using encryption software and who runs a site that has hosted as many as 17,000 such images.

In interviews, victims across the United States described in heart-wrenching detail how their lives had been upended by the abuse. Children, raped by relatives and strangers alike, being told it was normal. Adults, now years removed from their abuse, still living in fear of being recognized from photos and videos on the internet. And parents of the abused, struggling to cope with the guilt of not having prevented it and their powerlessness over stopping its online spread.

Many of the survivors and their families said their view of humanity had been inextricably changed by the crimes themselves and the online demand for images of them.

“I don’t really know how to deal with it,” said one woman who, at age 11, had been filmed being sexually assaulted by her father. “You’re just trying to feel O.K. and not let something like this define your whole life. But the thing with the pictures is — that’s the thing that keeps this alive.”

The Times’s reporting revealed a problem global in scope — most of the images found last year were traced to other countries — but one firmly rooted in the United States because of the central role Silicon Valley has played in facilitating the imagery’s spread and in reporting it to the authorities.

While the material, commonly known as child pornography, predates the digital era, smartphone cameras, social media and cloud storage have allowed the images to multiply at an alarming rate. Both recirculated and new images occupy all corners of the internet, including a range of platforms as diverse as Facebook Messenger, Microsoft’s Bing search engine and the storage service Dropbox.

In a particularly disturbing trend, online groups are devoting themselves to sharing images of younger children and more extreme forms of abuse. [The volume of imagery is now so overwhelming that when] reviewing tips from the national center, the Federal Bureau of Investigation has narrowed its focus to images of infants and toddlers.

The story goes on to point out that the federal government, including Congress, has dramatically failed to take this issue as seriously as it ought to do.

In reading the piece, if you are especially sensitive, stop reading when you see a headline that says “The Cutting Edge.” If you have been sexually abused, what follows after that may well trigger you. There are brief descriptions of the kinds of things investigators have found. One tells the Times that in the old days, no one would ever walk into a shop and request hardcore porn involving three year olds — but now that’s what they can and do do from the privacy of their own homes, with the right Internet connections.

And it’s easier than it should be to hide this:

Exhibits in the case of the Love Zone, sealed by the court but released by a judge after a request by The Times, include screenshots showing the forum had dedicated areas where users discussed ways to remain “safe” while posting and downloading the imagery. Tips included tutorials on how to encrypt and share material without being detected by the authorities.

The offender in Ohio, a site administrator named Jason Gmoser, “went to great lengths to hide” his conduct, according to the documents. Testimony in his criminal case revealed that it would have taken the authorities “trillions of years” to crack the 41-character password he had used to encrypt the site. He eventually turned it over to investigators, and was sentenced to life in prison in 2016.

The site was run by a number of men, including Brian Davis, a worker at a child day care center in Illinois who admitted to documenting abuse of his own godson and more than a dozen other children — aged 3 months to 8 years — and sharing images of the assaults with other members. Mr. Davis made over 400 posts on the site. One image showed him … raping a 2-year-old; another depicted a man raping [an infant].

The Times reports that tech companies have historically been slow to report on their users who have been doing this stuff. Before it was purchased by Verizon (which recently sold it), Tumblr even let one user know that his account had been turned over to authorities, giving him the chance to destroy the child porn evidence ahead of the authorities.

Look at this:

“In a recent case, an offender filmed himself drugging the juice boxes of neighborhood children before tricking them into drinking the mix,” said Special Agent Flint Waters, a criminal investigator for the State of Wyoming. “He then filmed himself as he sexually abused unconscious children.”

Mr. Waters, appearing before Congress in Washington, was describing what he said “we see every day.”

He went on to present a map of the United States covered with red dots, each representing a computer used to share images of child sex abuse. Fewer than two percent of the crimes would be investigated, he predicted. “We are overwhelmed, we are underfunded and we are drowning in the tidal wave of tragedy,” he said.

Mr. Waters’s testimony was delivered 12 years ago — in 2007.

The Times story — which is so brutal, but so very important that I ended up re-subscribing to the newspaper, to support journalism like this — details how all of us are failing to take this problem seriously enough. More:

But the problem of child sexual abuse imagery faces a particular hurdle: It gets scant attention because few people want to confront the enormity and horror of the content, or they wrongly dismiss it as primarily teenagers sending inappropriate selfies.

Some state lawmakers, judges and members of Congress have refused to discuss the problem in detail, or have avoided attending meetings and hearings when it was on the agenda, according to interviews with law enforcement officials and victims.

Steven J. Grocki, who leads a group of policy experts and lawyers at the child exploitation section of the Justice Department, said the reluctance to address the issue went beyond elected officials and was a societal problem. “They turn away from it because it’s too ugly of a mirror,” he said.

Yet the material is everywhere, and ever more available.

“I think that people were always there, but the access is so easy,” said Lt. John Pizzuro, a task force commander in New Jersey. “You got nine million people in the state of New Jersey. Based upon statistics, we can probably arrest 400,000 people.”

Please read the whole thing — if you can stomach the brief descriptions of what investigators have found in some cases. The descriptions are not at all gratuitous. They are necessary, I believe, to compel readers to understand what we’re talking about. So we don’t “turn away from it because it’s too ugly of a mirror.” If you want a shorter, less detailed version that conveys the basic information, read here. 

I saw this from Twitter friends the other day, commenting on the Times story:

Read the Times story, and tell me that the sexualization of children by our media and other elites is harmless. Here is Good Morning, America with a story celebrating Desmond Is Amazing, the child drag queen. These stories are everywhere. Here’s an Instagram photo of that same kid dancing for money at a gay bar in Brooklyn:

Read the Times story and think hard about Drag Queen Story Hour, where little children are explicitly encouraged to think of themselves as sexual beings, and as sexually fluid. Here’s a funny 1980s skit from the Canadian comedy show SCTV, in which John Candy plays the (at the time) legendary drag queen Divine, portraying Peter Pan in a children’s play.

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=knlJOHnr11A&w=525&h=300]

The joke is that it’s outrageous to think that drag queens would be hired to entertain little children. The reader who sent this clip in said that within a generation, we’ve gone from this kind of thing being hilarious satire to being reality — and not only reality, but a reality that you have to approve of, or stand accused of being a hateful bigot.

Look: as a society, we are grooming children to be sexually abused, and we are grooming teenagers and adults to be sexual abusers.

More broadly, this makes me wonder if humanity can survive the Internet. I’m serious. When our most disgusting, savage, darkest fantasies can be indulged with a few clicks, what hope is there for us? The late media theorist Neil Postman said that when children can have instant access to all the “secrets” of adulthood, childhood (as a social construct) ends. He wrote that in the early 1990s, during the cable TV era. Had he lived to see the Internet, and the hardcore porn available to children there, Postman would have despaired unto death.

This demon is not going to be cast out voluntarily. It’s going to take a massive ramping-up of the state to deal with it effectively. If we don’t do it, though, this is going to destroy us.

In the meantime: parents, when I tell you not to give your children smartphones, this is why!