Just one month ago, I embarked upon one of the most challenging and heart-wrenching journalism assignments of my young career: Infiltrating the wicked underworld of child pornography on Facebook.
On my journey, I uncovered the most explicit photographs and videos of child rape anyone could imagine, all available on the ubiquitous social networking website 901 million users have come to know and love. Most Facebook users have no idea that this social network – a U.S.-based company making an initial public offering expected to value the company as high as $100 billion – is home to an enormous collection of unreported child pornography and sexual violence.
During the investigation, I developed several alias Facebook profiles of women who appeared promiscuous, bisexual and overtly flirtatious. Then I combed profiles for common indicators of pedophile interests – such as the book “Lolita,” the movie “Thirteen,” fan groups for incest, PTHC (preteen hard-core pornography) and “Receiving nude pics.”
One by one, I “friended” some of the most wicked and dangerous criminals on Facebook.
Once our “friendship” was approved, I instantly had access to albums filled with child pornography. Graphic images and videos of children and sex abuse were reported to the FBI, the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children and Facebook. (You can read more about that investigation here.)
The children posing provocatively and being raped in these photographs and videos were young, very young – almost all under the age of 12.
As a rule, journalists are trained to have tough skin. Amid frequent gracious and appreciative letters from readers, we learn to deal with emails filled with criticism, hate and condemnation. Every so often we cover stories that require a great deal of fortitude. In our line of work, sometimes we witness content that changes us forever.
However, little could prepare me for what I was about to uncover on Facebook’s publicly visible pages.
Among the most disturbing pornography, I discovered photos and videos uploaded from cell phones. Boys and girls were being raped by adult men and women – some who were parents of their victims, as captioned in an incest film of a mother and her young son.
One photo depicted a naked adult male sexually penetrating a young boy, whose face was buried in his pillow. The cover shot of another video revealed a nude man on a bed with one hand on a naked baby lying next to him.
Most of these Facebook predators aren’t only looking at child pornography images. A 2007 Federal Bureau of Prisons study in which psychologists conducted an in-depth survey of online offenders’ sexual behavior revealed that 85 percent of convicted Internet offenders who viewed child pornography said they had committed acts of sexual abuse against minors, from inappropriate touching to rape.
As a mother of two young children, even the toughest skin could not protect me from the heartbreak of seeing these images.
I was stunned, staring at my computer screen. The images grew worse with every click.
For several weeks, those photos of youngsters were all I could think about – and for good reason. Child rape is much like an unfinished murder. It destroys a child’s soul. These innocent boys and girls have been betrayed by the very people who are charged with protecting them from the world’s evil – trusted adults, friends, neighbors, siblings and often their own parents.
As my friend Raymond Bechard – who, alongside fellow patriot Rich Lepoutre, has guided me through the dark side of Facebook and waged war against child pornography on social media – explains in his book, “The Berlin Turnpike: A True Story of Human Trafficking in America,” “Everything is stolen from its victims: their development, their education, their health, and their right to grow up in a protected and safe environment free from harm.”
Statistics show many of these children will suffer with relationship problems. They may lead lives of prostitution, drug and alcohol abuse, trust and control issues, eating disorders, suicidal thoughts and depression. They are more likely to be sexually active at younger ages, have lower educational status and more mental health problems. The abuse often causes extremely negative emotional and physical impacts for decades, even lifetimes.
As evidenced by the profound sorrow in the children’s eyes, those troubles had already begun.
One recent study tracked a group of sexually abused girls ages 6 to 16 for 23 years. The results were published in the Cambridge University Press journal Development and Psychopathology. Dr. Frank Putnam, professor of pediatrics and psychiatry at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center, told MSNBC:
“The cortisol levels (of some study participants) wound up looking like Vietnam vets. That tells us they are in a chronic state of stress, and never feel safe.”
This issue is uncomfortable – and often painful – for many of us to discuss. But with no one to trust, these children are in desperate need of an advocate.
They need your help.
Abandoning this heart-wrenching assignment was never an option. Rather than grow discouraged at the wickedness I was witnessing, I did what any intuitive and God-fearing journalist would do: I prayed.
“God, please give me the strength and courage to handle what I am about to see. Help me bring these people to justice and be a voice for these little children.”
For many weeks, I recited that prayer before logging into my accounts. God, in all of His grace, guided me through the depths of human depravity and brought me indescribable peace when I needed it most. During the investigation, I soon discovered more images than I had ever imagined – entire rings of photo traders and abusers – and reported them to the FBI.
Through my alias accounts, I made dozens of reports to Facebook. In some cases, I called and emailed the social network, but received no response.
In fact – after numerous child pornography reports to Facebook – the social network actually blocked my account due to “security reasons.” In many cases, the photos I reported were months old and had been viewed and shared by dozens or even hundreds of pedophiles.
Facebook rewarded my diligence and conscientious reporting by shutting down my accounts immediately after I informed it of dozens of cases of child sexual abuse.
In every case, law-enforcement authorities were quick to act. Many of the images and profiles were removed within 24 hours after I reported them to the FBI.
But the problem is not going away. The photos multiply every day. Even now, Facebook users around the world are raping children and trading thousands of images of their sexual abuse with others just like them.
While I have profound respect for the FBI agents and advocates who wage this battle against child pornography each and every day, Michelle Collins, vice president for the exploited children division at the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, recently told me:
“We are talking about receiving thousands and thousands of reports each week. Last year, there were more than 320,000 reports – the majority from electronic service providers. Certainly not all the cases are going to be investigated. Law enforcement has the challenge of having to decide, with given resources, where to focus the attention and on which cases. Challenges continue to arise.”
It’s time to urge Facebook to prevent these images from ever appearing on the social network in the first place. StopChildPornOnFacebook.com is an effort to bring pressure to bear on the management and board at the social network.
“We hope to put good, old-fashioned pressure on Facebook to do something about this,” said Lepoutre, who has joined Bechard in leading the charge. “This is not a technical challenge. This is an unwillingness to make a willful choice to deal with it – and to deal with it completely. Facebook has the means to do it.”
Please join me in encouraging Facebook and other social media networks to protect our innocent children and put a stop to child pornography on their sites.
Concerned individuals may do the following: