Less than two years after Facebook hired Frances Haugen, the data scientist and product manager decided she had seen enough. Testifying before a Senate panel on 5 October 2021, Haugen unravelled a string of concerning insights—rivalled only by the company’s resistance to change.
Among Facebook’s priority of “putting profits ahead of people’s safety” were major concerns about the mental impact of Instagram on its youngest users. Proven to exacerbate body issues in teenage girls and amplify harmful content with its engagement-first algorithm, the revelations warranted change. A recent announcement by Nick Clegg, Facebook’s vice president of global affairs, seems to be a step in the new direction.
“We’re going to introduce something which I think will make a considerable difference,” Clegg told CNN’s State of the Union, less than a week after Haugen’s testimony. “Which is where our systems see that the teenager is looking at the same content over and over again and it’s content which may not be conducive to their well-being, we will nudge them to look at other content.” With a new mantra of “more friends, less politics,” the social media giant ultimately plans to reduce the amount of political content on feeds, instead focusing on content from friends on the platform. “We’re going to introduce new controls for adults of teens on an optional basis, obviously, so adults can supervise what their teens are doing online,” Clegg said, expressing an openness to the idea of letting regulators have access to Facebook algorithms that are used to amplify content.
In addition to pausing its controversial plans of building an Instagram for kids and building a set of ‘opt-in’ parental supervision tools for teenagers, Clegg also unveiled a feature called ‘Take a Break’—where the platform “will be prompting teenagers to simply take a break from using Instagram.”
Although Clegg didn’t provide an exact timeline for both the features, a Facebook spokesperson added how they are “not testing yet but will soon.” In response to an email from The Verge seeking further details, the spokesperson outlined a blog post by Instagram head Adam Mosseri which mentioned that the company was exploring the tools. “Recent reporting from the Wall Street Journal (WSJ) on our research into teen’s experiences on Instagram has raised a lot of questions for people,” the blog post by Mosseri read. “To be clear, I don’t agree with how the Journal has reported on our research.” Addressing the claims of its algorithm proliferating negative body images among teenage girls, he mentioned both ‘nudge’ and ‘Take a Break’ as new features in the platform’s quest on youth safety.
However—as Mosseri himself puts it—the former “encourages people to look at other topics if they’re dwelling on content that might contribute to negative social comparison,” while the latter allows users to “put their account on pause and take a moment to consider whether the time they’re spending is meaningful.” In short, breaks and nudges are being introduced to help users safeguard their own exposure to harmful content on the platform, but the company is not planning to remove such content in the first place. Facebook is once again inviting regulations, but only those that it’s comfortable with.
With China limiting the online presence of its youth with restrictions on gaming and TikTok, several lawmakers have argued for more regulation against tech giants like Facebook. “I’m just tired of hearing ‘trust us’, and it’s time to protect those moms and dads that have been struggling with their kids getting addicted to the platform and being exposed to all kinds of bad stuff,” Senator Amy Klobuchar told CNN after Clegg’s interview.
Now that the world beyond Facebook knows about its capitalist priorities and misconduct, the platform is on a deadline to deliver its promise of a safe online space for generations to come. Although user-initiated solutions are definitely a step in the way, it does less to nothing in this broader quest. Time is ticking, Zuck. It’s only a matter of time before everyone unfriends your giant social network.
On 1 July 2016, British entrepreneur Tim Stokely launched OnlyFans, a subscription-based platform that allows creators to charge fans for the content they share. Fast-forwarding to 2021, OnlyFans has been dubbed “the hottest social media platform in the world” with over 1 million creators and 100 million users. While DJ Khaled and Fat Joe cemented OnlyFans’ growth with their own sign-ups, a recent BBC investigation revealed the company’s failure in keeping a particular demographic off its platform: underage users—with children as young as 13 setting up accounts using fake documents of their older relatives.
As part of the investigation, BBC News spoke to several child protection experts and police forces across the UK and US, and obtained anonymised extracts from child counsellors at various schools. The BBC also set up an underage account leveraging a 26-year-old’s identification to show how the platform’s age-verification process could be easily cheated. From ‘co-authoring’ explicit material with older creators to spotting missing children in some videos, the investigation revealed a number of shocking insights regarding underage experiences on OnlyFans.
According to the Hertfordshire Police, a 14-year-old girl had managed to trick OnlyFans’ age-verification system by using her grandmother’s passport and bank details. The money made from selling a plethora of explicit images was then redirected by the girl from her grandmother’s account into her own.
Another case reported by the BBC followed Leah, a 17-year-old girl based in England, who was able to set up an underage account and sell explicit videos by using a fake driver’s licence. She told her mother, Caitlyn, about her original intention of posting pictures of her feet on OnlyFans after making money selling them on Snapchat. However, she quickly escalated into sharing explicit videos on the platform, which raked in as much as £5,000 under a week. The 17-year-old reportedly spent the money to buy presents for her boyfriend including more than £1,000 splurged on designer clothes. The BBC also found comments like “beautiful” and “sexy” under tweets that advertised her OnlyFans account. These tweets sometimes included teaser videos with some users even asking the underage creator to meet up offline.
Leah’s underage account was reported to OnlyFans by an anonymous user in January 2021. This led to a moderator reviewing the account and double-checking her identification document (ID). According to the company, her ID appeared legitimate and no further action was taken. In a statement to the BBC later, OnlyFans explained how Leah’s ability to access the platform was an “oversight” evading a red flag. The company also added that her account was approved during “a transition from one effective ID and age verification system to a new exceptionally effective one.” OnlyFans further highlighted how it checks social media when verifying accounts although there is no particular obligation for a website to investigate. Leah’s mother, however, stated that her daughter’s age was mentioned on every social media account she was on.
Although Leah stopped posting on OnlyFans, her account remained active on the platform for four months after the initial report in January. After being contacted by BBC News, OnlyFans shut down Leah’s page. The platform has also refunded all active subscriptions to her account. But images she previously shared have reportedly been leaked on the internet—leaving the 17-year-old anxious about leaving the house in the fear of being recognised.
According to her mother, Leah has had “big issues growing up and missed a lot of education.” The girl also had an experience where explicit images of her were once shared around school without her consent. The present situation added fuel to her harrowing experiences, with Leah delaying her plans for college altogether. “She won’t go out at all,” her mother said. “She doesn’t want to be seen.”
In terms of ‘co-authored’ content, OnlyFans requires creators to submit documentation proving all contributors to be above 18 years of age. All contributors are also required to be registered creators on the platform. The BBC investigation, however, unveiled a shocking case where an underage user was repeatedly cast in explicit videos featured on an account run by an older creator.
Aaron, a teenager based in Nevada, was 17 when he started making videos on the platform with his older girlfriend. According to his friend Jordan, Aaron didn’t have an independent account on the platform but “got sucked into” appearing in explicit videos posted by his girlfriend, Cody. The duo amassed as much as $5,000 for a single video, which they split among themselves.
“Aaron was elated that they were making such an amazing amount of money for just having sex on camera for other people to watch,” said a woman who has known the 17-year-old for many years. She added how Aaron had a tough childhood and was “very vulnerable to exploitation.” The teen also encouraged an underage Jordan to make videos on OnlyFans. “He used to say: ‘Bro, you can do it. We make so much money a week. It’s easy, you don’t have to work ever’,” Jordan admitted. Although his girlfriend’s account was reported to the police in October 2020, it wasn’t removed until the BBC contacted OnlyFans about the case in May 2021. Aaron, who is 18 now, has broken up with Cody—currently harbouring plans to start his own OnlyFans account.
As part of the investigation, BBC News also approached police forces in the UK and US about complaints they had received involving children appearing on the platform. The list of complaints lodged included claims of revenge porn faced by a 17-year-old in South Wales—who was blackmailed into continuing her OnlyFans account or having photographs from the platform shared with her family. Three other children complained about their images being uploaded to the platform without their consent while another 17-year-old claimed to have her face edited onto someone else’s body.
Then there is the case of missing children being linked to videos on the platform. “In 2019 there were around a dozen children known to be missing being linked with content on OnlyFans,” said Staca Shehan, the Vice President of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC). In her statement to the BBC, Shehan explained how these numbers have nearly tripled over the last year. While much of the explicit content was self-initiated by underage children, NCMEC also admitted to finding evidence of sexual exploitation and child trafficking on the platform. The BBC further mentioned how a couple based in Florida were charged with human trafficking after selling a topless photograph of a missing 16-year-old girl on OnlyFans.
As a response to all the findings from the investigation, OnlyFans said that it would work with online exploitation agencies like NCMEC to raise any potential issues with the relevant authorities. The platform also plans to take swift action and disable accounts if notified. It also claimed to have updated its age-verification system since then to further reduce the chances of cases like these happening again.
BBC News, however, tested the platform’s “new exceptionally effective system” in April 2021. The updated age-verification system requires applicants to upload a picture of themselves holding up their ID cards next to their face. While a fake ID did not work, the BBC investigators were able to set up an account for an underage creator by using her 26-year-old sister’s passport. In this sense, OnlyFans’ verification system essentially failed to distinguish between the sisters despite the age gap.
After setting up an account, applicants must provide bank details to receive payment through OnlyFans. This step, however, is not a deterrent to posting videos and images on the platform. The investigation further revealed how creators can monetise their content by arranging payments through third-party apps. One of the most popular alternatives found was Cash App, with scores of accounts advertising the payment method on the platform—all of this in violation of the company’s guidelines that prohibits the mention of Cash App and its variants.
On 12 May 2021, the UK government published the Online Safety Bill with the aim of moderating and protecting children from being exposed to explicit content online. The bill is set to implement an age-verification process for accessing porn in the UK and imposing fines of up to £18 million or 10 per cent of a company’s global turnover if they fail to keep children safe on the platform. While concerns are raised about the time the bill requires to be implemented, some are wondering if the law would suffice as a deterrent for wealthy tech companies.
As critics argue how the government should have acted sooner, child safety experts are increasingly expressing their concerns over the mental risks children are exposing themselves to by appearing on such platforms. According to the notes shared by a Childline counsellor with the BBC, both underage users and creators of the platform include those with traumatic experiences of prior sexual abuse, mental health issues and suicidal thoughts. Although the majority of the accounts are self-initiated, the permanent way forward is rooted in high moderation—thereby reducing the chances of underage users “accidentally stumbling upon” such explicit content.
Innovations like OnlyFans may have “changed internet culture and social behaviour forever,” but it has also blurred the line between influencer culture and sexualised content on social media platforms. Although OnlyFans has had a tremendous impact on various lives over the pandemic, the one they have on such young, mouldable users may just be more etched and permanent.