How children's photos from Insta still end up on illegal darknet forums
“To see the picture on the darknet when the child had to satisfy the father, and the mother just stands next to it. That almost broke my heart…” explains Andrea in an interview with me on the phone. She tells her story about the horrific images she saw on the darknet, a computer network with restricted access that is used mainly for illegal peer-to-peer file sharing.
It were these horrific pictures that made Andrea take initiative, herself. Andrea is not her real name. She doesn’t want to disclose her real name. No one should know what she does. It also has legal reasons. With what she does, chasing those who share those horrible children's photos, she perpetrates a crime.
Andrea’s passion is to take down children’s pictures, and to chase those who steal them from Instagram influencers and share images on the darkweb. Most of these pictures end up on Darknet pedo forums, she says. Most of the time they are from Facebook or Instagram, she says. Open profiles. Innocent. Andrea has a child herself. It is romping in the background as Andrea and I speak on the phone. She wants her little girl and all other children to be protected from pedos who roam the web online, she says.
That is why she does this complex work. She reports pedos to the authorities and talks to journalists about these cases. Everyone should know. She doesn’t earn a salary with her activism. But she gets a kick out of it, when she can strike down perpetrators by using open data sources. She hunts these people across the darknet and the clear web. And she is not alone. She hunts pedophiles with a pack of other online activists, a group of so-called “hacktivists”.
For about two years, Andrea and her hacktivist friends located and reported more than dozens of incidents of child pornography to the police and the German Federal Criminal Police Office in Germany. Since 2020, there have been several campaigns and stories about the problem that children's photos from social media, end up on the dark web, misused by criminals.
The systematic nature of why this happens is simple, she says. Images are stolen from Instagram. Because there, they are free. And many Parents are dumb enough to portray their children without thinking about the consequences. What might happen to those photos. On the dark web, they end up framed in the most horrific ways, she says.
Social media influencer Amira P. and her husband Oliver, a well known German comedian and presenter, are campaigning for years against the practice. There are petitions against this problem. One campaign is to uphold children’s rights on Instagram. To this date, it garnered more than 52 000 signatures.
In those years, since she is on the case, “nothing has changed,” explains Andrea. The practice of pedophiles, who copy-pastes photos from public Instagram profiles and display them on their disgusting sites on the darknet in the most horrible ways, continues unabated. On Instagram, pedophiles simply take the pictures they need, she says. It's a free market. It's all open. Parents don't get it. For her, the darknet pedo forums, where they then share the photos and rate them, are easy to find, she says. The perpetrators, on the other hand, are often not be found. They protect themselves well, she says.
So -called “mom influencers” or “Momfluencer”, constitute a significant problem, Andrea says. These are large accounts with plenty of followers. The account holders are mothers who use mainly their children as the central subject to promote themselves and products. These accounts are being repeatedly criticized for showing off their children. Since the photos of their children are so popular, they would often end up on darknet pedo forums. Pedophiles would then exchange and distribute the links to these darknet pages among themselves. There is plenty of proof that images of the children of large of Mom Influencer accounts reemerge on the darknet, Andrea says. A source from the Federal Criminal Police Office in Germany also confirms this. Those who populate the darknet pedo forums, can steal from Mom Influencer account, as they share large amounts of images with their community.
Sometimes images show innocent children bathing on the beach. They then reemerge on horrific websites on the darknet. Without the knowledge of the Mom Influencers. Of course! It's a vicious circle, one source explains.
Being a mom influencer can be a lucrative endeavor. By posting images of their child, they make money. They cooperate with companies. These companies demand more followers and more impressions on the products that are being showcased on the profiles of these followers. These corporate partnerships are one of the key problems. Cooperation partners pay influencers for their products to be advertised in posts. Many of these companies sell articles for children. Influencers thus are keen to involve pictures of their kids to market them. A cycle.
The Instagram algorithm is another problem. A quick test of a new profile setup on Instagram makes this painstakingly clear. A new profile, after searching for mom influencers, will present with similar entries in no time. In a similar experiment was done by the online magazine chip.de. It basically unearthed the same problems. The behavior of influencers makes it an easy game for pedos to find and collect images. In 2021, Frances Haugen, a former Facebook product manager, leaked and exposed internal conversations on how the company’s algorithms malfunction and how it provides and fosters harmful search results.
Reward is another issue. As children’s pictures usually get more likes, influencers are compelled to follow the practice instead of curbing it.
Pedophiles, on the other hand, benefit from Instagram. In an entry shared with us in text from (no images were shared!), an author of a pedo darknet forum entry explicitly points out how favorable the lax community rules (community guidelines) by Instagram are, and how beneficial that is for the objectives of the pedo community: “While strict rules apply to nude pictures of adults, photos of young girls like XXX are deleted with less probability, even if they show a lot ”, the person allegedly wrote.
Representatives of Instagram’s parent company, Meta repeatedly claimed that they take pedophiles active on Instagram “very seriously”. Contents that are related to the abuse or endangerment of children are not permitted, the company told the press in 2020. Meta has guidelines that prohibit sexualized content of children. Many momfluencer, however, still post, knowingly or unknowingly, children's pictures. Many images are found easily on the platform. Whether the accounts were alerted or warned by Instagram isn't clear. However, it seems unlikely. There are also instances where other activists such as Andrea contacted momfluencers directly. Warmed them. Told them to stop posting photos of their children in problematic poses. Despite the messages, some of the largest accounts continued with posting images of their children.
The business these momfluencers are in, command what they post, says Verena Dittrich, a journalist at a German media outlet, who investigated the problems relating to children’s pictures for several years. She explains how their business model works. In general, the more Instagram Follower one has, the more attractive they become for advertising partnerships. A lot of money can be earned with these commercial cooperation partners, she says. With an advertising deal by a smaller account of 7,000 to 8,000 followers, one could earn already € 300. Large accounts earn more, sometimes € 5,000 per post, Dittrich says.
More digging into the matter also confirms that large mombfluencer accounts are explicitly keen to cooperate with companies that advertise children’s products. There is one momfluencer. Areana (not her real name). She runs a large Instagram account in Germany. She became widely known for her role in a German Reality-soap opera on TV. Her account garnered 1.1 million followers.
Areana’s children still appear on darknet forums
A source shares details on the case. He describes the content of one darknet forum entry. Journalists are not allowed to access these forums. The source explains, on behalf, the content of the entry. It shows a toddler. “She lies in her mother’s arms”. Underneath the image, there are hundreds of pedos that apparently “rated” the child. In the bottom, the organizer of the darknet forum warms that “screenshots are illegal”. It would be evidence of a crime, he warns his fellows. Links posted in the entry lead to the Instagram and Facebook profiles of Areana. As well as to the accounts of her Mother. As a grandmother, she also often posts images of the Areana’s children. Areana also has her own online shop. Products that are self-designed. She sells children’s gym bags and other products. Her children are an integral part of her social media profile and her success. She also partners with corporate partners, such as a children’s bed manufacturer, who sells handmade luxury baby beds.
Once a children's photo finds its way into pedophile forum galaxy, they are hard to erase, experts say. Pictures that once landed on such forums of pedos in the darknet are difficult to removed, an investigator of the Federal Criminal Police Office confirms. They remain present in the darknet. Even after platforms are closed by the federal investors, which happens relatively often, “they remain out there”. They simply reappear on a new forum, he says. German federal investigators, so the source, close two to three pedo darknet forums a month. The perpetrators feed images and footage back to new pages that open up.
In 2020, a hacktivist contacted Areana directly. The pictures of her children can be found on the Darknet, she said. Three years later, the content of Areana’s Instagram profiles has hardly changed.
Despite, many Instagram users still criticize her sharply, often in the comments, she held on to the practice of showing images of children. At the beginning of November, she posted wishes to her community, on her daughter’s birthday. She posted close-up photos of her 10-year-old daughter. Other pictures of her 7-year-old are there too. 63,000 users liked the photos of her children. Her lawyer says her client condemns any illegal and immoral use of photographs of her children, as well as every form of pedophilia.
“She is also a victim” the lawyer says. She would always weight carefully what she posts on Social Media and would “now also refrain from certain publications”. Nevertheless, her children should be part of the media world. She would like this decision to be accepted. ”Rather, it must be taken against those who are responsible for the fact that there are even a misuse of pictures,” the lawyer said. It's only one example of thousands of Instagram profiles that provided illegal darknet pedo forums with content. At least a handful of German momfluencer accounts were found and reported by hacktivists, so Andrea.
Not all is bad. Some wake up to the dangers. The attention around the problem has helped to change some minds and attitudes. After a first media storm across Germany in 2020, some momfluenzers have noticeably changed their behavior: Mom, actress, presenter Nina Bott, for example. She promised to “readjust”.
But many haven't, says Andrea. Photos of children are still stolen, and posted on Darknet pedo forums. Especially on Russian platforms, she says. In one russian pedo forum, pictures of German Instagram profiles have received their own category, she says. Even if Instagram managed to delete some of these profiles, it won't solve the problem on the Darknet, she thinks.
Investigators have to do more, one expert explained in an interview. The authorities are particularly powerless, says cyber criminologist Thomas-Gabriel Rüdiger. The German police are unable to pursue and monitor the entire scene of stuff that happens in darknet forums, “let alone investigate all the cases”.
The police are dependent on information from third parties, for example members of the public. According to Rüdiger, too few, of the 220,000 German police officers today are commissioned with the active search and investigation of child pornography.
Only around 1% of the police concentrates their time on the Internet, according to a study from 2019. For Rüdiger, it is clear that with population growth like in Germany, a decline in criminal offenses offline, crime shifted from the physical to digital space.
“Politicians are reluctant to hear that,” he says and laughs. To adapt to changes, Rüdiger thinks, police resources should be relocated. For example, to set up units that actively search for these children’s pictures on social media. Other countries in Europe do it too. Such as the Netherlands or Great Britain. There, the concept of the “Digital Community Policing” is common. There, the monitoring of the digital society would already provide results. Individual police officers would reach out to profiles on social media to share advice to avoid dangerous situations. In Germany, police officers could reach out to influencers and remind them not to post images of their naked children.
Where police resources are short across Germany, activists, like Andrea, seem to have to step in. She says, she has to do the work the police should do, but can’t. For her noble cause, she has not received any thanks. Even worse. It caused her problems.
She once delivered a lot of material on pedo perpetrators to the authorities. Today, Andrea is no longer as active as she once was. In one attempt to help the police, she made herself a target. She breached the law. As she gave material to the police: “I shot myself in the foot,” she says. “And I was so stupid and gave the police officer a USB stick with the material”. Handing over material with pedo content is illegal. She is still waiting for the date of her court hearing.
Cyber-criminologst Rüdiger explains what's going on. Anyone who has child pornography, be it even to help the police, makes themselves punishable. Anyone who is even looking for it, potentially perpetrates a crime. At least, this is what the law dictates.
He agrees. The law would deter useful sources, like Andrea, to help with information. However, he explains the background of the law: “If you come to the police, for example, as a mother, and say you have found child pornography, the police must follow the so-called “legal principle.”
The police must pursue every suspicion of a crime. “How should the police know whether the person has not produced child pornography from their child themselves and now simply feels guilty, so, goes to the police and tells an innocent story”, he says. His advice is to visit anonymous registration platforms with useful material.
For those who post innocent images on Instagram of their children, the media educator of the organization “Schau Hin” has some advice. Dr. Irish Schulz, a media consultant, explains that her best advice to momfluencers is taking extra care when posting anything of or about their children. The argument that influencers today claim that they have never heard of the dangers the internet bears, especially when it comes to pictures of children, Schulz finds “laughable”: “I just don't buy it”, she says. “You wouldn’t put a child on the playground at night, would you?”
Such knowledge, is now common knowledge: “everyone should know about it”. Even if the pictures a mother takes and posts on social media, does not end up on the darknet, “childhood is a particularly protective phase of life”, she explains. Parents must protect their children and their privacy at least until they are 14. That also goes for the digital world, she stresses.
“This also includes pondering whether to post my child with spaghetti sauce on the head on Instagram. Whether that ends up with a pedos or not,” so Schulz “doenst matter”. The parents decide whether the photos of their children can live on forever on the (dark)web.