New Mexico attorney general accuses Meta of being ‘breeding ground’ for child predators in new lawsuit

New Mexico Attorney General Raúl Torrez sued Meta and CEO Mark Zuckerberg on Tuesday, accusing the company of enabling human trafficking and the distribution of child sexual abuse materials.

The complaint alleges that Facebook and Instagram are “breeding grounds” for predators targeting children for human trafficking, grooming and solicitation.

Meta said Friday that it would review and examine its existing child safety policies and enforcement systems following a series of investigations by The Wall Street Journal about pedophiles on its platforms. The investigations caught the attention of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, which demanded more transparency from the company. 

Meta was also sued in October by 33 states that alleged it targeted children with addictive features. A Meta spokesperson said in a statement at the time: “We share the attorneys generals’ commitment to providing teens with safe, positive experiences online, and have already introduced over 30 tools to support teens and their families. We’re disappointed that instead of working productively with companies across the industry to create clear, age-appropriate standards for the many apps teens use, the attorneys general have chosen this path.” 

In the New Mexico suit, the attorney general’s office investigated Meta’s platforms using decoy accounts posing as children under 14. In its investigation, it said, it found evidence that Meta platforms serve underage users sexually explicit material, lead them to unmoderated Facebook groups that facilitate commercial sex and allow the distribution of child pornography. 

“Mr. Zuckerberg and other Meta executives are aware of the serious harm their products can pose to young users, and yet they have failed to make sufficient changes to their platforms that would prevent the sexual exploitation of children,” Torrez said in a news release. 

The Viva Technology conference on June 14, 2023 in Paris.
The Viva Technology conference on June 14, 2023 in Paris.Chesnot / Getty Images file

In a case study cited in the lawsuit, the attorney general’s office created a Facebook account claiming to be a 13-year-old girl. While the profile used an adult birthday to avoid platform restrictions, the posts explicitly stated that the account owner was 13. According to the lawsuit, Facebook eventually started serving the account with ads targeted toward teens, which the attorney general’s office said suggests that Meta’s algorithm “recognized her actual age for advertising purposes, but was not used for her safety.”

The lawsuit says that most of the fake 13-year-old’s followers were men ages 18 to 40 and that it received multiple messages featuring exposed genitalia. 

In addition, the profile was added to a Facebook Messenger group dedicated to exchanging child sexual abuse materials, according to the lawsuit. The attorney general’s office said that the fake account reported the group to Meta but that the chat was not taken down.

A Meta spokesperson said in an email that the company recently introduced proactive methods for catching and removing accounts and groups that may violate its child safety policies.

“Child exploitation is a horrific crime and online predators are determined criminals,” the spokesperson said. “We use sophisticated technology, hire child safety experts, report content to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, and share information and tools with other companies and law enforcement, including state attorneys general, to help root out predators. In one month alone, we disabled more than half a million accounts for violating our child safety policies.”

Meta is not alone in struggling to deal with a continued onslaught of child exploitation happening across the internet.

Investigations by NBC News have identified accounts and posts on other platforms, like Discord and X, that are devoted to child exploitation content. Discord’s vice president of trust and safety, John Redgrave, previously told NBC News that the company was testing out new models to identify child safety threats and uncover trends in child exploitation content. X’s former head of trust and safety Ella Irwin, who resigned in June, previously told NBC News that “we still have work to do in the space and certainly believe we have been improving rapidly and detecting far more than Twitter has detected in a long time.”

Zuckerberg, alongside the CEOs of X, Snap, TikTok and Discord, was recently called to testify before the Senate Judiciary Committee about online child sexual exploitation. The hearing is set for Jan. 31.