Criminals in South Africa are abusing social media and utility apps like Telegram and EskomSePush to target children and run drugs, Carte Blanche reports.
The issue is especially prevalent on platforms with “find users nearby” functions, which are often used to peddle illicit goods.
In EskomSePush the feature is called “AskMyStreet”. In Telegram, it is “Find People Nearby”.
According to the report, criminals often enlist children to run drugs using ride-hailing services, as they can’t be criminally prosecuted if they are under 12 years old.
MyBroadband asked EskomSePush, Telegram, Uber, Bolt, and Facebook owner Meta Platforms about their interventions to deal with criminal activities on their platforms.
EskomSePush said it continuously updates and adapts its detection mechanisms as users change their behaviour or as the company becomes aware of them.
“We have 6 million users using the app, and unfortunately, this now seems to include people that misuse the platform from time to time and want to hurt our community,” EskomSePush said.
“The reality is that if slang wording is, for example, used for criminal activity, which words also could also have “real” meaning, we cannot add the word to our list of banned words, as it would then hamper the use of the functionality.”
It added that drug dealers often use cryptic emojis to inform people in the area of their products and said it had banned over 100 accounts for illegal activity on the platform in the last month.
The load-shedding schedule app said users could report and block content on the platform, adding that it manually reviews each report.
It also features automated moderation and removes posts containing disallowed words, phrases, links, and telephone numbers.
Following report reviews, EskomSePush determines whether a post breaks its rules and bans the user if it does.
“Where we have picked up in the past that a user has added content that includes something that may be illegal or against our terms, we have always banned the users and removed the content immediately,” EskomSePush said
“Accounts of users that misuse the platform are marked as ‘banned’ and can no longer post on the platform.”
Regarding child safety on EskomSePush, the company said it doesn’t allow people under 18 to use the platform without parental consent.
It should be noted that messages on EskomSePush’s “AskMyStreet” feature are unencrypted, making it easier to identify criminal activity.
However, for social media platforms that are end-to-end encrypted — like Facebook Messenger and WhatsApp — it can be a lot more challenging to deal with criminal activity.
Uber told MyBroadband that while the allegations are concerning, it doesn’t have any reports submitted on its system regarding these kinds of incidents.
Regarding children running drugs using its ride-hailing service, Uber said an adult must accompany anyone under 18 on rides, and drivers have the right to ask for an ID if the rider looks underage.
“We are committed to working closely with law enforcement through our Law Enforcement Relations Team to help curb criminality in our communities,” it said.
“We urge all users on the platform to immediately report any incidents through our app and to the police.”
Telegram Bolt, and Meta had not answered our questions before publication. We will update the article if we receive feedback.
Carte Blanche spoke to two victims lured into drug dependence by criminals on social media.
It all starts fairly innocently, with the victims approached on social media in a seemingly harmless way, with one victim striking up a “friendship” with an older girl in her school on Mxit and the other being befriended on Facebook.
Mxit shut down in 2015.
Lyttleton police station captain and spokesperson Dave Miller told 702 that the syndicate has been operating in the area for “10 to 15 years, if not longer”.
In the first victim’s case, the older girl also befriended her at school, where she was invited to hang out with the older students.
She was then invited to a party where she was pressured to drink and take drugs. The victim was then raped and threatened not to tell anyone.
However, she also developed a dependency on the drugs she was given at the party and was recruited by the same people to lure more girls her age to them in exchange for more supply.
She told Carte Blanche the criminal gang was mainly comprised of Nigerian men.
The second victim — who was 13 at the time — was invited to a party by her new Facebook friend, where she was given drugs and passed out.
When she woke up, she realised she had been raped. She said she continued using drugs after the incident to cope with her guilt.
According to criminologist Christiaan Bezuidenhout, the two victims’ cases followed the same patterns of some human trafficking operations.
Bezuidenhout also said that these criminals knowingly target children as they “are not responsible”.
“The police are not allowed, according to the law, to apprehend and process the child up to prosecution under the age of 12 years,” he said.
“So it is a non-risk for this person to use a child as a runner.”
Negligent platform owners can be prosecuted
Social media attorney and child rights activist Diana Schwarz told Carte Blanche that platform owners could be prosecuted regarding illegal happenings on their platforms.
“They [platform owners] can be [prosecuted] if they had knowledge of the circumstances that were occurring on the site and they did nothing about it,” Schwarz said.
Essentially, if owners are made aware of their platform being used for drug running or human trafficking and don’t remove the content, they are guilty of the crime.
A Meta spokesperson provided MyBroadband with a response after the article had been published.
“Meta is committed to tackling child sexual abuse and keeping children safe on our platforms,” they said.
“This is why we not only have strict policies against child sexual abuse material but policies against the sexualization of minors and other activities that can lead to child exploitation.”
“It’s also why we are constantly improving and developing new technologies to stay ahead of this criminal behaviour,” the spokesperson added.
Bolt SA country manager Takura Malaba says the company has strict conduct and conditions of use policies for drivers and riders on its platform, adding that it suspends drivers and riders who contravene the policies.
“Bolt also does ongoing work with SAPS to root out criminal behaviour in the transportation sector and will fully cooperate with any work they do in this regard,” Malaba said.
“We have no specific such activity flagged directly on our platform, however, in our engagements with SAPS and law enforcement, we will also raise this reported trend.”
Regarding child safety, Bolt’s policies specify that drivers cannot transport anyone under 18 travelling alone.
“Bolt does acknowledge that it would often be difficult for a driver to identify that a person is under the age of 18 without specifically asking for identification,” Malaba added.