South Africa’s police minister and the minister of social development say that children in the country are being sold online through social media platforms such as Facebook.
In its latest transparency report, Meta revealed that it took action on 25.1 million pieces of child sexual exploitation content and 2.5 million child nudity and physical abuse posts over the last three months of 2022. A Meta spokesperson told MyBroadband that the platform fights aggressively against the exploitation of children.
Despite efforts by Meta in this regard, ministers in the South African government still say they are aware of incidents on the platform relating to the exploitation of children.
In November last year, Police Minister Bheki Cele said police were aware of incidents of parents advertising children on social media platforms.
“The SAPS has identified specific media platforms that are being used as platforms for human trafficking.
“These platforms are hosted on the Clearweb [public websites] namely Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and WhatsApp [encrypted platform]. These social media platforms mentioned are managed [hosted] in the United States of America [USA].”
However, Cele said that crime intelligence did not have the resources to address the issue.
Crime intelligence relies on incidents being reported as it does not have the capacity to monitor social media platforms.
Cele said that SAPS is in the process of acquiring social media monitoring solutions.
Social development minister Lindiwe Zulu also acknowledged that children are being sold on social media sites.
In response to a parliamentary question that asked what the department is doing to combat the “increase in human trafficking from our shores” on platforms such as Facebook “where persons are selling children, thereby bypassing legal adoption processes”.
Zulu clarified what government is doing to clamp down on human trafficking in South Africa, where children are sold on social media sites such as Facebook.
Some of the actions the Department of Social Development is taking include the following:
- The department closely monitors and analyses social media platforms identifying and addressing complaints and matters of concern for the department.
- Undertakes training and capacity building of relevant stakeholders in government and non-governmental organizations on legislation pertinent to adoption services, trafficking of children and online safety of children as well as roles and responsibilities about the identification, reporting, referral, and rendering of appropriate services to address online violation of children, trafficking or illegal adoption.
- Establishing the ‘coordinating structure’ for online safety comprising government departments, non-governmental organizations, Internet Service Providers, law enforcement, privacy experts, and technology companies.
- UNICEF is assisting the department in implementing the Model of National Response for protection of children on and offline platforms, as well as the implementation of the recommendations of the Disrupting Harm Study.
Neither of the responses mentioned arrests made in connection with the offences.
Scale of the problem
According to a 2022 US Department of State human trafficking report, the South African government identified 83 trafficking victims over the reporting period, which ran from 1 April 2021 to 31 March 2022. This is far more than the 16 victims identified in the previous reporting period.
However, fewer trafficking cases were initiated by the Hawks in the most recent reporting period. 18 new trafficking cases were instituted in the last reporting period compared to the 31 case investigations in the previous one.
The report divides the countries into four categories based on their perceived effort to combat human trafficking.
South Africa has been placed in the second worst category — the tier 2 watchlist — which means the country does not meet the minimum anti-human trafficking standards but is making significant efforts to bring itself into compliance with those standards.
It also indicates that there is estimated to be a significant level of human trafficking or that the rate of human trafficking is increasing significantly.
Jane Ongolo, the Southern Africa regional representative of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, said that traffickers usually target the most marginalized and vulnerable in society, such as children.
In an article she wrote that was published by Mail & Guardian, she said that “the Internet has revolutionized human trafficking”.
“Through the Internet, it is also possible to anonymously arrange logistics, such as transport and accommodation for victims, in addition to moving and hiding the proceeds of crime,” she said.
Facebook owner Meta Platfoms responds
In response to the accusations made in the Parliamentary response, Facebook owner Meta detailed the company’s work to combat child sexual exploitation and human exploitation.
“The exploitation of children is a horrific crime — we don’t allow it, and we work aggressively to fight it on and off our platforms,” said a Meta spokesperson.
Based on the latest transparency report published by Meta, the social media company took action against 27.6 million posts related to the exploitation of children or depicting child nudity or physical harm. Meta took action against 10.3 million posts on Instagram for the same reasons.
Meta removes content from Facebook that facilitates or coordinates the exploitation of humans, uses machine learning to identify exploitative content, displays pop-ups to users who search for terms associated with child exploitation, automatically places people under 18 into private Facebook and Instagram accounts and invested in technology to prevent potentially suspicious adults from finding, following or interacting with teens.
“We prohibit human exploitation in no uncertain terms. In an effort to disrupt and prevent harm, we remove content that facilitates or coordinates the exploitation of humans, including human trafficking or human smuggling,” the company said.