Safeguarding podcast – The Marquis de Sade, the Libertines and the Internet with Professor Michael Salter

In this Safeguarding podcast we discuss the organised sexual abuse of children. Beyond the lurid headlines, how common is organized sexual abuse? What are the contexts in which organised abuse takes place? What indeed are the impacts on the victim? What part does the internet and social media play in its enactment? And what does the 18th century writer Marquis de Sade have to do with 21st century social media?

There’s a lightly edited for legibility transcript of the podcast below for those that can’t use podcasts, or for those that simply prefer to read.


Neil Fairbrother

Welcome to another edition of the SafeToNet Foundation safeguarding podcast, hosted by me, Neil Fairbrother, where we talk about all things to do with safeguarding children in the online digital context. Child safeguarding in the online digital context is at the intersection of technology, law and ethics and culture and it encompasses all stakeholders between a child using a smartphone and the content or person online that they are interacting with.

Now, I should say at this stage, for this episode, we’ll be covering some issues which may affect some listeners. And if you are affected by the content of this podcast, please seek out a trusted person or organization for help, advice and guidance.

Child sexual abuse is one thing, but organized child sexual abuse seems to be altogether another. But beyond the lurid headlines, how common is organized abuse? What are the contexts in which organized abuse takes place? What indeed are the impacts on the victim? And what part does the internet and social media play in its enactment?

To guide us through this, my guest today literally wrote the book on the topic; author of “Organized Sexual Abuse”, Scientia Associate Professor in Criminology at the University of New South Wales, Australia, Michael Salter. Welcome to the podcast, Michael. Can you give us a brief resumé please, so that our listeners from around the world have an appreciation of your background?

Michael Salter

Sure. I started my career working in public health and public policy. So really looking at the role of the not-for-profit sector in delivering you know, the key goals of social policy and public health and I segued over time into Criminology. In my early twenties a very good friend of mine, it became apparent, was a survivor of the paedophile ring who was still abusing her at the time. So while I was working professionally in social policy and public policy, in my personal life I was observing just a catastrophic, systematic failure to respond to her needs in any way; whether that was her mental health needs, her needs for physical protection, you know, basic needs such as housing and so on. So this really prompted me to go back to school.

I did a PhD in really studying the accounts and the life histories of adults who describe organized forms of child sexual abuse here in Australia, and I became an academic. So I’ve studied this professionally for the last 10 years. Adults who have a dissociative disorder or complex trauma whose life history includes sexually abuse by groups or networks.

I’m now an advisor to a range of organizations. I sit on the Board of Directors of the International Society for the Study of Trauma and Association, which is the premier clinical global network for therapists who work with severely traumatized children and adults. So I provide direct advice to therapists working with this client group.

I’m also an expert advisor to the Canadian Centre for Child Protection who do a lot of work in the online space around understanding and tracing back the origins of child sexual abuse material. I’m also an expert advisor here in Australia to the Office of the Safety Commissioner and I work with them looking at child sexual abuse and exploitation particularly in the online space. So over time, my work’s really come to encompass the long-term mental health impacts of organized abuse, but also the ways in which technology has become part and parcel of child sexual exploitation.

Neil Fairbrother

Okay. Thank you for that. Now we have to be a little bit careful with this one, but the Jeffrey Epstein affair seems to be an example of organized child abuse, but it’s not a new phenomenon. And indeed in 2013 you published your book “Organized Sexual Abuse”. So how does organized sexual abuse differ from other types of child abuse?

Michael Salter

So when we think about child sexual abuse, the paradigmatic case that comes to mind is one offender and one victim but when we look at the research, child sexual abuse is involves a much more diverse set of experiences than this. One perpetrator can have multiple victims and also perpetrators can get to know one another. They can seek out people who are like them and they can start to collude in the abuse of children and what we see with group sexual offenses, so group sexual offending against both children and adults, is that it tends to be more severe. The presence of multiple perpetrators often brings to light sort of sadistic impulses in offenders. So it’s quite common when we’re looking at groups or networks of offenders that we’re looking at more serious type of offending.

And also I suppose more perverse sorts of offending include things like Sadistic Abuse, what used to be called Bizarre Abuse. Sometimes when children disclosed organized sexual victimization they would describe quite perverse sorts of sexual behaviour that we really didn’t have a good context for understanding. And you know, unfortunately it’s been the internet that has provided us with undeniable photographic evidence of just how perverse child sexual offending can be. And it’s allowed us, I suppose, to attribute more credibility to disclosures that 20 or 30 years ago were quite difficult for law enforcement and mental health practitioners to take seriously.

Neil Fairbrother

Okay, now you identified some significant analytical work, five different types of organized abuse and I wonder if we could briefly if possible cover each one. I know it will be difficult to do briefly because it’s such a complex topic, but one of the first ones you identify is Network Abuse. What do you mean by Network Abuse?

Michael Salter

The phrase Network Abuse, it refers to community-based forms of sexual exploitation by typically men outside the family. And so this is extra-familial offending of the kind that we’ve seen documented quite well in, you know, Rochdale and so on. So groups of men who are targeting typically pubescent girls or pubescent boys. They generally have a gender preference so they don’t generally abuse boys and girls, they’ll have a gender preference, and then normally targeting vulnerable teenagers. And so this is a fairly well documented form of organized sexual offending. It’s come to light, you know, very visibly in the United Kingdom over the last 10 years, you know, tremendous sort of scandal in the UK. But we certainly see patterns of this here in Australia and in the United States and throughout Europe.

Neil Fairbrother

Okay. Is there a link between this feature that you describe, the extra-familial aspect of Network Abuse and what’s known as Contextual Safeguarding, a key component of which is peer group analysis?

Michael Salter

Yeah. We really need to be paying attention to the context in which children are living in. You know, whether that’s in out-of-home care, how do we support and protect kids in out-of-home care where the kids are vulnerable for other reasons? They might still be living with their families, but their needs might be going unmet.

And sometimes it’s more subtle as well. When we look for example that young teenagers who might be same sex attracted, they’re going online to try and connect with other people who are like them. These are the sorts of vulnerabilities that offenders can pay attention to and start to manipulate. And so sort of Network Abuse and network offending takes many different forms and also provides us with a lot of opportunities for child protection because it’s by working with kids in their institutional settings, in their contextual settings, really thinking about how we build up those safeguards around kids that we reduce risk in those particular environments.

Neil Fairbrother

Okay. You mentioned some institutions there and one other form of organized sexual abuse is Institutional Organized Abuse. Tell us briefly about that

Michael Salter

As Institutional Organized Abuse refers to scenarios where offenders use institutional authority over children in their care and the institution in order to sexually exploit them. This was probably the earliest form of organized abuse that was reported, particularly in the context of day-care centres and schools. When we look in the 1980s where there was a lack of safeguarding, there was no working with children checks, it was very easy for offenders to infiltrate institutions that were child-focused institutions, and then essentially traffic the child outside of the institution. Institutional abuse, if you’ll excuse the phrase, but it’s probably been sort of the low hanging fruit of organized abuse because it’s in an institutional setting where we can tighten up our policies and procedures where we can screen adults more rigorously than, than in other contexts. So the institutional settings been a site of a lot of harm but it’s also the site that’s much easier for us to intervene in at the moment.

Neil Fairbrother

Linked to the Network form of organized abuse is Familial Organized Abuse. What’s the difference between those two?

Michael Salter

So Familial Organized Abuse involves the role of parents in the trafficking of their children, particularly for where organized abuse begins in the prepubescent period, so when children prior to puberty are being subject to organized abuse, normally by at least a parental figure, if not both parental figures, and it’s very common for this set of victims to describe the initiation of abuse in infancy.

So victims of Familial Organized Abuse often talk about how they can’t remember when they weren’t being sexually abused. This is quite a challenging form of organized abuse because it seems as though at least one parent has had a family for the purpose of siring a child to be abused and to be trafficked.

It’s a very complex and challenging area of child protection that I think has evaded State attention for a long time despite victim complaints. But we’re now in a situation where it’s very clear that the most highly traded series of abuse images online are images made by fathers abusing their young daughters, very young daughters. And so I think it’s well past time that we turn our attention to some of the challenges about how we identify, intervene and prevent Familial Organized Abuse, because this really is, I think, at the core of the organized abuse challenge.

Neil Fairbrother

So this is almost the productization of a child for abuse?

Michael Salter

Yes, and working with victims, you know, very, very heart-breaking because they have been treated since a very young age as an object by the people that they care about the most, and the people that they desperately want to care for them, which is their parent.

And so, you know, part of the mental health journey for survivors and victims, it really is quite devastating in terms of coming to grips with the fact that, you know, they desperately wanted their parents to care for them and often when they describe their family life and their family environment, [it’s a] very cold place, a very cruel place.

And so, you know, they need a lot of support of course, to recover from the trauma of sexual exploitation, but the underlying pervasive, catastrophic trauma of never having been held, never having anybody sooth them when they cry. You know, never having that, that basic level of human interaction that is foundational to you know, mental health and wellbeing for all human beings, all mammals. So mental health care for this group needs to be, you know, very intensive, very tailored and very sensitive to support them as adults to learn those basic foundational emotional lessons that they were denied as, as children. But it really is catastrophic, pervasive neglect and abuse from a very young age.

Neil Fairbrother

Okay. Ritual Abuse is probably the most controversial category that you’ve defined. Does Ritual Abuse really exist?

Michael Salter

Yes, yes, it does. I mean, we have a range of criminal prosecutions in the United Kingdom, in the United States and Canada throughout Europe in which groups of offenders have sexually abused children, drawing on strange religious iconography and strange ceremonies. Ritual abuse is a marker of the extremes of child maltreatment. It is closely aligned with Sadistic Abuse. So normally these children have been subject to, you know, nothing short of torture.

But an aspect of ritual abuse that, you know, we really haven’t paid enough attention to, is that almost a hundred percent of children and adults who disclose Ritual Sexual Abuse also report sexual exploitation that was videoed and recorded by camera. There was almost a 100% concordance between Ritual Abuse survivors and survivors of what used to be called Child Pornography. This is very clear in the clinical literature and Ritual Abuse survivors dating back to the Eighties. And I think the ritual behaviour was so bizarre that it sort of camouflaged the underlying consistency and survivor reports.

Certainly, you know, I came into this field you know, in my early twenties through my association with a survivor, who’s a good friend of mine. But I lived with her for a period of time. She also disclosed a ritual abuse from early childhood. But I will say you know, other people get to be much more circumspect about these reports, but when I lived with her our house was broken into, animal blood was tossed around on our walls. We had animal organs left our beds and strange occult graffiti painted on our walls. I also, you know, was put in this situation, where I had to witness the marks that they left on her body after they assaulted her.

And I’m not telling you these details for any graphic voyeuristic reason, but just to be very clear that, you know, I’ve personally witnessed pretty bizarre stuff. You know, police were involved, they took photos of the crime scene. This was a serious incident that clearly involved a group of offenders engaged in strange ritual behaviour against a young woman who was disclosing sexual exploitation for a very, very long time. So I understand why people are circumspect about these reports, but I don’t have the luxury of that because I’ve personally had to witness this kind of behaviour

Neil Fairbrother

In the popular imagination, Ritual Abuse is often put down to “False Memory Syndrome”. What is False Memory Syndrome? And was it, is it, a valid defence of someone accused of abusing a child?

Michael Salter

So False Memory Syndrome was a concept that was developed in the early 1990s by the False Memory Syndrome Foundation. So this was a lobby group of people who began in the United States. They were a group of people accused of sexually abusing children. And they created the concept False Memory Syndrome to argue that adults were entering into psychotherapy and we’re being forcibly implanted with extensive and untrue recollections of sexually abusive childhoods.

So False Memory Syndrome is a pseudoscientific concept. It’s never been picked up or endorsed by any psychological society. There is an area of psychological research called False Memory Research and in this area of research psychologists take individuals into a laboratory setting and they engage in a range of techniques in order to induce incorrect recollections in individuals in laboratory. So this includes, for example giving a group of people a list of words and then 10 minutes later giving them another list of words with some of the words from the original list and some not, and asking them to identify which words are common in between those two lists.

Where people misremember the list, this has been reported in research as a false memory and these kinds of studies have then been generalized by psychological researchers to claim that because they’ve been able to induce quote unquote, a false memory in a laboratory setting, in this case, a false memory of a list of words, therefore therapists are able to induce false memories of extensive sexual abuse in early childhood.

So you can start to see some of the issues here around what constitutes the research evidence the evidence base for false memories, which is very, very limited. And then the phenomenon that we encounter in clinical settings for adults or children who are disclosing extensive forms of child sexual abuse, such as Ritual Abuse.

Now, it’s also important that we recognize that mental health care is a poorly regulated form of health care. I would be the first person to say that I want more evidence-based therapy and that I would also like to see more tight and strict regulation of the kinds of mental health care that is delivered.

So it is important to acknowledge that there are problems broadly in mental health service provision and that we do need, I think, more of a focus on evidence based mental health care. However is poor mental health care capable of implanting false memories of years and years of abuse where somebody was not subject to such abuse?

The answer is “No”.

We have no evidence that that is possible in the context of mental health care. And I would certainly say for the survivors that I work with of organized abuse, they have not suffered from an excess of belief in mental health settings that they’re majority experience of mental health care is that they don’t receive trauma-informed care. They’re majority experience is that very, very few mental health practitioners ever inquire about a trauma history or the possibility of abuse.

So this concept of False Memory Syndrome and false memories has been disseminated extensively, particularly through the media. Journalists were real advocates of this explanation for child sexual abuse allegations, particularly organized and ritual abuse. However, when we look at the research evidence as a whole, it is just not an adequate explanation for the phenomena of both children and adults disclosing quite extensive forms of child sexual abuse and also quite consistent.

And when we’re now in a world where US authorities are receiving 70 million reports of suspected child sexual abuse images in the last year and 95% of the children in those images have never been identified, they’re just out there in the community, and let’s ask ourselves well, okay, well, if, if, if those kids haven’t been identified by the authorities, where are they? Well, I would suggest that those children are the highly dissociated and traumatized adults that have been surfacing in mental health settings for 30 years, and saying to mental health practitioners, “I was severely sexually exploited, and somebody took images of me”. I would suggest that if we’re wondering where all the victims in child pornography are, well, they’re probably exactly the same population that’s been disbelieved and accused of having false memories, because they said multiple people abused me and they took images of me.

Neil Fairbrother

Yes. The final category that you identified was Technology Facilitated Organized Abuse, and I guess it almost speaks for itself but could you briefly outline what this is?

Michael Salter

So when we look at all forms of sexual offending, and even when we look for example at other sorts of interpersonal offending such as domestic violence, technology is becoming ubiquitous through all forms of sexual assault, through sexual harassment, through coercive control, by a partner. So as technologies have become pervasive through our lives, it’s also throughout all manifestations of abuse, violence, and exploitation.

So what we’re seeing when we’re looking at face-to-face organized abuse networks is that they’re using technology; so face-to-face networks are circulating child abuse material online. Face-to-face networks might use online services to advertise their victims or to find more victims. But we’re also finding, of course, that networks are forming online. And in some cases, networks are forming online in order to abuse children online. So because online services have not been designed with child protection principles in mind there are extensive opportunities for online offenders to exploit children without ever being physically present with the child. But also online networks are forming in a way that is putting kids physically at risk as well.

And what we can say is that, you know, for the many, unfortunately many, many in our community who consume child sexual abuse material, they are now entering into online communities of the offenders. So their very active consuming child sexual abuse material is now a collective activity. You know, many forums, many mailing lists, many dark web communities where, you know, we’re seeing thousands, tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands of offenders who were networking in a way that they simply could not 20 or 30 years ago. And so this question of the network effects of sexual abuse and the sorts of dynamics that are set in train when sex offenders get to know one another and start to socialize together, you know, these dynamics are becoming very, very acute questions for us in child protection.

Neil Fairbrother

Now you mentioned that group or organized sexual abuse of children tends to be more violent, more sadistic even. What are the effects of all of this on the victims? I think you refer to something called Dissociative Identity Disorder, or D.I.D, being a common diagnosis in the groups of victims that you’ve spoken to. What is D.I.D?

Michael Salter

So Dissociative Identity Disorder used to be called Multiple Personality Disorder. It was renamed in the mid-Nineties. And so it refers to an adult who, you know, as a child, within an environment where their caregiving environment did not in any way support them to develop a coherent sense of self.

So if we think about a baby, an infant, the way in which an infant psychologically develops is in attunement with their caregiver. So the child cries, the child is upset, and then the parent reacts by seeking to meet the child’s needs and to sooth the child. But also children try to induce love and care from their parents by smiling, by laughing, by interacting. But what if you have a caregiver who is frightened of you? So when you cry, it frightens the parent. So the parent might shake you, the parent might turn away from you, the parent might strike you.

Or what if you have a parent that is frightening of the child? So when the child smiles, when the child tries to invite attention from the parent, the parent is sexually abusive, the parent is invasive, the parent is inappropriate.

So this is a child where they’re not able to develop those important connections, those important basic sort of psychological logics. The child becomes trapped inside their own head as it were, inside a kind of a world in which they’re unable to make those important distinctions between their emotions inside and external stimulus and external interaction.

So this is a child who has to take a different developmental pathway than other children. This child is a child that’s in an unsafe, a pervasively unsafe and hostile environment. And so the way in which the child then progresses down psychological development is they progress through a sort of a dissociative pathway.

So it means that they’re unable to make those normal sorts of connections, where their emotions are regulated, where their self-identity coheres into what you and I would understand as a single identity. Instead, they inhabit kind of multiple different states that they flick between. So one state’s very angry. One state’s very scared. One state’s very loving. They don’t integrate these different states. And this is the outcome of early sexual exploitation. So when we’re working with adults who have this history, and then we’re working with someone who needs a lot of support and care to establish a basic sort of internal baseline of safety, in the same way that in the same way that a parent works with the baby to sooth the baby, so the baby learns those emotional rules we need to work with these adults to do that kind of work.

So it’s complex, it’s very difficult, but you know, it is work that is possible. Unfortunately our mental health systems in the United Kingdom and here in Australia, we just don’t provide enough training to therapists so that they’re competent in this area of work. And at the moment, unfortunately in both of our countries demand for mental health treatment for complex trauma and dissociation far outstrips supply. So there’s a real sort of workforce planning issue in the mental health workforce when it comes to responding to the needs of survivors of sexual exploitation.

Neil Fairbrother

Okay. Now you refer to a character in your book, the Marquis de Sade. Who was the Marquis de Sade and where does he come into all of this?

Michael Salter

So the Marquis de Sade is a very famous literary figure for, you know, a very perverse set of writings that he published really at a sort of turning point in sort of the Western historical canon. He was writing in the 18th century these sort of perverse texts in which he describes groups of people who come together to transgress the boundaries of sexual morality. And there’s been a point that’s been made in therapeutic circles around organized abuse for a long time, that the kinds of abuses that the Marquis de Sade describes in his texts and the dynamics of abuse are in fact very similar to the sorts of disclosures that we hear from organized abuse survivors.

And I don’t suggest that the Marquis de Sade was an organized abuse offender 200 years ago. The point that I make in my book is that he identifies particular types of logic of sexual transgression. And I think these logics help us to understand contemporary organized abuse, where survivors are describing not just sexual violation, but intentional degradation. So again, I apologize for the explicit details, but where survivors described, for example, being forced as children, into sexual contact with human faeces, where they described being urinated upon, these are the sorts of you know, horrific experiences that the Marquis de Sade talked about. But he was talking about the power of sexual transgression as a way of groups of people feeling superior, exalting themselves, creating a shared sense of identity.

So I suggest that similar sorts of dynamics are at work when we look at organized sexual offending. Yes, there’s paedophilic desire. So yes, paedophilia is an element of organized abuse, but it doesn’t explain the totality of abuse disclosed by survivors, much of which is not sexual. A lot of the offending that they’ve gone through was designed to dehumanize them. It was designed to cause pain and terror. And in turn the offenders adopt these often hyper-masculine, often quite ceremonial, exaggerated roles and identities. They feel superior, they feel powerful. And so I suggested organized abuse serves this purpose, this function, for perpetrators. It’s not only sexual. They develop a sense of themselves as transcending the moral bounds of the common folk.

Neil Fairbrother

The Marquis de Sade seems to have had a very Libertine view of the world. Although his works were, as you say, written in the 1700s, has this in fact carried through to today with social media? Is social media more Libertine than Liberal?

Michael Salter

Certainly it is. And I think Liberalism as a political philosophy, you know, has been a very powerful engine of social progress, you know. It essentially argues that people should do whatever they want, as long as there is no harm. And particularly it’s emphasized freedom of sexual expression. And so this question of harm becomes very important.

When we’re looking at sexual offenders, they believe very often that what they’re doing is not harmful to children, or that children deserve what is done to them. These are the sorts of ideologies that are reworked in organized sexual abuse that become quite foundational to the culture of organized abuse groups, that children either deserve what is being done to them because children are dirty, disgusting.

This is what survivors tell us you know, they talk about feeling dehumanized, feeling degraded and this becomes an excuse used by the offenders to abuse them, or that the child desires the abuse. In the production of child sexual abuse material, there is a lot of pressure put on the child to smile, to not show any pain, in order to maintain the fantasy of the offenders that the child very much enjoys what is being committed against her.

And so this Libertine ethos, this ethos of do what you want, do what you wilt, that doing what you want is an expression of power, is an expression of moral transcendency, it becomes part of the self-identity of organized abuse offenders. Where organizing abuse offenders have been caught, you know, their descriptions of this superior, quite psychopathic self-identity, is chilling.

They’ve often taken a lot of pleasure in leading a double life, in tricking everyone into believing that there’s someone else other than who they really are, and then getting away with, you know, really awful offending. That’s a very, very chilling part of the organized abuse perpetration and very difficult for survivors to manage as well, because sometimes they are making accusations against people who seem externally to be very moral and upstanding citizens.

And this puts them in a very difficult position and also puts those of us who work with organized abuse survivors in a very difficult position. When we’re hearing stories, people like Jeffrey Epstein who are famous and, you know, very well known for their philanthropy, but then there’s multiple offender. There’s multiple children, multiple victims behind the scenes coming forward with, you know, cohort corroborating testimony of sexual exploitation by someone that the community might hold in very high regard,

Neil Fairbrother

Bringing things up to date away from the 1700s. There are movements in the US legal world, some US legislation that you I think have expressed some concerns about and that is with regard to Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act or the CDA and a new Act that’s currently working its way through the Senate, the EARN IT act. What is your view of Section230, the EARN IT Act, and why should they concern Australians?

Michael Salter

So for those of us that live in Australia or the United Kingdom, if you live outside the United States, when it comes to internet law, we essentially live under American law because the majority of the technology companies that increasingly govern our lives are US-based, their infrastructure is in the US and so they governed by US law.

You know, my particular jurisdiction here in Australia has gotten much tighter and stricter regulations around online content, but we can’t enforce those regulations on US-based technology companies. So, you know, it’s very important for those of us who live outside the US to pay attention to US media law, because it has a major impact on the sorts of online content that we’re being exposed to and the sorts of online behaviour that our children and our citizens are also subject to.

Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act was drafted in the mid 1990s when the technology industry and the internet industry was really in its infancy and US legislators were trying to understand how they could create a legislative environment that would encourage the economic growth and the innovation of the technology industry. There was a lot of concern in Washington in the mid-Nineties particularly around online pornography. There was a lot of awareness of the amount of online pornography available on the internet. And there were attempts to make internet companies responsible where those internet companies made illegal content available to minors, where they made illegal content available to internet users, including child pornography.

So Section 230 was drafted by both Democrats and Republicans. It was a bipartisan piece of legislation essentially arguing that it is not the Government’s role to regulate online content, that it is up to users, and that it is up to parents to determine online standards and that also that technology companies could set these standards.

So essentially this created a shield from civil liability for technology companies for responsibility, particularly where internet users upload content and internet service providers make that content available that they are not civilly liable for that content, even where that content is child sexual abuse material. So we obviously have reasons 20 years later to revisit this legislative framework.

At no point did anyone who was drafting that bill in the mid-Nineties imagined that the internet would be the monolith that it is now. And so there are moves afoot in the United States, quite promising moves, to carve out child sexual abuse material so that where technology companies are not engaged in good faith attempts to reduce and remove child sexual abuse material from their services that they potentially become civilly liable for that child sexual abuse material. So they could be sued for making that material available or indeed lose all of the shield that is provided by Section230 and become civilly liable for all of their content.

So this has prompted a lot of backlash from online civil liberties groups. And it’s important to recognize that a lot of civil society around the internet in the United States although, you know, these not-for-profits are ostensibly independent, but they actually receive a lot of their funding from technology companies and they have a history of walking and talking in lock step with industry interests.

This move in the U S by legislators has been made after the sheer scale of online child sexual abuse has become apparent. And also there was a very important meeting in March [2020] in the White House between senior tech leaders and senior US politicians and the Phoenix 11, who are a group of young women whose sexual abuse was recorded and made available online.

And the Phoenix 11 spoke directly to the ongoing impact of the circulation of images and videos of their abuse on their lives. I think that the voices of survivors have been really crucial in breaking through industry propaganda and making the reality of this type of victimization very clear, you know, that the kids in these images are real. They are real people that are in our community and their lives are being destroyed by the ongoing circulation of this material.

So I view the EARNIT act, so this is the this is the reform that is moving forward, to be a very positive move by US legislators and one that I certainly hope it does actually pass into law.

Neil Fairbrother

We’re seeing some some advertiser activism at the moment with regards to the “Stop Hate for Profit” campaign with nearly 1000 large advertisers, such as Unilever withholding their marketing spend, especially with Facebook in the US for a month. Is just a month only in the US enough? And should this campaign be extended to other forms of online harm? After all Zuckerberg recently said the advertisers will be back soon enough.

Michael Salter

Yeah, it’s really quite extraordinary. You know, on one hand Facebook is the most open and transparent company about the amount of child sexual abuse material on their service. And there is a lot, and they are one of the very few social media firms that reports that data openly and transparently, which is fantastic. And I would love to see more social media companies you know, adopt the same commitment that Facebook have.

And yet we need to be clear. It is not enough and Facebook, in order to assuage user concern about how poorly Facebook has safeguarded user data and use a privacy, Facebook has responded to those concerns by offering to encrypt their Messenger platform. And what this would create is a black box for sex offenders to share sexual abuse material with one another, to lure children onto Messenger so that they can interact sexually with children without any hope of Facebook you know, assessing the risk, or law enforcement getting access to evidence of child exploitation and child trafficking.

So Facebook has stated their intention to encrypt Messenger, despite the global protest of any credible child protection expert and governments all around the world asking Facebook not to do this. And we’re also seeing moves on Twitter. Twitter has a massive child sexual abuse problem. There is currently open trade in the most serious child sexual abuse material I’ve ever been exposed to, is currently being traded openly on Twitter with sex offenders, sharing one another’s contact details. If offenders want more of the same images or more of the same videos, they’re openly trading this on Twitter. And Twitter has stated last year that they intend to encrypt their direct message function as well, which again, just creates a perfect environment for offenders where there is no prospect of law enforcement or prosecution.

So I think these sorts of offender boycotts are one of the key tools that we have available at the moment, but the reason why we need to rely on these sorts of advertising boycotts is because of a lack of government regulation. And point blank until governments said, step up to the plate and legislate basic safety standards to protect children then we will continue to see tech companies pursue profits over child protection. And that’s why we’re in the situation that we are in.

Governments have to give voice to the public good, and they have to prioritize child protection. And I think the decision was made in 1996 with the passage of the Communications Decency Act to prioritize economic growth and industry profit over child protection. We have to turn that back. We have to restate what our priorities are, and it has to be child wellbeing.

Neil Fairbrother

Michael, we’re running very short of time. I think we’re probably overtime as usual on these podcasts. So very, very briefly one final question. What would the Marquis de Sade have made of social media? Would he have approved of it as it currently is?

Michael Salter

Look, I think that’s a really good question. And I think that it is an environment that is red in tooth and claw. I think that it is a “Sade-ian nightmare” and it is up to democratic forces to tame social media. You know, the Marquis de Sade was writing ultimately about the intrusion of market forces into sexuality, he was writing about the structuring of human intimacy and human sexuality through commodification. And that is ultimately what social media has done. It has commodified the most intimate aspects of social life. And the only counterweight to that is democracy. The only counterweight to that is the voice of the people, and that is our Governments. And increasingly our Governments are understanding that tech companies have lost their social license and I think social opinion is turning against technology industries, but we have a long way to go until we can say that social media is a force for good

Neil Fairbrother

Michael, on that note, we’re going to have to end it. Thank you so much for your time and good luck with all of your endeavours.

Michael Salter

Thank you Neil


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