Social media platforms have incorporated AI primarily in the form of content recommendation systems. An example of a content recommendation system is where a user watches a video on a specific topic and subsequently receives recommended content which is the same, similar or related to the topic which they originally viewed. These AI systems are used to improve content recommendations and to ensure more effective sharing of content on the platform, but an issue has arisen whereby the AI algorithms are now enabling users to easily share explicit material.
Social media and sharing of explicit material
Recently, a popular social media platform has come under fire when research revealed large paedophile networks operating on the platform. According to reports, the company who owns the social media platform has not been proactive in the combatting of the sharing of child-explicit content, with users being allowed to search for hashtags such as "#preteensex" or "#pedobait". In a study conducted by Stanford University, new accounts were created for purposes of testing the outcome of interacting with these hashtags and after brief interactions with such hashtags, the accounts were recommended with a barrage of child-explicit content and incorporated into a network of accounts sharing such illicit material. Despite attempts to ban certain known harmful hashtags, a popular social media network's AI algorithm appears to have inadvertently enabled and facilitated the sharing of paedophilic material on the platform.
Furthermore, another popular social media's AI algorithm has recently been exposed for recommending social media posts and content on harmful topics, such as suicide and self-harm, to vulnerable groups such as children or teenagers.
In addition to the above, deepfakes have been used to artificially create explicit material, which could then be shared on social media. A notorious example is of Mark Zuckerberg allegedly bragging that he has control over billions of pieces of stolen information. Although these videos are largely made in jest, the real harm emerges where people's faces are mapped onto explicit content. Here, a social media user could find themselves the victim of deepfake pornography where their face has been mapped onto an inappropriate image or video. With the current growing popularity of deepfakes, this risk may materialise to a much greater extent as deepfake technologies become more widespread and accessible.
Social media platforms have also been known to create echo chambers where users are repetitively recommended content that is similar to the content which they normally browse, thereby reinforcing their existing views, biases and opinions. Echo chambers could, through a high-degree of exposure to certain content, normalise objectionable, illicit, or explicit material, which people may not normally be exposed to in the course of everyday life, such as suicidal videos or child pornography. The risk here is that these users may begin to believe that such harmful or explicit content is normal and acceptable, which could encourage them to behave in a certain manner, especially if users are experiencing moments of emotional instability or prone to paedophilic tendencies.
A content recommendation system, if left unregulated, could serve to perpetuate harm in society. Echo chambers remain a key problem plaguing social media platforms as they work to normalise certain topics and material which users would not normally be exposed to, thereby promoting explicit or illicit materials to prompt users to act or behave in a certain uncustomary manner.
It is important that users remain vigilant of the risks that they may be exposed to when accessing social media. An unsuspecting user may stumble upon or be recommended explicit material which may be emotionally triggering. For brand ambassadors, influencers, or companies who have business accounts on social media platforms, it is particularly important for these users to ensure that their name and brand is not associated with explicit material by accidently miss-clicking, sharing or being tagged in such content. Furthermore, if a user's social media account is hacked, explicit material could be posted to their account, which could lead to stigmatisation and ongoing reputational damage despite the compromised social media account being retrieved.
If you are a user of any social media platform, some of the steps you should consider taking to avoid being exposed to harmful material or content are set out below:
- when signing up for an account on a social media platform, read the platform's terms and conditions so that you are aware of your rights as a user;
- remain up-to-date with hashtags that are known to be linked to explicit content and take all steps necessary to actively avoid accessing such hashtags;
- review the accounts you follow on social media, as well as the hashtags you browse and/or post on the platform and remove any objectionable or harmful accounts;
- check the content or posts which other accounts tag you in and delete the posts which contain content, hashtags or posts that you do not want to be associated with;
- keep up-to-date with news or articles that expose social media platforms for sharing harmful or explicit material;
- update your social media passwords regularly and use strong alphanumeric passwords;
- use unique passwords for each social media platform; and
- delete any inactive accounts to prevent them from being compromised.
Furthermore, parents of adolescent social media users should implement measures to prevent their children from being exposed to explicit content, such as reviewing the terms and conditions of the relevant social media platform before an account is registered and implementing parental control restrictions to limit their child's access to certain social media platforms. Parents should also periodically review their child's account to ensure that the child isn't being exposed to harmful or explicit content on the social media platform.
The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.