‘90% of all the data in the world today has been created in the past two years.’ It wasn’t too long ago that this statistic from IBM made its way into every conference speech and investor presentation.
And now an investigation published this weekend in the New York Times has shown that this industry cliche has a dark side – child abuse imagery is following the same curve.
The purpose of the Times’ report was to highlight how ill-equipped the police and government are to deal with the exponential growth in the number of abuse cases. It describes, in detail, how the allocated budgets fall woefully short of what would be needed to meet the crisis head on and how money is, in many cases, siphoned off by other departments.
The report also hints at the technological causes of the phenomenon. The impact of camera phones, cloud storage and social media are all discussed in the piece. But what exactly is it about these technologies that has encouraged the proliferation of images and videos depicting child abuse?
Images and videos like those discussed in the report are singularly damaging and uniquely horrendous. But perhaps, if we’re going to explain the rapid increase in this material’s availability, it’s necessary to examine why every category of content is expanding on an internet built on the premise of sharing.
My earliest experience of the web, like many of my peers’, was using it to download poor quality MP3s. Applications like Napster had us (and the music industry) convinced that nobody would ever have to buy music again. The sharing network was a revelation.
It was possible, at that time, to be optimistic about the future of child abuse. It seemed reasonable to assume that the wider availability of material from older (though no less despicable) crimes would satiate their consumers’ needs and lead, eventually, to a decline in the total number of new cases. But the inverse has happened.
As the total amount of material has grown, so has the rate of production. And this is not unique to images and videos of child abuse.
Everything from illicit to perfectly legal sexual content, from niche electronic music to snuff films, from harmless prank videos to extremist political rhetoric has undergone the same growth. YouTube, to take just one example, adds 500 hours of footage to its library every single minute.
So what explains this growth? And how has a network built on sharing ended up prizing creation?
When the turn of the century’s Dotcom boom-and-bust put an end to many of the sharing platform businesses a second wave of tech companies erupted in their place.
These companies emphasised connection and placed individual users at the centre. They existed to share what you had to say, what you thought, what you made. Traditional media conglomerates no longer controlled the airways.
After the second wave companies fumbled around trying not to repeat the mistakes of the economics-less Web 1.0, they settled on an advertising based model and set about optimising for usage time.
Eventually, these designers and analysts iterated their way to addictive products that engendered social anxiety and depression. Suddenly, it seemed as if the whole world was obsessed with their friend count. Social media was born.
The primary benefit of this model (compared to that of the traditional media) is also it’s downfall – its topic-blindness. No matter how niche or abnormal your tastes, social media sites encourage you, perhaps even manipulate you, to connect and share.
The joys of chasing ever higher follower counts or ‘growing your network’ are available to everyone with an internet connection, no matter if you’re a YouTube prankster or a dark web pedophile.
The issue of child abuse is, of course, not solely due to social media. But social media has certainly played its part. And if we ignore this overarching trend towards exponential growth, we’re left with theories that fall short of a full explanation.
Anonymity, for example, is often blamed for abusive online behaviour. But anonymity fails to explain why so many (~66%) of the reported cases occur on Facebook messenger, a platform where the vast majority of users identify themselves truthfully.
The world’s largest technology companies are slowly realising the immensity of the problem they’re facing. They’ve allowed child abusers to run rampant on their platforms simply because they’ve allowed everyone to run rampant, all in the name of network effects and exponential user growth. They’ve opened Pandora’s box and it may well take the end of social media to close it.