EXCLUSIVE: Meta Failed To Protect Instagram’s Child Models From Pedophiles

EXCLUSIVE: Meta Failed To Protect Instagram’s Child Models From Pedophiles

A photographer accused of selling photos to pedophiles is allowed to use Instagram for months after he’s arrested. Forbes alerts Meta to more than a dozen accounts with over half a million followers sexualizing child and teenage models. Now the tech giant is coming under heavy fire for its policing of predators.


Jane, a 13-year-old living in Louisiana, decided she wanted to be a model. It was her mom, Sarah, who gave her ambitions a boost by posting images of her on Instagram. (Forbes has changed their names to protect their identities). It wasn’t long before Sarah was contacted by another mother whose child was also an aspiring model. She introduced Sarah to a man named Grant Durtschi, according to court documents filed by the Department of Justice earlier this year. The 48-year-old Durtschi had made a career out of photographing kids. Sometimes, he’d pay the parent or even the child up to $1,000 per shoot before he sold the photos to unknown buyers, the Department of Justice said.

To Jane’s stepfather, however, something was up. Federal investigators said he went to the FBI and told them that, in chats over the messaging app Telegram, Durtschi had openly admitted selling his photos to pedophiles. Later, the Louisiana Bureau of Investigation received a batch of Durtschi’s photos of Jane in various poses wearing a G-string bikini on a bed, according to a search warrant application for Google Drive accounts linked to the investigation. Some images were of Jane in sexually suggestive positions and some photos were intimate, the warrant read. After interviewing Sarah, federal agents said that during Jane’s final shoot in October 2020 in Texas that Jane complained she was uncomfortable with how Durtschi was getting “handsy.” Jane would later tell police the photographer touched her backside and undid her swimsuit.

Durthschi would often post his photos on two Instagram accounts, both now removed from the Meta-owned platform. Customers would contact him over Instagram and pay for photos over PayPal, according to a police analysis of his financial records. The analysis of his PayPal account found that over 70 clients had paid him between $100 and $1,100 for images. “Of those 70 men, several of the men were convicted sex offenders or had other related convictions in their criminal history,” the FBI said. One had been previously arrested for kidnapping.

Durtschi was arrested in March and indicted in April. He pleaded not guilty to charges of sexual exploitation of children. His attorney didn’t respond to requests for comment.

Durtschi’s arrest, however, didn’t have much of an effect on his Instagram presence. Using two other accounts, he appeared to have continued to use the site to share images of minors for months after he was charged and arrested. Forbes did a simple Google search for Durtschi’s two deleted Instagram accounts. The first result — one that referenced his business name, as did his already-banned profiles — showed an active account that had nearly 90,000 followers and was regularly posting images of teenagers and possibly younger children wearing swimming attire. Often, comments under the photos were sexual in nature, whether explicitly or with sexualized emojis. Earlier this year, another Instagram user called out the account as Durthschi’s and claimed the photographer was selling images of children to pedophiles. The same week Forbes alerted Meta to the account, it was removed.

But yet another account that referenced Durthschi’s company was still online. That was despite the FBI claiming it had previously been shut down, indicating Meta had allowed Durtschi to reinstate his profile where he continued to post photos and videos of minors. The public account, which noted it was “rebuilding for the third time,” contained a reel posted in April — a month after the photographer was arrested — of a child model being photographed by a gray-haired male. The same model’s image had been shared on the 90,000-follower Durtschi page before it was closed. This last account was also removed after Forbes alerted Meta to its existence.

The case not only highlights a troubling corner of Instagram that acts as a marketplace for sexualized images of children, it also shows how easily those who exploit young people can elude banishment and return again and again, even after they’re arrested and charged. Despite years of criticism for how it fails to protect children, most recently via the leaks of former employee Frances Haugen, Meta, with $118 billion in 2021 revenue, relies a great deal on unpaid Instagram users and journalists to identify wrongdoers, and has a tough time keeping them off the platform or disposing of what they might leave behind.

Meta has no tolerance for child exploitation on its platforms and will remove accounts that share such content, according to a Meta spokesperson. “We’ve always removed content that explicitly sexualizes children, and last year we updated our policies to help us remove more subtle types of sexualization, including where accounts share images of children alongside inappropriate commentary about their appearance,” the spokesperson said. “We know there may be those who try and get around our systems, which is why we’re always working to make sure we stay one step ahead.” The spokesperson pointed to Meta’s policy that outlaws any content sexualizing children. The tech giant doesn’t allow children in “sexualized costume” or in a “staged environment (for example, on a bed) or professionally shot (quality/focus/angles).”

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Yet further searching found over a dozen other accounts that posted similar content to Durtschi’s and had been visited by Instagram users who let it be known they found the minors sexually attractive. One Instagram profile posted photos and videos of minors in swimwear, with a request for “no creeps please.” It had 2,167 followers. Another with similar swimwear-based content had 43,000 followers. Those were just the public groups. A private one, which also promised photos of teenagers in swimwear, had nearly 400,000 followers. Together with Durtschi’s pages, the accounts identified by Forbes containing sexualized images of children and teenagers had a total of more than 500,000 followers. After Forbes alerted Meta to 15 potentially problematic accounts, Instagram had closed 11 at the time of publication. (This week, Instagram also announced new features to verify users’ ages, including a partnership with a company called Yoti that scans faces to estimate how old a subject is.)

Lianna McDonald, executive director for the Canadian Centre for Child Protection, said her organization was “incensed” by Forbes’ findings. She called for Meta to increase its content moderation, while urging governments to introduce more legislation that would force companies to take more action on “not just criminal content, but also content that is harmful and abusive to children.”

“In our experience, the publication of sexualized child modeling imagery—often images that don’t rise to the level of being unambiguously illegal—are frequently used as promotional conduits to signal the availability of child sexual abuse imagery on other channels,” McDonald said. The tactic, she said, is referred to as “breadcrumbing.”

McDonald said that images of one of the victims referenced in the search warrant provided by Forbes was promoted on dark web child sexual abuse forums “where they are being used in more sexually abusive and explicit ways.”

The Canadian organization continues to find accounts that either promote child sexual abuse or sexualize children. In just one month this year, it reported nearly 150 of them to Instagram, 40 of which remain online, McDonald said.

Andy Burrows, head of child safety online policy at the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, a U.K. nonprofit, said the child model accounts identified by Forbes “serve the sole purpose of being a shop window for child abuse, allowing offenders to identify each other and organize in plain sight while Instagram appears to look the other way.”

Burrows called the gaps in Meta’s safeguarding process “a dereliction of their corporate responsibility.”

“As policy makers regulate social media, there must be a clear consensus that companies have a duty to stop material that facilitates child abuse appearing on their platforms, with strong corporate and director accountability measures that focus minds at C-suite level,” Burrows said.

What’s illegal activity, however, isn’t easily separated from what could be legal. Hashtags promoting child models are linked to more than 3 million posts, for example. When Forbes approached the Internet Watch Foundation, a U.K.-based nonprofit that helps report child sexual abuse material, it said it couldn’t comment because none of the accounts posted what it deemed to be illegal imagery.


“You see how much sickness is out there…”


Even without illegality, there’s a cringe factor that bleeds into similar Instagram activity. Dee Stewart, a Texas-based photographer who’s often paid by families for taking photos of their children, said he’s regularly contacted by people over Instagram asking to buy his work. “Almost every week, I get messaged about that,” Stewart said. “There’s a lot of troublesome things going on,” he said, pointing to accounts where most images were of minors wearing few items of clothing. “They’re taking it to the extreme the way the poses are and things like that.”

After some of Stewart’s photography had been linked on a Durtschi account, he said he was considering leaving Instagram because he didn’t want to be implicated in any shady business. “You see how much sickness is out there,” he said.

In Jane’s case, there was a twist in the investigation: her mother became a suspect. After Sarah had willingly given her phone to the FBI to be forensically searched, agents discovered Telegram conversations between Sarah and Durtschi in which the photographer admitted to being a pedophile, “his family knew he was a pedophile, and 99% of the people in this industry [teen modeling] were pedophiles,” the warrant read.

While apparently incriminating for Durtschi, investigators began to suspect Sarah was involved in the production of potential child sexual abuse material of her daughter, with one of her messages accompanying a photo reading, “she is finally using her lil butt some lol.” Sarah had sued Durtschi for selling photos of her daughter without her permission. The mother didn’t respond to requests for comment. She hasn’t been charged with any crime.

Jane may want to forget about her experiences with Durtschi. But the pedophiles who first spied her on Instagram are still hanging around. In recent months, according to the FBI’s account, Sarah has repeatedly been contacted over Meta’s site by men still hoping to buy images of her daughter straight from her mother.

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