New Mexico Attorney General Raul Torrez has filed a lawsuit against Meta Platforms, Inc., CEO Mark Zuckerburg and the company’s subsidiaries, including Instagram, LLC, and Facebook Holdings, LLC, in an effort to protect children from sexual abuse, online solicitation and human trafficking.

Over the past few months, the New Mexico Attorney General’s office conducted an undercover investigation of Meta’s platforms by creating decoy accounts of children age 14 and under. The resulting lawsuit was filed Tuesday in the 1st Judicial District Court.

“Our investigation into Meta’s social media platforms demonstrates that they are not safe spaces for children but rather prime locations for predators to trade child pornography and solicit minors for sex,” Torrez said in a Wednesday announcement of the lawsuit. “As a career prosecutor who specialized in internet crimes against children, I am committed to using every available tool to put an end to these horrific practices and I will hold companies — and their executives — accountable whenever they put profits ahead of children’s safety.”

Torrez has long had a concern about the lack of monitoring and action taken by social media giants to protect children from solicitation and child sexual abuse materials, his office said. “Essentially, Meta has failed to mee the basic requirements to keep children safe on their platforms. They have misled parents and others that they have settings to keep their kids safe,” Lauren Rodriguez, director of communications, wrote in an email, adding the organizations have failed to monitor or take down such content.

According to Torrez’s office, the investigation uncovered evidence that the platforms:

  • Proactively served and directed the underage users a stream of egregious, sexually explicit images, even when the child has expressed no interest in this content.
  • Enabled dozens of adults to find, contact and press children into providing sexually explicit pictures of themselves or participate in pornographic videos.
  • Recommended that the children join unmoderated Facebook groups devoted to facilitating commercial sex.
  • Allowed Facebook and Instagram users to find, share and sell an enormous volume of child pornography.
  • Allowed a fictitious mother to offer her 13-year-old daughter for sale to sex traffickers and to create a professional page to allow her daughter to share revenue from advertising.

A Meta spokeswoman said in a written statement that the tech giant utilizes child safety experts and sophisticated technology to root out predators. On Instagram, the company also makes accounts private for those under the age of 16, the statement said.

“In one month alone, we disabled more than half a million accounts for violating our child safety policies,” Meta spokeswoman Nkechi Nneji said. Meta said it also reports sexually explicit conduct to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children and shares content with law enforcement and state attorneys general to screen out predators.

Rodriguez said that while they cannot speak to any pending arrests due to the ongoing investigation, all instances of child sexual abuse materials (CSAM) were reported to appropriate authorities.

Investigators also found that certain content exploiting children is more than 10 times more prevalent on Facebook and Instagram than it is on adult content platforms such as Pornhub and OnlyFans, The complaint notes that that searches for such content yielded 30 results on OnlyFans, 646 on Pornhub, 19,900 on Instagram and 15,900 on Facebook.

The office said that while the images and case studies cited in the complaint are “shocking,” the office excluded many images investigators found on Meta’s platforms from the complaint “because they were deemed too graphic and disturbing.” The complaint also stated that several of the posts investigators reported to Meta were still available days before the complaint was filed.

“As outlined in today’s filing, Meta fails to remove Child Sexual Abuse Material across its platforms and enables adults to find, contact and solicit underage users to produce illicit pornographic imagery and participate in commercial sex,” the announcement of the lawsuit reads. “The New Mexico Attorney General’s complaint also details how Meta harms children and teenagers through the addictive design of its platform, degrading users’ mental health, their sense of self-worth and their physical safety.”

“Mr. Zuckerberg and other Meta executives are aware of the serious harm their products can pose to young users, and yet they have failed to make sufficient changes to their platforms that would prevent the sexual exploitation of children,” Torrez said. “Despite repeated assurances to Congress and the public that they can be trusted to police themselves, it is clear that Meta’s executives continue to prioritize engagement and ad revenue over the safety of the most vulnerable members of our society.”

Case study

Issa Bee is a fictional 13-year-old New Mexico girl invented by investigators with the New Mexico Attorney General’s Office, who created a Facebook account for her in August that rapidly attracted more than 6,700 followers, most of them men ages 18 to 40.

Adult men regularly post messages on her Facebook account “telling Issa they love her and calling her beautiful, sexy, or gorgeous” and often attaching sexually explicit photos. One man offered her $5,000 a week to be his “sugar baby” and urged her to text him.

Issa’s fictitious Facebook account is fully detailed in a lawsuit filed by Attorney General Raúl Torrez, alleging that Facebook and Instagram put underage users at risk of human trafficking and the distribution of sexually explicit images.

In the case of Issa Bee, investigators developed a Facebook profile for a fictional 40-year-old “bad mother” for Issa. The mother’s profile included information indicating that she “was interested in trafficking her daughter,” the suit said. The site included photos of Issa Bee that clearly showed the girl was underage.

“Within three days of establishing the profile, and without any efforts to promote the account, (the mother’s) account reached its maximum limit of 5,000 Facebook friends and over 3,000 followers,” the suit alleges. A “friend” recently added to a chat group focused on cultivating girls ages 12-16 and providing explicit material of underage girls. Issa reported the group “numerous times to Facebook but it remained active,” the suit alleges. “After Issa’s last report, Facebook merely instructed Issa to leave the group.”

Her Messenger and chats, the suit alleges, “are filled with pictures and videos of genitalia” that she receives multiple times per week. It also accuses Meta of further exploiting Issa by offering her a professional account on Facebook, which would enable her to make money of reels and allow “fans” to send her stars and gifts purchased from Meta. Reels recommended to Issa by Meta in her feed “include explicit and sexualized images of teenage girls,” the suit adds.

Four other case studies were also outlined in the complaint.

The bigger picture

The lawsuit alleges the Menlo Park, California, company violates New Mexico’s Unfair Practices Act, which prohibits deceptive trade practices by companies doing business in the state. The lawsuit asks a judge to order the company to halt its deceptive practices and pay an undisclosed amount in fines and penalties.

Torrez said his office began to consult with experts this past spring on litigation targeting child exploitation as it relates to mental health and privacy issues. But he said in just the past couple of months, his office has focused almost exclusively on the sexual nature of child exploitation.

The lawsuit alleges that Meta misled its consumers about the safety of its platforms, particularly the safety of children, he said.

The suit also alleges that Meta developed specific features that “amplifies and facilitates the connection of vulnerable children to potential predators,” he said.

Rodriguez said the while attorneys general in other locations recently filed a federal lawsuit against Meta, “their claims were focused on the mental health aspect of social media whereas ours is concerning human trafficking and CSAM but also incorporates mental health and children’s safety broadly.”

Asked if the AG’s Office will pursue investigations and lawsuits on other social media platforms, Torrez said the lawsuit against Meta may just be a precursor for what is to come.

Getting help

The Attorney General’s office is encouraging parents and children who have been victims of sexual exploitation enabled by social media platforms as well as those who have experienced addiction, eating disorders or other self-harm or mental health issues because of their social media use to share their experiences with them via the Electronic Complaint Submission form found at nmag.gov. Resources for finding help can be found at nmag.gov/resources/community-safety-awareness/