The independent news collective is teaching a new generation of journalists and citizens to spot the stories in plain sight.
On July 17, 2014, Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 (MH17) was shot down over eastern Ukraine. The attack occurred in an area controlled by pro-Russian separatists and seemed the result of a surface-to-air missile. Everyone on board was killed.
The event triggered public outrage and an international season of the blame game. Western Europe, led by the U.S. and Ukraine, pointed fingers at Russia, while Russia tried to pin the blame on Ukraine, going so far as to claim a Ukrainian military jet tailed the commercial aircraft immediately before the disaster.
Later that year, an investigative team put out a report linking the pro-Russian separatists to the Buk-M1 missile launcher likely responsible for the tragedy. The team compiled photos, satellite imagery, and video evidence to follow a missile transport from Donetsk to Snizhne immediately before the downing of the aircraft. They then confirmed the transport leaving the area later, sans one missile.
This report was not filed by an NGO or a legacy news organization like the New York Times or Wall Street Journal, nor did the team have access to insider or classified information. Its authors were a small, independent collective of researchers and citizen journalists called Bellingcat, and their information came from social media posts, Google Maps satellite imagery, and videos uploaded to YouTube. In other words, the facts were out in the open for anyone to see. Bellingcat simply knew where to look.
Following the data
Dutch Safety Board Chairman Tjibbe Joustra speaks in front of the MH17 wreckage to present its final report into the attack.
Bellingcat was founded by Eliot Higgins, a citizen journalist who gained online prominence investigating weapons smuggling during the Syrian war. The collective's report into the MH17 attack would serve as its breakthrough, and it would continue to improve our understanding of the tragic event and countering Russian disinformation.
Since then, Bellingcat has legally registered as a foundation in the Netherlands and has continued to unearth consequential details to some of the most important news stories of the last decade, including the Syrian War, the Christchurch mosque massacre, and the poisonings of Yulia Skripal and Alexei Navalny.
The foundation's model of journalism is known as "open-source investigation." According to Aric Toler, Bellingcat's director of research and training, it's less an overturning of investigative journalism than a "genre" within it. This type of investigation follows digital data trails that are freely available on the internet. The bread crumbs could be found in public records, media reports, photos on Twitter, or people silly enough to upload a video of themselves committing a crime on Parler.
"Bellingcat's rise reveals something new about our digitally mediated times: spying is no longer the preserve of nation states – anyone with an internet connection can do it. The balance between open and secret intelligence is shifting. The most useful stuff is often public," writes Luke Harding for the Guardian.
The vast amount of data available online allows Bellingcat's researchers to piece together timelines or connect seemingly disparate events to reveal their connective, underlying thread. In its investigation into the shooting of Ashli Babbitt, researchers created a timeline of radicalization through her social-media footprint; they also mapped her journey during the Capitol Riot by locating videos showing her in the crowd and comparing background details to publicly available floorplans of the U.S. Capitol Building.
Like a fussy math teacher, the foundation employs a "show-your-work approach" to maintain credibility, transparency, and back-of-the-book peeking. Each article or report meticulously presents its data points through links and images, building the trail of evidence crumb-by-crumb. By the end, readers have seen the same evidence as the researcher and can decide whether said evidence supports the researcher's conclusions.
Aware such evidence can sometimes vanish—either by the people who upload it or corporations fretting over public relations—Bellingcat has also gone to great lengths to archive and back up important data before they are lost.
Balancing clarity and caution
While today Bellingcat employs a small team of journalists and editors, it still relies on volunteers and citizen journalists willing to dedicate the time and effort to scrape the internet for leads.
This, Toler told us in our interview, is an advantage to Bellingcat's investigative methods. While traditional news outlets contend with shrinking budgets, less personnel, and more information to wrangle than ever, they simply lack the resources necessary to explore the deluge of data we call the internet. Conversely, Bellingcat can overcome these barriers by tapping into a pre-existing group of enthusiasts who thrive on a sense of devotion, interest, and personal satisfaction. And the more people who team up to solve a problem, the lighter the work becomes.
But there are challenges. "It's a double-edged sword. On the one hand, you have a clear gap in information. It's just not feasible for large outlets to cover this stuff to the degree it should be. But also, the people who do have time and do it, there's not as much responsibility on them, and who knows what they could do that causes harm," Toler said.
Consider the open-sourced nature of the evidence. Bellingcat's show-your-work approach is necessary for clarity and transparency, but it also creates a set of instructions for those looking to duplicate the formula. While Bellingcat maintains the guidelines of a traditional newsroom, others may not and bad actors could locate information Bellingcat deemed sensitive enough to redact and use it to harm others by, say, doxing.
"There's really no good solution because you can't control what the mob does. If someone is angry, they can dig into this stuff because it is open source, and if you give the transparency of how you got your stuff, then you can't avoid the fact that it can then be reproduced and found," Toler said.
Because of this, Bellingcat hopes to serve as a type of intermediary. Like a traditional newsroom, it vets its sources, sets up fail-safes to catch misinformation, and writes its reports to protect bystanders and prevent libel. It hopes these practices will serve as an example for citizen journalists to emulate. On the obverse, it aims to show established news outlets the power and reach of open-sourced investigative techniques and these online communities.
Recently, Bellingcat has worked to investigate the Jan.6 Capitol Riots.
Credit: Spencer Platt/Getty Images
Looking to the larger media landscape, Bellingcat doesn't see itself in competition with traditional news media. It views its position as one of cooperation. The foundation has worked with several news partners to investigate stories and promote its work, such as sharing the findings of its Riley June Williams investigation with NBC.
It also offers training workshops to teach open-source investigation. These are not only attended by journalists wishing to hone their skills but professionals like lawyers and finance managers looking to add these techniques to their trades. Because the foundation sees its methods as an extension of investigative journalism, not a replacement for it, it isn't looking to corner a market. Rather, it aims to evolve a profession to meet the challenges of its new 21st-century environment.
As Toler told us: "Journalism doesn't work one way or the other. It should be both. Do some open-source sleuthing to compliment and boost your on-the-ground reporting.
"Our gospel of open source, we're trying to spread that as much as we can. We want to make this a very mainstream part of traditional news. If we're made obsolete, that's a good thing because we'd like for more traditional news outlets to be doing digital investigation and verification work."
The opening lines of Smartmatic's $2.7 billion lawsuit against Fox News lay bare the culture of denial in the US.
- Smartmatic, an election technology company, has filed a $2.7-billion-dollar defamation suit against Fox News for making false claims about its voting machines during Fox's dishonest campaign against the 2020 US presidential election results.
- The lawsuit opens with three powerful statements of fact: A scientific truth, a mathematical proof, and an objective political fact: More people voted for Joe Biden than for Donald Trump.
- We owe the Smartmatic lawyers a debt of gratitude for so cleanly demonstrating what this ongoing election battle is all about. What is at stake is not a political ideology. It's a fight to acknowledge the shared reality we all live in.
"The Earth is round. Two plus two equals four. Joe Biden and Kamala Harris won the 2020 election for President and Vice President of the United States."
So begins the 2.7-billion-dollar legal suit filed by Smartmatic, an election technology company, against Fox News. The suit, filed two weeks ago, argues that Fox News, its hosts, and others defamed the company by making false claims about their voting machines to back up other false claims that the US election had been stolen. There is much about this suit which, like our times, is remarkable. For readers of 13.8, however, those three opening sentences are what matter. Linking those three statements of fact is more than just rhetorical flourish. Instead, they reveal a unity of ideals lying at the heart of modern scientific and democratic societies. They are the keys to living in a richly diverse and yet peacefully shared reality. Those ideals are now at risk.
So, to understand exactly what's at stake in these remarkable times, and what the suit proposes, let's unpack each of these statements and what they point to separately.
The "Big Lie" about the 2020 elections was the most egregious attempt to deny that there are shared facts about a shared world.
The first statement of fact the Smartmatic lawyers drawn upon is a scientific truth about the physical world. Specifically, it relates to geology and planetary science. Earth, a planet, takes a spherical configuration. The truth of that statement has been demonstrated by direct observation for many millennia. For example, when ships sail away from a harbor, they not only appear to get smaller as they grow more distant, but their masts are also seen to sink below the horizon. The fact that there is a "below the horizon" means the planet is not flat. In the modern era we have sent cameras far enough from Earth to get direct image-based evidence for the sphericity of our home world.
The second statement of fact relates to mathematics. There are rules for summing two integers. Those rules are known and can be applied such that everyone agreeing to those rules can agree on the result of such a summation. Also, the rules are associated with basic statements of logic. These include holding that fact can't be both true and false at the same time. So, to deny the rules and results of math would mean to deny the possibility of reason.
The third statement of fact is where things get interesting. It concerns the outcome of counting votes. Like imaging Earth from space, or carrying out a mathematical proof, the outcome of counting votes will lead to an objective fact. Either Joe Biden got more votes than his opponent or he did not.
But the reality of votes is not the same as the reality of planets or math. That is why the construction of the Smartmatic suit is so revealing. Planets are just given to us by the universe. We find ourselves on one whether we like it or not. Likewise, mathematical proofs don't care how you are feeling about life that day. They always give the same result. But votes don't have to exist the way planets and math does. Votes emerge from an idea about self-governance.
Voting is a creation of the human mind to solve a very human problem: How do we all get along? How do different people with different concepts, ideas, and feelings all live together without resorting to beatings every time they disagree on something?
Voting is a democratic mechanism that helps us "get along." Here, former vice president Mike Pence and house speaker Nancy Pelosi preside over a joint session of Congress to certify the 2020 electoral college results.
Credit: Erin Schaff / POOL / AFP via Getty Images
This "how to get along" question is an old, old problem for humans, and we have tried many approaches including kings, dictators, and tyrants. Voting was a pretty radical idea when it was first tried out in ancient Greece. But by the time it was proposed in places like the nascent United States, it had taken on an entirely new character. Proposals for democracy in the 18th century emerged from the constellation of ideas we now call the Enlightenment. More than anything else, Enlightenment-era thinkers believed they had found a path toward a better world. It was a path laid down by reason and by science.
For Enlightenment thinkers, "knowledge, innovation, freedom, and social advancement go together," writes Timothy Ferris Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin saw their new nation as an "experiment" in self-rule. John Adams thought that the data gained from the experiment could be combined with reason to produce a "science of government." Science as both metaphor and reality were so important to the framers of the US Constitution that they put the patent system into the document's very first article.
The framers of American democracy wanted a political system that would reflect the order and transparency they found in the natural world through science. And in science, such order and transparency occur because there are clear mechanisms for establishing facts. Even more important there are, indeed, facts to be found. There is a shared reality we all inhabit regardless of religion or disposition or party affiliation. In this way, the number of votes cast in an election is an objective fact. By establishing the system for self-governance and agreeing to its rules, a tally of votes cast for a candidate is a reality of our shared civic space.
What denial, in all its modern forms, wants is to destroy that civic space. It hopes to break the agreement about shared reality. But, in doing so, it also destroys the capacity for science, our most powerful tool for understanding the world.
American teacher John Thomas Scopes (second from left) standing in the courtroom during his trial for teaching Darwin's Theory of Evolution in his high school science class. Dayton, Tennessee, 1925.
Credit: Hulton Archive/Getty Images
I've been writing about science denial for some time now. It began a century ago in arguments over evolution. After the famous Scopes Monkey trial, it seemed that battle was over. It was climate change, however, that mainstreamed denial in the modern era. Through climate denial we first began to see people in positions of power make blatantly false claims about the shared reality revealed by science. It was, more than anything, a rejection of the possibility of knowing anything, of having expertise. Then, over the last five years, denial exploded beyond claims of science to touch all domains of public life including the most basic facts about the world (i.e., which inauguration was attended by more people). The "Big Lie" about the 2020 elections was the most egregious attempt to deny that there are shared facts about a shared world.
By explicitly linking facts about the physical, mathematical, and civic worlds, the Smartmatic suit explicitly rejects that denial. While it's impossible to know what will happen to their legal case, we owe the Smartmatic lawyers a debt of gratitude for so cleanly demonstrating what this ongoing battle is all about. What is at stake is not a political ideology. It's not about Democrats or Republicans. Instead, what lies before us is an effort to reestablish the core beliefs that underpin the continuing global experiment in democracy and science.There is a world we share, and we can know something about it. We can agree on what we know and, most importantly, we can use that knowledge to make things better for everyone.
Most people believe you can win an argument with facts - but when "facts" are so often subject to doubt, are personal experiences trusted more?
- A new study has found that people are more likely to get respect from others in moral and political conversations when sharing personal experiences instead of facts.
- The research group conducted 15 separate experiments to test this theory in order to learn more about tolerance in specifically political arguments.
- The effectiveness of facts in these conversations (even when proven true) is unclear because facts themselves are now subject to doubt, especially surrounding controversial and polarizing topics such as gun control and political beliefs.
Researchers at the University of Koblenz-Landau, the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill, and the Wharton School of Business have found that people are more likely to get respect from others in moral and political conversations when sharing personal experiences instead of facts. The research group conducted 15 separate experiments to test this theory and to learn more about tolerance in specifically political arguments.
Use personal experience, not facts, to gain respect in a disagreement
Do personal anecdotes mean more than facts in a world where facts can't be trusted?
Image by ngupakarti on Adobe Stock
According to the study, both liberals and conservatives believe that using facts in a political discussion will help foster mutual respect and understanding — however, all fifteen of these experiments (across multiple methodologies and issues) show that isn't quite true.
These studies were conducted using topics that have proved quite polarizing in the past, such as:
- Conversations about guns
- Discussion over comments from YouTube videos regarding abortion opinions
- An archive of 137 interview transcripts from Fox News and CNN
"What would make you respect their opinion on the subject"?
In the first study (n = 251), participants were asked to "imagine someone disagrees with you on moral issues" (abortion, for example). They were then asked, "What would make you respect their opinion on the subject"?
Responses were then categorized into themes with a majority of respondents (55.78 percent) stating that basing one's stance on facts and statistics would increase respect, followed by basing one's stance on personal experiences (21.12 percent), followed by an understanding of mutual respect (14.34 percent).
"When discussing political beliefs, who is more rational?"
Next, a sample of participants (n = 859) was asked to imagine interacting with two political opponents, one who based their beliefs on facts, and one who based their beliefs on personal experiences. Participants rated their imaginary fact-based opponent as more rational than the opponent who based their stance on personal experiences. They also voted that they respected them more and wanted to interact with them more.
A separate study from this experiment (study number four, n = 177) had participants weighing in on topics such as taxes, coal, and gun policies. They then were asked to read about individuals who disagreed with them on these subjects either due to personal experiences or factual knowledge. Participants in this study rated how rational their opponent seemed, and those who based their arguments on personal experience were perceived as more rational than those basing their opinions on factual knowledge.
How does this translate to real-world conversations?
This section of the experiment had 153 participants engaging in conversations on the street (with people they assumed were passersby but were actually members of the research team) about the topic of gun control. Analyses of these conversations revealed that strangers who based their stance on personal experiences were treated as more rational (and were more respected/interacted with more) by participants than those who based their stance on facts.
Confirming the theory that even when facts are true, personal experiences garner more respect and willingness to engage in conversation.
This experiment (n = 194) sought to reaffirm the theory that personal experiences garnered more respect while ruling out possible alternative explanations. The researchers contrasted concrete facts about gun control (taken from JustFacts.com) with personal experiences. For example, someone reading an annual report that mentions 73 percent of murders in the United States are committed with firearms (factual knowledge) versus "someone's young daughter was hit by a stray bullet" (experience-driven argument).
This study found that these facts were rated as higher in specificity and concreteness than the personal experience, however, personal experiences gained more respect and willingness to discuss the topic.
Facts, even when proven true, are often less respected than personal experiences.
When imagining these different kinds of arguments, everyday Americans believe that supporting their belief with facts will lead to respect. However, the effectiveness of facts (even when proven correct) is unclear. The problem is, in the past decades, American has seen a decentralization of news and information that has allowed people to gather their "own facts." Facts themselves are now subject to doubt, especially surrounding controversial and polarizing topics.
Could we have predicted COVID-19 through social media trends?
- The first human cases of COVID-19 (subsequently named SARS-Cov-2) were first reported by officials in Wuhan City, China, in December 2019. The first cases of the virus in Europe were discovered at the end of January 2020.
- Although there were really no preventative measures that could have completely stopped the pandemic, a new study takes a retrospective look at the months preceding the rapid spread of this virus.
- Researchers suggest that, in a successive phase of the pandemic (or any pandemic), monitoring social media could help public health authorities mitigate the risks of a contagion resurgence.
Although there were really no preventative measures that could have completely stopped the pandemic, a new study takes a retrospective look at the months preceding the rapid spread of this virus. Specifically, this study focused on Twitter to decide if there were 'warning signs' of the upcoming pandemic on social media.
Could social media have predicted the pandemic?
Geo-localization of pneumonia-related tweets posted across Europe since December 2019.
(A) Number of users discussing pneumonia between 15 December 2019 and 21 January 2020, after filtering out press releases and news accounts. (B) Relative variation in number of users discussing pneumonia between winter seasons 2019 and 2020.
Since January 2020, when the severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-Cov-2) began to spread from China to Europe and the United States, criticism has intensified over the ways public health authorities across the globe could have better managed the threat.
Throughout this pandemic, different surveillance strategies have been used to monitor the spread of the virus, including sentinel surveillance systems, household surveys, lab-based surveys, community-based surveys, and the Integrated Disease Surveillance and Response (IDSR) framework. More recently, social media outlets have been used for monitoring epidemics and informing the judgments and decisions of public health officials and experts.
A new study conducted by researchers at IMT School for Advanced Studies Lucca analyzed data from Twitter to uncover early warning signs of COVID-19 outbreaks in Europe during the winter season of 2019-2020. On December 31, 2019, WHO (World Health Organization) was informed of the first "cases of pneumonia of unknown etiology." Tracking spikes in pneumonia trends was a big part of this study.
Why focus on pneumonia?
Pneumonia is the most severe condition induced by COVID-19. Additionally, the flu season in 2020 was milder than in previous years, which means there were fewer cases of flu-induced pneumonia.
The study used "pneumonia" as a keyword to track potential COVID-19 induced cases.
The study created a unique database including all public messages posted on Twitter between December 1, 2014 and March 1, 2020. This search included the seven most commonly spoken languages: English, Germany, French, Italian, Spanish, Polish, and Dutch.
There were several adjustments made to avoid overestimations on the number of tweets mentioning cases of pneumonia during this time. Most notably, the study removed the effects on posting activity of COVID-19 related news that appeared up to January 21, 2020 (the day this virus was recognized as a serious transmissible disease), due to the fact that most tweets after this date mentioning pneumonia would be related to the COVID-19 outbreak even if they did not use the word COVID in the tweet.
The analysis shows an increase in tweets mentioning the keyword "pneumonia" in most of the European countries included in the study as early as January 2020.
In Italy, for example, where the first lock-down measures to contain the spread of COVID-19 were introduced on February 22, 2020 - the increase rate in mentions of the keyword during the first weeks of 2020 differs substantially from the rate observed in the same weeks of the previous years.
This could indicate that potentially hidden infection hotspots were identifiable several weeks before the announcement of the first local source of the virus in Italy (which happened on February 20, 2020, in Codogno, Italy.) France exhibited a similar pattern, whereas Spain, Poland, and the U.K. witnessed a delay of two weeks.
The analysis of tweets was then correlated to the regions where the first cases of infections were later reported.
The authors discovered through geo-localization that over 13,000 tweets in this same period came from the regions where the first cases of COVID-19 were later reported.
"Our study adds on to the existing evidence that social media can be a useful tool of epidemiological surveillance. They can help intercept the first signs of a new disease, before it proliferates undetected, and also track its spread," explains Massimo Riccaboni, full professor of Economics at the IMT School, to Eurekalert. Massimo coordinated the large-scale research effort.
How could this help in the future?
Researchers suggest that, in a successive phase of the pandemic (or any pandemic), monitoring social media could help public health authorities mitigate the risks of a contagion resurgence. For example, by adopting stricter measures of social distancing where the infections appear to be increasing. The researchers of the study suggest that these tools could also be a way forward to an integrated epidemiological surveillance system that is globally managed by international health organizations.
The idea behind the law was simple: make it more difficult for online sex traffickers to find victims.
- SESTA (Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act) and FOSTA (Allow States and Victims to Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act) started as two separate bills that were both created with a singular goal: curb online sex trafficking. They were signed into law by former President Trump in 2018.
- The implementation of this law in America has left an international impact, as websites attempt to protect themselves from liability by closing down the sections of their sites that sex workers use to arrange safe meetings with clientele.
- While supporters of this bill have framed FOSTA-SESTA as a vital tool that could prevent sex trafficking and allow sex trafficking survivors to sue those websites for facilitating their victimization, many other people are strictly against the bill and hope it will be reversed.
What is FOSTA-SESTA?
SESTA (Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act) and FOSTA (Allow States and Victims to Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act) were signed into law by former President Trump in 2018. There was some argument that this law may be unconstitutional as it could potentially violate the first amendment. A criminal defense lawyer explains this law in-depth in this video.
What did FOSTA-SESTA aim to accomplish?
The idea behind the law was simple: make it more difficult for online sex traffickers to find victims. FOSTA-SESTA started as two separate bills that were both created with a singular goal: curb online sex trafficking. Targeting websites like Backpage and Craigslist, where sex workers would often arrange meetings with their clientele, FOSTA-SESTA aimed to stop the illegal sex-trafficking activity being conducted online. While the aim of FOSTA-SESTA was to keep people safer, these laws have garnered international speculation and have become quite controversial.
According to BusinessWire, many people are in support of this bill, including the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children and World Without Exploitation (WorldWE).
"With the growth of the Internet, human trafficking that once happened mainly on street corners has largely shifted online. According to the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children, 73 percent of the 10,000 child sex trafficking reports it receives from the public each year involve ads on the website Backpage.com."
As soon as this bill was signed into law, websites where sex workers often vetted and arranged meetings with their clients could now be held liable for the actions of the millions of people that used their sites. This meant websites could be prosecuted if they engaged in "the promotion or facilitation of prostitution" or "facilitate traffickers in advertising the sale of unlawful sex acts with sex trafficking victims."
The bill's effects were felt around the world — from Canadians being unhappy with the impact of this American bill to U.K. politicians considering the implementation of similar laws in the future.
Heather Jarvis, the program coordinator of the Safe Harbour Outreach Project (SHOP), which supports sex workers in the St. John's area, explained to CBC in an interview that the American bill is impacting everyone, everywhere: "When laws impact the internet — the internet is often borderless — it often expands across different countries. So although these are laws in the United States, what we've seen is they've been shutting down websites in Canada and other countries as well."
Jarvis suggests in her interview that instead of doing what they aimed to do with the bill and improving the safety of victims of sex trafficking or sexual exploitation, the website shutdowns are actually making sex workers less safe.
While one U.K. publication refers to FOSTA-SESTA as "well-intentioned but ultimately deeply-flawed laws," it also mentions that politicians in the United Kingdom are hoping to pursue similar laws in the near future.
Has FOSTA-SESTA done more harm than good?
Is this really going to help, or is this bill simply pushing sex work and sex-related content further into the dark?
Credit: Евгений Вершинин on Adobe Stock
While supporters of this bill have framed FOSTA-SESTA as a vital tool that could prevent sex trafficking and allow sex trafficking survivors to sue those websites for facilitating their victimization, many other people are strictly against the bill and hope it will be reversed.
One of the biggest problems many people have with this bill is that it forces sex workers into an even more dangerous situation, which is quite the opposite of what the bill had intended to do.
According to Globe and Mail, there has been an upswing in pimps sending sex workers messages that promise work - which puts sex workers on the losing end of a skewed power-dynamic, when before they could attempt to safely arrange their own meetings online.
How dangerous was online sex work before FOSTA-SESTA?
The University of Leicester Department of Criminology conducted an online survey that focused on the relative safety of internet-based sex work compared with outdoor sex work. According to the results, 91.6 percent of participants had not experienced a burglary in the past 5 years, 84.4 percent had not experienced physical assault in the same period, and only 5 percent had experienced physical assault in the last 12 months.
PivotLegal expresses concerns about this: "It is resoundingly clear, both from personal testimony and data, that attacking online sex work is an assault on the health and safety of people in the real world. In a darkly ironic twist, SESTA/FOSTA, legislation aimed at protecting victims of and preventing human trafficking for the purposes of sexual exploitation, will do the exact opposite."
Websites are also being hypervigilant (and censoring more content than needed) because they can't possibly police every single user's activity on their platform.
Passing this bill meant any website (not just the ones that are commonly used by sex traffickers) could be held liable for their user's posts. Naturally, this saw a general "tightening of the belt" when it came to what was allowed on various platforms. In late 2018, shortly after the FOSTA-SESTA bill was passed, companies like Facebook slowly began to alter their terms and conditions to protect themselves.
Facebook notably added sections that express prohibited certain sexual content and messages:
"Content that includes an implicit invitation for sexual intercourse, which can be described as naming a sexual act and other suggestive elements including (but not limited to):
– vague suggestive statements such as: 'looking forward to an enjoyable evening'
– sexual use of language […]
– content (self-made, digital or existing) that possibly portrays explicit sexual acts or a suggestively positioned person/suggestively positioned persons."
Additionally, sections like this were also added, prohibiting things that could allude to sexual activity:
"Content in which other acts committed by adults are requested or offered, such as:
– commercial pornography
– partners that share fetishes or sexual interests"
Facebook wasn't the only website to crack down on their policies — the Craigslist classifieds section being removed and Reddit banned quite a large number of sex-worker related subreddits.
Is FOSTA-SESTA really helpful?
This is the question many people are facing with the FOSTA-SESTA acts being passed just a few years ago. Is this really going to help, or is this bill simply pushing sex work and sex-related content further into the dark? Opinions seem to be split down the middle on this — what do you think?