The National Center on Sexual Exploitation (NCOSE), an organization that has campaigned against pornography and celebrated denying banking services to platforms like Pornhub and OnlyFans, is coming for Twitter, one of the only social media platforms where adult entertainment performers can share their work without being banned.
NCOSE, formerly known as Morality in Media, brought a lawsuit against Twitter earlier this year, accusing the platform of allowing and benefiting from human trafficking. The complaint, on behalf of two men, alleges that Twitter "knowingly hosted sexual exploitation material, including child sex abuse material [...] and allowed human trafficking and the dissemination of child sexual abuse material to continue on its platform, therefore profiting and receiving value from the harmful and exploitive material and the traffic it draws."
With a court decision in mid-August, the case was allowed to move forward.
In the lawsuit, NCOSE claims that when the men were 13 years old, a sex trafficker manipulated them into sending sexual images of themselves on Snapchat; the videos were then posted to Twitter. They claim that despite their efforts to get the videos removed by contacting Twitter and the police, the tweets stayed up for nine days, and accumulated 167,000 views and 2,223 retweets.
“For a start, Twitter should comply with its own 'zero-tolerance policy' by eliminating all child sexual abuse material from its platform, which it currently doesn’t do. In addition, we’d recommend that Twitter eliminate all sexually exploitive images that victimize people,” Benjamin Bull, general counsel for NCOSE, told Motherboard.
As the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC) details in its annual report, social media companies like Twitter and Facebook regularly report child sexual exploitation content on their platforms. Facebook alone reported 20,307,216 instances of child exploitative content in 2020 alone. Twitter reported more than 65,000 instances in 2020. While NCOSE’s lawsuit focuses on one of these instances, the organization’s own statements about Twitter are hostile to all forms of sex work and adult entertainment on the platform, where it says “it is virtually impossible for a regular Twitter user to avoid sexually explicit content.”
This is not true: Twitter has controls that allow users to filter out sensitive content, which includes sexual content. Users who upload sensitive content are required to mark it as such, or they risk being suspended or banned. The platform also has rule against non-consensual nudity, the sharing of private information, and child sexual exploitation.
“Twitter has zero-tolerance for any material that features or promotes child sexual exploitation,” a spokesperson for Twitter told Motherboard. “We aggressively fight online child sexual abuse and have heavily invested in technology and tools to enforce our policy. Our dedicated teams work to stay ahead of bad-faith actors and to ensure we’re doing everything we can to remove content, facilitate investigations, and protect minors from harm—both on and offline.”
“Twitter is filled with pornography that supports rape myths, normalizes adult-with-teen-themed and incest-themed exploitation, and reinforces degrading racially charged sexual stereotypes. These include ads for prostitution webcamming and in-person encounters,” NCOSE says on its site, which also promotes the hashtag #CleanUpTwitter.
Using instances of sexual exploitation and especially sexual exploitation of minors to pressure platforms has successfully cut off Pornhub from access to Visa and Mastercard, recently likely prompted OnlyFans to consider banning porn, and led to the shutdown of many adult advertising and networking sites, including Backpage and Craigslist's personals section.
In the complaint, NCOSE's lawyers alleged that Twitter has "become a safe haven and a refuge for, 'minor attracted people,' human traffickers, and discussion of 'child sexual exploitation as a phenomenon,' to include trade and dissemination of sexual abuse material." In part, they claim that the platform should be held accountable under the Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act, which makes platforms liable for any sexual speech that could be construed as sex trafficking under the law.
Twitter filed a motion to dismiss the lawsuit; a judge ruled to dismiss all of the claims against the platform where it was protected under Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, but allowed one claim to move forward, under the Trafficking Victims Protection Act: that Twitter was a “beneficiary” from sex trafficking.
"This is a troubling development for online platforms that struggle to address abuse of their networks by users," attorney Lawrence Walters, whose firm Walters Law Group specializes in adult entertainment legal services, told Motherboard. "This beneficiary claim is precisely what Section 230 was originally designed to prevent. However, due largely to FOSTA, civil sex trafficking claims can now be brought against online platforms that had no direct involvement with the sex trafficking venture or the victims. Twitter now bears burdens of discovery, pretrial preparation, and potentially a trial since FOSTA eliminated the immunity that online service providers previously relied upon to quickly dismiss these claims."
"These orgs count on people not listening to sex workers. They count on the societal image that has been painted of us for centuries.”
Even though Twitter didn't actively solicit the abusive material, or directly participate in the sex trafficking enterprise, Walters said, the court allowed this claim to proceed anyway.
This case is happening in the midst of a confusing two weeks for sex workers who depend on online platforms to make a living. On August 19, OnlyFans announced that it would ban sexually explicit content from the site starting in October. The platform then backtracked the change six days later, saying the plan was suspended. Initially, NCOSE celebrated the ban on explicit content, while many sex workers spoke out on Twitter and in the press about how it would put them at greater risk of harm and exploitation. The organization then decried OnlyFans' decision to suspend the ban, calling again for the Department of Justice to investigate the platform.
Because OnlyFans doesn't have any discoverability features on its website, and many adult content creators use a variety of platforms to sell their work, Twitter serves as a central place to market yourself. Twitter is one of the last mainstream platforms that allows porn and sexual speech to coexist with everything else; one can find community, organize politically, share important information about what's happening in the industry, and also promote their work and find an audience for it—all in the same place.
In 2020, NCOSE supported a campaign by anti-trafficking organization Exodus Cry to "shut down" Pornhub; after that campaign and an article by Nicholas Kristof in the New York Times about allegations of trafficking on the platform, Mastercard and Visa pulled their services. Days after the OnlyFans ban announcement, as online sex workers scrambled to find new footing on other platforms, Laila Mickelwait (formerly Exodus Cry's Director of Abolition and founder of the campaign to shut down Pornhub) tweeted that Twitter was next: "While we are talking about OnlyFans everyone should know that Twitter is also distributing illegal pornography," she wrote.
Facebook and Instagram have cracked down on adult content with incredibly strict rules against adult material or anything remotely suggestive, but child sexual abuse material still proliferates on these sites while legal adult content is banned. "[Anti-trafficking organizations] want the same for Twitter now, and sex workers are exhausted and fearful," Envy Us, a sex worker who uses Twitter to promote their work, told me. "Will this be it? Will I be able to find another platform? Will I be able to rebuild? Is this the end?"
Twitter's moderation practices are far from perfect; it's frequently too slow to address abuse, seems to prefer adding flashy new features over addressing real problems like harassment and hate speech, and deplatforms sex workers without explanation. But if Twitter ever bowed to pressure from anti-trafficking organizations and cracked down on explicit content, the repercussions for people who use the site to promote their brands would be seriously damaging.
"Twitter is really the only mainstream social media platform that allows explicit content. Because of this, it serves as an amazing tool to convert social media followers to paying fans,"adult content creator Ella Barnett told me. "I can push followers from other platforms to Twitter since it provides a space for me to actually post teasers and links. On platforms like TikTok or Instagram, I have to be incredibly discrete to avoid having my profile deleted, so rather than say something like, 'Check out my OnlyFans' or 'Link in bio,' I can say, 'Follow me on Twitter to see more.'" Ella said she's had her Snapchat deleted, temporarily banned from TikTok, and hit with 30-day bans on Facebook repeatedly, despite following the rules on each of these platforms. "Twitter is the only site where I can really promote to non-paying followers without risking having my account deleted."
"Twitter is truly the last resource that most sex workers have. It’s how we stay connected to our fan base and without it, it would push us further into the outskirts of the internet," Envy Us said. "Which is where organizations like NCOSE want us."
Harley said she sees the issue of adult content moderation on Twitter as one of accountability. "I do not see any reason that any anonymous person should be able to post adult content, the lack of accountability for the people posting is what leads to an environment where people feel that they can get away with posting illegal content," she said. "Pornography is not illegal or prohibited by law in the USA, so there is no reason platforms should be universally banning legal adult content while claiming to purge reprehensible illegal content."
The confluence of journalists and sex workers using the same platform also helps marginalized communities get the word out when they're under attack.
"Last week was the first time that some of the media actually listened to us," Envy Us said. "These orgs count on people not listening to sex workers. They count on the societal image that has been painted of us for centuries. That we are this down trodden group of devious people who need people outside of our community to speak for us. When in reality we are small business owners, we are community leaders, tax payers, and overall more educated on how to moderate online spaces than anyone else. We like our jobs and we just want to keep them like everyone else."
There's no evidence right now that this lawsuit will end in a purge of sex work from Twitter, or that porn will be banned as a result. But as we've seen with Pornhub, OnlyFans, and every other platform that anti-trafficking, anti-sex work organizations attack with legal accusations and public pressure, it's worth examining how legal precedents affect the material realities of marginalized communities online.