Grooming & More Dangers on Social Media for Cuba’s Children

Illustration: María Esther Lemus.

Grooming & More Dangers on Social Media for Cuba’s Children

16 / mayo / 2022

Journalist Yuliet Perez Calaña’s complaint on Facebook rung the alarm bell: thousands of pedophiles and pederasts in a social media group were sharing photos of girls of different nationalities and even tried to contact them.

What seemed to be an isolated case – because of Zuckerberg’s seemingly strict regulations on information published on his social media network – unraveled a web of similar groups. All of them with the same purpose and moda operandi. They even had the same admins and participants in lots of them; some of them are Cubans.

Under each image, is a grim auction began between group members: “Princess, I have a lot of money to spend on you”; “Your daughter is so beautiful, they are always beautiful at 12”; “Only girls send a message, I repeat, only girls. I want a beautiful friendship or something more”; “I’m looking for a 13-year-old girlfriend”.

In addition to proposals of sex and a life of luxury, disgusting sexual comments, messages from alleged parents exchanging private photos of their daughters and users with fake profiles pretending to be boys or girls looking for “new thrills”, there were proposals in other groups offering “PHOTOS OF HALF-NAKED GIRLS”, without beating around the bush.

Different people instantly reported these posts on Facebook with their own accounts, for the presence of “Content linked to a child.” Some groups were immediately shut down, and others continue to operate as if nothing had happened.

“Reported. But it doesn’t end there. Once on the group’s page, Facebook recommended other groups to me, without me even pressing the Join button… ALL OF THEM WERE ABOUT BOYS AND GIRLS,” Jose Armando Vivero expressed his horror in one of the hundreds of comments on Yuliet’s post.

Pedophiles act with impunity, as long as they don’t post a nude picture of a child, on the social media platform that censor’s users for using a word that could possibly be considered derogatory or offensive or post photos of the female breast. Explicit sexual comments don’t seem to matter.

The dark side of social media

What we’re seeing in these groups is a phenomenon called “grooming”, that is to say, sexual abuse by an adult of a minor, using social media.

As Karen Vergara, Advocacy Director at the Chilean NGO Amaranta, explains to El Toque, an adult approaches a boy, girl or teenager “pretending to be someone their own age” or with gifts or “making up for a need they might have at home, such as a lack of attention, affection or understanding.”

In a study carried out by the global movement WeProtect Global Alliance in 2021, there are testimonies about online threats from over 5,000 young people aged between 18-20 years old. The common denominator? The participants from 54 countries all had regular Internet access when they were under 18.

Out of those interviewed, 57% of women and 48% of men suffered at least one case of sexual abuse online. In Latin America, the total number of people experiencing something similar reaches 49% of those interviewed.

Another investigation undertaken by the Amaranta NGO in Chile during 2020, revealed the gender gap in exposure to violence. While 22% of girls aged between 13-14 years old had declared they’d suffered online abuse, this figure dropped to 13% when it comes to boys of the same age. While 41% of female teenagers aged between 15-18 years old had said they’d suffered online abuse, compared to 24% of young men their own age.

We haven’t been able to find official statistics that allow us to assess the trend of cyberviolence in Cuba.

Pedophiles and pederasts don’t usually use the well-known social media networks, because of the restrictions these platforms have to protect children. Thus, they prefer other spaces with less surveillance such as forums on the deep web, where they share information, or online gaming chat rooms, to abuse their victims directly.

The most widely-used social media networks – Facebook, Instagram, Tik Tok and Twitter – have security policies to address the issue. However, most complaints of this kind are made automatic and directly pass through an algorithm that detects these possible photos and blocks or bans accounts, depending on the case. However, it’s permeable, just like any other I.T. system, and these cracks are used by pedophiles and pederasts.

For example, Facebook’s policy bans users from posting children with no clothes on. However, the system isn’t able to detect whether the poses are sexual or suggestive, or to determine the intentions of people leaving comments, as long as they aren’t using banned words.

Faced with these cracks in security, it’s important for the online community to become digital citizens who are aware of their rights and responsibilities. People need to know how they can make a complaint. A key factor comes into play: teaching responsible use of social media and to protect more exposed groups, such as girls and boys.

Sometimes, in their eagerness to immediately report these cases, people share links or screenshots of these groups or platforms where this kind of content has been detected, to further the scope of the complaints. “What’s the problem with this? In doing this, we end up exposing girls and boys in these images even more,” Vergara explains.

According to the Chilean expert, it’s important for complaints to follow standard protocol in order to prevent these materials from ending up in more unwanted hands, which revictimizes the children involved.

“Unfortunately, what we’re seeing on social media is just the tip of a very complex iceberg that keeps girls and boys from accessing safe online spaces,” she clarified.

Laura Bustillo is another person that reported these Facebook groups, and she recommends verifying which profiles have been in the group the longest and which accounts joined afterwards; as waves of new members come after a complaint is made, some of them to investigate what’s going on and others to maybe have access to new victims. Furthermore, Bustillo and other users tried to find Cuban members in these groups, so they could report them to the police.

Pedophilia has always been around, and a lot of images are stolen from social media when looking for new photos. This is when parents, guardians and adults in general, needimg to work to prevent and educate young people, becomes more relevant. We have to be aware of the content shared about children and the possible uses this might have for third parties.

Karen Vergara insists that it isn’t a matter of restricting Internet access to under 18s, but about “having an everyday conversation with our chidlren about these issues without reservations or stereotypes, because when children are victims of cyberviolence, they find it hard to speak out because of their fear of being judged, or misunderstood, of having to face their aggressor one day.”

But beyond communication, there are practical precautions we can take to prevent exposing children to pederasts’s abuse. Adults need to control and check which images they are sharing on social media and make sure that they aren’t overly sexual in nature. Plus, they have to teach their children to reject friend requests from people they don’t know and messages with sexual innuendos.

If a person discovers that a minor has been abused on the Internet, they need to report it to the police. In order to do this, it’s important not to delete images, videos and conversations that could serve as evidence; not reporting the aggressor’s profile on social media or threatening him, so that he doesn’t suspect what’s coming next and; don’t pretend to be a young boy, girl or teenager with the goal of contacting the aggressor.

Venezuelan platform REDHNNA has been working on defending children’s and young people’s rights, for years now. In an interview with Oscar Misle, a psychotherapist and director of Learning Community Centers (CECODADP), warned about the dangers of hyper-sexualistation from an early age.

“There are cases where they begin to have a cult following for their bodies from a very young age; parents, relatives or friends that open up accounts on social media, that begin to have a cult, use them to expose them. This puts children in a dangerous position, as they grow up giving a lot of value to physical appearance and this leads them to developing a kind of obsession for recognition from others, because of the opinions others might have on their appearance and, so, they are easy prey for molesters. There are the pedophiles pederasts lying in wait,” Misle explains.

The expert recommends for mothers, fathers and legal guardians to know what their children are sharing on social media, to get an idea of how it works and to follow them and give them advice. Furthermore, they need to talk about the dangers of the Internet, explaining what pedophilia and pederasty, child porn, is, and giving them the confidence to communicate any incident they might face.

Pedophilia and pederasty in Cuba: beyond social media

It’s very important to draw the line between pedophilia and pederasty. The former describes inappropriate and harmful sexual conduct, and the second is a crime, an abusive act. Even though they are interlinked, one isn’t dependent on the other.

Experts from the platform Yo Sí Te Creo en Cuba (YSTC)[1] anonymously explain that “Like in many other countries, in Cuba, this kind of crime endures in a machista and patriarchal culture, and its legitimacy and establishment in lots of different discourse and contexts: religious, political, medical, community-based, etc. With a lack of comprehensive sex education policies being implemented, it is very hard for the country to tackle the issue and advocate for prevention from within the classroom.”

Statistics show that the majority of sex abuse cases reported are perpetrated by adults close to the girl or boy, including very close relatives. So, the obligation to look out for their safety falls upon adults.

“The important thing in all of these cases is that adults are aware of the girl or boy’s surroundings, and they teach them to protect their body, to identify any signs and to instill trust in them so they can tell you what’s going on,” experts from YSTC added.

Experts consider comprehensive sex education from a young age as the key to dramatically preventing child sex abuse, because it’s a tool that teaches them to protect their bodies and to alert mothers, fathers, and relatives of any warning sign in this regard.

In Cuba, the 2020 National Human Trafficking Report, published by the Ministry of Foreign Relations, shines some light on the phenomenon. According to the document, Child and Teenager Protection Centers, located in Havana, Villa Clara and Santiago de Cuba, and independent centers exist across the rest of the provinces. They provided assistance to 2,145 child victims of acts of sex abuse during 2020.

We can’t reject these as just a representation of the total of cases, as victimss and their legal guardians don’t report their aggressors a lot of the time, especially if it is somebody close is the perpetrator.

A key to prevention strategy is a comprehensive focus on sex crimes, and for this to continue after they serve their sentence so we don’t facilitate the aggressor’s access to new victims.

On April 28th, YSTC reported the case of a man from the El Cristo community, Santiago de Cuba, who had served his sentence for lewd acts with a young girl and was then hired back at the same place of work where he had perpetrated the crime and where children go.

A lot still needs to be done on the archipelago in terms of prevention, education, and legislation. Plus, specialized services to attend to children and families affected by this abuse need to grow and direct their focus on psychological recovery and rehabilitation. Especially in rural areas, where access to experts is hard.

———-

[1] YSTC is a civil society organization whose members have received threats from State Security for the work they do recording gender-based violence cases in Cuba and helping victims with their own resources. This is why they work anonymously.


This article was translated into English from the original in Spanish.
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Laura Seco Pacheco
Graduada de Periodismo en 2018 por la Universidad Central "Marta Abreu" de Las Villas. Viviendo sin fanatismos desde 1993. Sinceridad y sobriedad, ahí está la clave.
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