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Yoel Roth, ‘gay data,’ and child exploitation on Twitter
By News Editors // Dec 12, 2022

tech On Friday, Elon Musk revealed that Twitter had “refused to take action on child exploitation for years.” His comments came in response to news that Anne Collier, Eirliani Abdul Rahman, and Lesley Podesta—Democrat operative John Podesta’s nieceresigned from Twitter’s Trust and Safety Council. That rubbed ex-Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey the wrong way, who flatly replied to Musk: “this is false.”

(Article by Pedro L. Gonzales republished from Contra.Substack.com)

Musk, in turn, dressed down Dorsey. He responded that when Ella Irwin, who now leads trust and safety, “joined Twitter earlier this year, almost no one was working on child safety.” Musk also noted that Ned Segal and Parag Agrawal, who briefly served as Twitter CEO after Dorsey resigned, rejected Irwin’s request for more resources to tackle the issue. Musk swiftly fired Segal and Agrawal after taking over the company and made it a “top priority immediately,” he said.

But the story took an even stranger turn when it came to light that Yoel Roth, the former head of trust and safety, appears to have, let us say, “progressive” views of what constitutes appropriate relations between adults and minors. Some people, like human trafficking survivor advocate Eliza Bleu, have suggested that this might explain why Twitter has been unwilling or unable to combat things like child sexual exploitation on the platform.

In his doctoral dissertation, entitled “Gay Data,” Roth argued that minors should have access to Grindr, an app that enables gay men to instantly pinpoint each other using GPS technology. “Make no mistake,” as Vice News colorfully put it, “Grindr is more about hooking up than dating. It’s basically a 24/7 merry-go-round of sex in your immediate locale and uses geolocation to provide an approximate location of the closest users to serve up on the ‘Nearby’ grid.” Roth, who is gay, noted in his paper that he was “documenting and analyzing my own use of these services.”

As of December 11, Roth’s dissertation has been withdrawn from the University of Pennsylvania’s website. However, it is still available to readers through the Wayback Machine.

In one section, Roth wrote:

While gay youth-oriented chat rooms and social networking services were available in the early 2000s, these services have largely fallen by the wayside, in favor of general-purpose platforms like Twitter, Facebook, and Snapchat. Perhaps this is truly representative of an increasingly absent demand among young adults for networked spaces to engage with peers about their sexuality; but it’s worth considering how, if at all, the current generation of popular sites of gay networked sociability might fit into an overall queer social landscape that increasingly includes individuals under the age of 18. Even with the service’s extensive content management, Grindr may well be too lewd or too hook-up-oriented to be a safe and age-appropriate resource for teenagers; but the fact that people under 18 are on these services already indicates that we can’t readily dismiss these platforms out of hand as loci for queer youth culture. Rather than merely trying to absolve themselves of legal responsibility or, worse, trying to drive out teenagers entirely, service providers should instead focus on crafting safety strategies that can accommodate a wide variety of use cases for platforms like Grindr—including, possibly, their role in safely connecting queer young adults.

Musk himself highlighted this part of Roth’s paper on Twitter. But he missed or didn’t draw out an important detail: Roth named Twitter as a platform that had become—and presumably, should remain—a “general-purpose” site for “connecting queer young adults.”

Put slightly more straightforward—but still in extremely euphemistic terms—Roth’s argument is this: platforms should “focus on crafting safety strategies that can accommodate a wide variety of use cases,” including “their role in safely connecting queer young adults,” in an “overall queer social landscape” that “increasingly includes individuals under the age of 18,” rather than trying to “drive out” these users attempting to engage with “peers about their sexuality.”

There is, as they say, a lot to unpack here. But the main takeaway is that it’s easy to see how this “accommodation” approach would enable the proliferation of—or at least make it extremely difficult to combat—child sexual exploitation content on a platform like Twitter.

There are other clues about Roth’s views on appropriate “relations” between adults and minors. In 2010, he wrote on Twitter: “Can high school students ever meaningfully consent to sex with their teachers?” Roth’s tweet contained a link to an article, “Student-teacher sex: When is it OK?” in Slate, a left-wing publication, about the perils and pitfalls of age of consent laws.

Roth resigned on November 10. According to his LinkedIn, he served as director of trust and safety from August 2020 until becoming its head in May 2022. During that time, the platform was plagued by child sexual exploitation.

Last year, an underage boy and his mother announced a lawsuit against Twitter, alleging that it benefited from and neglected to remove an exploitative video that featured him and another minor. Users retweeted the video thousands of times. According to the lawsuit: “Plaintiff John Doe was solicited and recruited for sex trafficking as a minor.”

After John Doe escaped from the manipulation, child sexual abuse material depicting John Doe was disseminated on Twitter. When Twitter was first alerted to this fact and John Doe’s age, Twitter refused to remove the illegal material and instead continued to promote and profit from the sexual abuse of this child.

Child sexual exploitation was a simultaneously severe and well-known issue internally at the company.

In August, The Verve reported that the child porn problem prevented the platform from launching an OnlyFans competitor program that would monetize adult content on Twitter. “According to interviews with current and former staffers, as well as 58 pages of internal documents obtained by The Verge, Twitter still has a problem with content that sexually exploits children. Executives are apparently well-informed about the issue, and the company is doing little to fix it.” It’s likely Roth was among those executives.

According to The Verge:

The company also lacked tools to verify that creators and consumers of adult content were of legal age, the team found. As a result, in May—weeks after Elon Musk agreed to purchase the company for $44 billion—the company delayed the project indefinitely. If Twitter couldn’t consistently remove child sexual exploitative content on the platform today, how would it even begin to monetize porn?

Employees who spoke to The Verge “reiterated that despite executives knowing about the company’s child sexual exploitation problems, Twitter has not committed sufficient resources to detect, remove, and prevent harmful content from the platform.” This lines up neatly with Musk’s rebuttal to Dorsey, which means the former CEO didn’t know or, like Roth, didn’t care.

Child sexual exploitation is one of those subjects the commentariat tends to dismiss as the stuff of kooks. “Musk falsely implied in tweets that Twitter’s former head of trust and safety, Yoel Roth—who is gay—has advocated for child sexualization,” wrote Chas Danner at Intelligencer.

But Musk didn’t “imply” anything; he highlighted the words and policies of the people who were in a position to do something about the issue and chose not to.

Read more at: Contra.Substack.com

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