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Investigation into child exploitation on Meta platforms leads to arrests of three men

Justin Sullivan/Getty Images via CNN Newsource

Originally Published: 09 MAY 24 12:50 ET

By Clare Duffy, CNN

New York (CNN) — An investigation by the New Mexico Attorney General into the potential dangers of Meta’s platforms has resulted in the arrests of three men charged with attempted sexual abuse of children.

The arrests came after a months-long investigation by the attorney general’s office into the risks of sexual exploitation of children on Facebook and Instagram. That investigation also formed the basis of a lawsuit against Meta, filed in December, accusing the tech giant of creating a “breeding ground” for child predators.

Meta has pushed back against the claims in the lawsuit and says it offers dozens of safety tools for children and parents.

As part of the investigation, the attorney general’s office created multiple fake Facebook and Instagram profiles posing as children, which the suit alleges were served sexually suggestive content and, in some cases, were urged by other users to send pornographic content of themselves.

The fake child accounts were also allegedly contacted and solicited for sex by the three New Mexico adult men whose arrests were announced by the attorney general on Wednesday. Two of the three men were arrested at a motel, where they allegedly believed they would be meeting up with a 12-year-old girl, based on their conversations with the decoy accounts.

“This is (Meta CEO) Mark Zuckerberg’s fault,” New Mexico Attorney General Raúl Torrez said in a press conference announcing the arrests Wednesday. “This is the fault of a company that has extraordinary resources at its disposal and has chosen time and again to place profits over the interests of children.”

A Meta spokesperson told CNN that “child exploitation is a horrific crime and we’ve spent years building technology to combat it and to support law enforcement in investigating and prosecuting the criminals behind it.”

“This is an ongoing fight, where determined criminals evolve their tactics across platforms to try and evade protections,” the spokesperson said. “We use sophisticated technology, hire child safety experts, report content to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, and share information and tools with other companies and non-profits to help root out predators across the many platforms they use.”

News of the arrests could add to the growing scrutiny that Meta – like other social media companies – faces over the safety of young users on its platforms. Lawmakers, parents and online safety advocates, as well as several separate lawsuits, have raised concerns about the impact of Meta’s platforms on teens’ mental health, body image and overall wellbeing. In January, Zuckerberg apologized to families who said their children had been harmed by using social media during a Senate committee hearing about online youth safety.

In January — after Torrez’s lawsuit was filed and ahead of the Senate hearing — Meta rolled out additional youth safety features, including updating teens’ default privacy settings to restrict anyone they don’t follow from messaging them, including other teens. The move came after Meta in 2021 restricted adults over age 19 from messaging teens who don’t follow them.

The company also said in December that it had launched technology to proactively detect and disable accounts displaying suspicious behaviors and that it formed a Child Safety Task Force.

But Torrez said during Wednesday’s press conference that the arrests underscore the ongoing, real-world risks to children from Meta’s platforms.

One of the New Mexico men arrested this week, 52-year-old Fernando Clyde, allegedly added one of the attorney general’s fake child Facebook accounts as a friend and initiated a conversation in February. “Throughout the conversation Fernando sent pictures of his genitals and spoke to her about having sex,” a press release from the attorney general’s office states.

Clyde is charged with one count of child solicitation by electronic communication device of a child under 13 and one of attempted criminal sexual penetration of a minor. The second man, 29-year-old Marlon Kellywood, faces the same charges. Attorneys for Clyde and Kellywood could not immediately be reached for comment.

The third man, 47-year-old Christopher Reynolds, was arrested and charged with one count of child solicitation by electronic communication device of a child under 13 after police were tipped off by a mother whose 11-year-old had allegedly received messages from him. Investigators then friended him from the fake child account, and Reynolds initiated a conversation and sent sexually explicit messages, according to the attorney general’s office. Reynolds’ attorney did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

“The decoy accounts with which these suspects engaged mirror the experience children can and are having on these platforms,” Torrez said in a press release. He added that the investigation indicates “that using Meta’s social media platforms not only endangers children in the virtual world but, more importantly, they are spaces that sexual predators actively use to hunt, groom and victimize children in the real world.”

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