EskomSePush and other apps used for drug-dealing, child trafficking in South Africa

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    Nat Quinn
    Criminals in South Africa are abusing social media and utility apps like Telegram and EskomSePush to target children and run drugs, Carte Blanche reports.
    The issue is especially prevalent on platforms with “find users nearby” functions, which are often used to pedal illicit goods.
    In EskomSePush the feature is called “AskMyStreet”. In Telegram, it is “Find People Nearby”.
    According to the report, criminals often enlist children to run drugs using ride-hailing services, as they can’t be criminally prosecuted if they are under 12 years old.
    MyBroadband asked EskomSePush, Telegram, Uber, Bolt, and Facebook owner Meta Platforms about their interventions to deal with criminal activities on their platforms.
    EskomSePush said it continuously updates and adapts its detection mechanisms as users change their behaviour or as the company becomes aware of them.
    “We have 6 million users using the app, and unfortunately, this now seems to include people that misuse the platform from time to time and want to hurt our community,” EskomSePush said.
    “The reality is that if slang wording is, for example, used for criminal activity, which words also could also have “real” meaning, we cannot add the word to our list of banned words, as it would then hamper the use of the functionality.”
    It added that drug dealers often use cryptic emojis to inform people in the area of their products and said it had banned over 100 accounts for illegal activity on the platform in the last month.
    The load-shedding schedule app said users could report and block content on the platform, adding that it manually reviews each report.
    It also features automated moderation and removes posts containing disallowed words, phrases, links, and telephone numbers.
    Following report reviews, EskomSePush determines whether a post breaks its rules and bans the user if it does.
    “Where we have picked up in the past that a user has added content that includes something that may be illegal or against our terms, we have always banned the users and removed the content immediately,” EskomSePush said
    EskomSePush’s report function
    “Accounts of users that misuse the platform are marked as ‘banned’ and can no longer post on the platform.”
    Regarding child safety on EskomSePush, the company said it doesn’t allow people under 18 to use the platform without parental consent.
    It should be noted that messages on EskomSePush’s “AskMyStreet” feature are unencrypted, making it easier to identify criminal activity.
    However, for social media platforms that are end-to-end encrypted — like Facebook Messenger and WhatsApp — it can be a lot more challenging to deal with criminal activity.
    Uber told MyBroadband that while the allegations are concerning, it doesn’t have any reports submitted on its system regarding these kinds of incidents.
    “We have a clear policy for underage riders and transporting of illicit substances. We take these allegations very seriously as, if true, would be a clear contravention of our General Terms of Use and Community Guidelines,” Uber said.
    “Anyone found in contravention of our Terms of use or Community Guidelines may lose access to the app.”
    Regarding children running drugs using its ride-hailing service, Uber said an adult must accompany anyone under 18 on rides, and drivers have the right to ask for an ID if the rider looks underage.
    “We are committed to working closely with law enforcement through our Law Enforcement Relations Team to help curb criminality in our communities,” it said.
    “We urge all users on the platform to immediately report any incidents through our app and to the police.”
    Telegram, Bolt, and Meta had not answered our questions before publication. We will update the article if we receive feedback.
    The victims
    Carte Blanche spoke to two victims lured into drug dependence by criminals on social media.
    It all starts fairly innocently, with the victims approached on social media in a seemingly harmless way, with one victim striking up a “friendship” with an older girl in her school on Mxit and the other being befriended on Facebook.
    Mxit shut down in 2015.
    Lyttleton police station captain and spokesperson Dave Miller told 702 that the syndicate has been operating in the area for “10 to 15 years, if not longer”.
    In the first victim’s case, the older girl also befriended her at school, where she was invited to hang out with the older students.
    She was then invited to a party where she was pressured to drink and take drugs. The victim was then raped and threatened not to tell anyone.
    However, she also developed a dependency on the drugs she was given at the party and was recruited by the same people to lure more girls her age to them in exchange for more supply.
    She told Carte Blanche the criminal gang was mainly comprised of Nigerian men.
    The second victim — who was 13 at the time — was invited to a party by her new Facebook friend, where she was given drugs and passed out.
    When she woke up, she realised she had been raped. She said she continued using drugs after the incident to cope with her guilt.
    According to criminologist Christiaan Bezuidenhout, the two victims’ cases followed the same patterns of some human trafficking operations.
    Bezuidenhout also said that these criminals knowingly target children as they “are not responsible”.
    “The police are not allowed, according to the law, to apprehend and process the child up to prosecution under the age of 12 years,” he said.
    “So it is a non-risk for this person to use a child as a runner.”
    Negligent platform owners can be prosecuted
    Social media attorney and child rights activist Diana Schwarz told Carte Blanche that platform owners could be prosecuted regarding illegal happenings on their platforms.
    “They [platform owners] can be [prosecuted] if they had knowledge of the circumstances that were occurring on the site and they did nothing about it,” Schwarz said.
    Essentially, if owners are made aware of their platform being used for drug running or human trafficking and don’t remove the content, they are guilty of the crime.


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