Opinion: New York Times Fights Pornhub With Emotional Pornography

Opinion: New York Times Fights Pornhub With Emotional Pornography

LOS ANGELES — New York Times opinion writer Nicholas Kristof today published a sensationalistic call for state censorship and financial strangulation of Pornhub, packaged around gut-punching testimonials from young victims of sexual exploitation.

What makes this particularly callous is that Kristof actually had the reporting to write a nuanced piece about the substantial problems with content moderation that plague all platforms that depend on third-party content, including YouTube, Facebook, Instagram, XVideos and — yes — Pornhub.

But that's not what Kristof and the editors of the New York Times chose to do, instead turning the piece into a manipulative attempt to insert themselves in the complex debates around Section 230 — the so-called First Amendment of the internet — free speech online and sexual expression among consenting adults, including pornography.

Everything about "The Children of Pornhub" is exploitative, from the testimonials, to the absolutely misguided photo essay taking advantage of a homeless teen to drive home a point and affect policy.

As of this writing, Kristof continues to tweet the victim's photo at public officials in the U.S. and Canada to manipulate them into "doing something about" Pornhub.

What Nicholas Kristof Got Right

These are some facts about Pornhub and the adult industry embedded in Kristof’s opinion piece:

  • Pornhub is very popular with all kinds of people. According to numbers cited by Kristof (who does not cite his sources) “it attracts 3.5 billion visits a month, more than Netflix, Yahoo or Amazon” and “one ranking lists Pornhub as the 10th-most-visited website in the world.”
  • Pornhub is also a very successful business. Kristof notes (again without providing sources) that it derives income from “three billion ad impressions a day.”
  • Pornhub, Kristof writes, “is owned by Mindgeek, a private pornography conglomerate with more than 100 websites, production companies and brands. Its sites include Redtube, Youporn, XTube, SpankWire, ExtremeTube, Men.com, My Dirty Hobby, Thumbzilla, PornMD, Brazzers and GayTube. There are other major players in porn outside the Mindgeek umbrella, most notably XHamster and XVideos, but Mindgeek is a porn titan.”
  • Pornhub “is like YouTube in that it allows members of the public to post their own videos. A great majority of the 6.8 million new videos posted on the site each year probably involve consenting adults.”
  • Pornhub’s very successful branding and marketing campaigns are built around removing the stigma from adult entertainment, bringing it out of “the darkness at the edge of town,” and deliberately aligning it with progressive and public welfare causes. In Kristof’s words, Pornhub “is the website that buys a billboard in Times Square and provides snow plows to clear Boston streets. It donates to organizations fighting for racial equality and offers steamy content free to get people through COVID-19 shutdowns.”
  • Kristof admits the bold approach to branding and marketing worked. “Pornhub and Mindgeek also stand out because of their influence,” he writes. “One study this year by a digital marketing company concluded that Pornhub was the technology company with the third greatest-impact on society in the 21st century, after Facebook and Google but ahead of Microsoft, Apple and Amazon.”
  • But Pornhub, while a big player in the adult tube site market, is not “a monopoly” or even the only company of its size in that space. “A rival of Pornhub, XVideos, which arguably has even fewer scruples, may attract more visitors,” Kristof notes (again without providing sources).
  • Pornhub shares complex issues about content moderation with any major user-content-reliant company both in mainstream and adult. “Depictions of child abuse also appear on mainstream sites like Twitter, Reddit and Facebook,” Kristof writes. According to data he requested, “Facebook removed 12.4 million images related to child exploitation in a three-month period this year. Twitter closed 264,000 accounts in six months last year for engaging in sexual exploitation of children.”
  • Issues of moderation and filtering are also prevalent in search engines and are part of complex SEO problem-solving. Google, Kristof writes, “returns 920 million videos on a search for ‘young porn.’”
  • He notes Pornhub “has doubled the number of moderators in the last couple of years, the moderator told me, and this year Pornhub began voluntarily reporting illegal material to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC).”
  • When Kristof asked Pornhub for a comment about some of the claims he and others make in his article, the company stated that “Pornhub is unequivocally committed to combating child sexual abuse material, and has instituted a comprehensive, industry-leading trust and safety policy to identify and eradicate illegal material from our community.”
  • Organizations like NCMEC track reports of child exploitation videos, which they can share with law enforcement and internet companies.
  • Pornhub has also worked with the “Internet Watch Foundation, an England-based nonprofit that combats child sexual abuse imagery.” The company told Kristof through a statement that “eliminating illegal content is an ongoing battle for every modern content platform, and we are committed to remaining at the forefront."

A Salacious, Explotative Call for Censorship

Armed with that information, Kristof then proceeds to bury it within a salacious, deliberately exploitative manifesto that confusingly asks for sweeping international censorship and private liability against a single private company — he explicitly directs his demands to the entire nation of Canada, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and the American “Congress and successive presidents” — while claiming that “it should be possible to be sex-positive and Pornhub-negative.”

Kristof’s call for politicians and states to step in and “do something” (i.e., effect censorship legislation directed towards one company, but affecting all of free speech online) also includes a number of tendentious misrepresentations, sensationalizing language and outright nonsense:

  • Pornhub, Kristof writes “is infested with rape videos.”
  • These “rape videos” (which he repeatedly redefines in a very expansive way to include controversial search terms and fictional taboo content shot by consenting adults) are, he claims over and over, somehow a central part of Pornhub’s business model. Kristof’s favorite, vague, go-to word to explain how ad-based platforms make money is “monetizes.”
  • According to Kristof, “child rapes, revenge pornography, spy cam videos of women showering, racist and misogynist content and footage of women being asphyxiated in plastic bags” are all things Pornhub “monetizes.” It should be noted that the first three things Kristof mentions in his grab bag of “monetizeables” are recordings of illegal acts that should be (and usually are) reported to the authorities and to moderators, while “racist and misogynist content, and footage of women being asphyxiated in plastic bags,” if consensual, are protected by the First Amendment.
  • Kristof claims that out of the 6.8 million new videos posted on Pornhub yearly, “many depict child abuse and nonconsensual violence.” The “many” is tendentious here given that Kristof does not provide any concrete data of what percentage it is, how it compares to other adult or mainstream tube sites where bad actors may upload criminal content, or why he is singling out Pornhub for what appears to be an internet-wide issue for any company hosting massive amounts of third-party content.
  • One of several creepy searches Kristof has performed as “research” for his censorship manifesto, yielded “more than 100,000 videos,” of which he says, apparently by his own viewing and estimation “most aren’t of children being assaulted but too many are.”
  • Kristof protests that “the issue is not pornography but rape” and accuses Pornhub of “promoting” “assaults on children or on anyone without consent,” before likening the tube site to “Bill Cosby, Harvey Weinstein and Jeffrey Epstein.”
  • Kristof in his “research” claims that he “came across many videos on Pornhub that were recordings of assaults on unconscious women and girls. The rapists would open the eyelids of the victims and touch their eyeballs to show that they were nonresponsive.” At no point in his article does Kristof clarify whether he reported these videos to the authorities or the site’s moderators or if he followed up with the company’s response to such a report.
  • Kristof repeatedly and almost universally refers to “women and girls” (presumably cis women) when reporting on the tube site’s content. There is only one mention of a pseudonymous male victim, which is near the end and almost in passing.
  • Kristof repeatedly provides specific instructions and keywords on how to search for potentially criminal videos in the most graphic, exploitative terms, apparently inviting readers to replicate his “research.” Sample passage: “A video of a naked woman being tortured by a gang of men in China. It is monetizing video compilations with titles like ‘Screaming Teen,’ ‘Degraded Teen’ and ‘Extreme Choking.’ Look at a choking video and it may suggest also searching for ‘She Can’t Breathe.’”
  • “If you know what to look for, it’s possible to find hundreds of apparent child sexual abuse videos on Pornhub in 30 minutes,” Kristof writes, again without giving any indication of what the process is to report the material to authorities and to the platform.
  • Besides asking the governments of Canada and the U.S. to effect some form of state censorship, Kristof wants to make sure that Pornhub — and the multitude of sex workers who post their content there — cannot be part of the mainstream financial system and that its users are shadowbanned even further. “Call me a prude,” he writes, “but I don’t see why search engines, banks or credit card companies should bolster a company that monetizes sexual assaults on children or unconscious women. If PayPal can suspend cooperation with Pornhub, so can American Express, Mastercard and Visa.”

Echoing Religiously Inspired Anti-Porn Crusades

Kristof’s call for state censorship and defunding of Pornhub is identical to the current crusade being conducted by a well-funded, religiously inspired organization variously called Exodus Cry and Trafficking Hub, a California-based offshoot of controversial Midwestern ministry International House of Prayer.

In fact, Kristof mentions the organization’s main mouthpiece in his tirade. “An organization called Traffickinghub [sic] led by an activist named Laila Mickelwait, documents abuses and calls for the site to be shut down,” he writes.

Mickelwait, a single-minded zealot whose life mission is to get someone — anyone — to “shut down” Pornhub, looms large in the background of Kristof’s editorial, as does NCOSE (formerly known as Morality in Media), another well-funded, religiously inspired group which has been waging its own War on Porn since the 1960s.

NCOSE was responsible for the useless, wasteful copycat legislation passed in several Red State legislatures since 2016 attempting to define “porn as a public health crisis.” These performative bills attempted to divert resources from actual public health matters to “porn addiction” groups for training and other services. Since the actual COVID-19 public health crisis began, these efforts have become dormant, with funding by donors interested in the War on Porn being now repurposed for organizations like Exodus Cry and anti-Pornhub crusaders like Mickelwait.

Almost every piece of tendentious misinformation about Pornhub in Kristof’s piece, plus his attempt to influence mainstream financial services to stop doing business with the company, are straight from Mickelwait’s playbook, although Kristof does not disclose Exodus Cry’s very obvious influence on both his analysis and his proposed remedies.

By writing this deliberately manipulative piece, Kristof has essentially turned the New York Times into the Exodus Cry house organ, delivering its message to millions of readers, including influential politicians, judges and opinion-shapers.

Lawyers Are Circling

But it is not only moralists that stand to gain if Kristof’s arguments against Pornhub become mainstream. A few times in the piece he mentions another group of beneficiaries of this demonization campaign — lawyers who are salivating over a life-changing payday for themselves if Section 230 is kneecapped (as Trump, Biden and several Senators want) and platforms’ protections from liability for third-party content are lifted.

“Pornhub appears to be increasingly alarmed about civil or criminal liability,” Kristof gloats. “Lawyers are circling, and nine women sued the company in federal court after spy cam videos surfaced on Pornhub. The videos were shot in a locker room at Limestone College in South Carolina and showed women showering and changing clothes.”

Kristof, and establishment Democrats like top Biden advisor Bruce Reed, wants to destroy Section 230 immunity for platforms in the name of “saving the children.” And like presumptive Vice President-elect Kamala Harris, Kristof is a huge fan of SESTA-FOSTA, the Section 230-weakening legislation conceived by right-wing religious politicians and embraced by liberal Democrats in the name of “fighting human trafficking.”

SESTA-FOSTA makes a blink-and-you-miss-it appearance in Kristof’s piece, but he avoids using its now-infamous name.

“Executives of Pornhub appear in the past to have assumed that they enjoyed immunity under Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which protects internet platforms on which members of the public post content,” Kristof writes. “But in 2018 Congress limited Section 230 so that it may not be enough to shield the company, leading Mindgeek to behave better.”

“Limited Section 230” is Kristof’s euphemism for the devastation that SESTA-FOSTA brought to the lives of countless sex workers, who were never consulted about it, and for the irreparable harm it did to online free speech, as activists have pointed out.

This afternoon, Kristof tweeted: "Vice President-elect Kamala Harris, you have plenty on your plate. But in California, you were a leader in fighting human trafficking, and I hope that as VP you'll be a leader in tackling the surging exploitation of children on sites like Pornhub."

Also looming in the background of Kristof’s piece is the current bipartisan attempt to, in the words of Trump’s Twitterspeak, “REPEAL SECTION 230.” And, as he correctly points out as he cheers for vultures, lawyers are indeed “circling” to shake down Pornhub and other platforms.

One of the testimonials Kristof offers concerns a 19-year-old who questions Pornhub’s ability to keep track of people re-uploading videos depicting her as a minor, and has retained a lawyer. “They’re getting so much money from our trauma,” the victim told Kristof.

It's Not About Porn, It's About Content Moderation

If Kristof hadn’t quaffed the Exodus Cry kool-aid, he might have realized that a more responsible framing of the issues he brings up is the following: “It’s not about pornography, it’s about content moderation.” Section 230 was a 1996 compromise inserted by some far-seeing legislators into what was essentially a censorship bill, the Communications Decency Act, because of a vexing issue known as “the Moderator’s Dilemma.”

Before Section 230 was passed, the Moderator’s Dilemma — when applied to an unmanageable amount of data and content — trapped present and future platforms, such as Big Tech names Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, Pornhub, XVideos and others, in a limbo between not moderating at all (and allowing all kinds of criminal and harmful content to  be posted) and moderating imperfectly (and thus opening themselves to liability).

Section 230 is known as “the First Amendment of the internet” because it allowed — even encouraged — platforms to moderate themselves, in exchange for removing liability if the moderation was imperfect, as it was (and is) bound to be given the volume of information shared.

The issues Kristof brings up in his piece are constantly debated by legal scholars, politicians, business owners and commentators. But Kristof seems unaware of this voluminous, ongoing conversation. (You can tell he does his research on Wikipedia because he — with the apparent approval of the New York Times' fact-checkers — refers to “Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act.” There is no such thing. The CDA inserted Section 230 as a new numbered section in the 1934 Telecommunications Act. And most of the CDA was later struck down as unconstitutional, precisely because of the free speech issues that Kristof gleefully ignores while asking that “something be done” about Pornhub “for the children.”)

The NYT Exploiting At-Risk Teens

So what do Nicholas Kristof and his editors offer to back his half-baked contributions to the debates about Section 230, SESTA-FOSTA and content moderation?

The answer is as old as any call for censorship: emotional pornography.

Kristof weaves his “someone do something” outrage around 14 cases of individual victims who say they found criminal acts against them uploaded to the platform.

In a choice many would find revolting, the New York Times article personalizes a complex tech and free speech issue with the inarguable power of gut-punching personal testimony.

This is a go-to for Kristof. Readers of his opinion pieces know that he has never found a victim of a sexual crime that he cannot “humanize” by going through their ordeal in exploitative detail.

But, in this case, he goes even further by finding a 19-year-old homeless woman from the Bay Area who, by his own account, is clearly in a precarious position in her life, both economically and emotionally, and identifies her by name and displays her image on a medium — the so-called "paper of record" — which will long outlive any adult tube site.

The story he retells concerns videos that the victim made for an older boy when she was 14.

“That’s when I started getting strange looks in school,” she told Kristof, who says the boy “shared the videos with other boys, and someone posted them on Pornhub.”

In Kristof’s telling, “[her] world imploded” through slut-shaming in school. “People were texting me, if I didn’t send them a video, they were going to send them to my mom,” she told him.

Although the videos were removed from Pornhub when her mother reported them, Kristof says they were re-uploaded online “to Pornhub and other websites.”

Kristof then somehow ties the teen’s suicide attempt and addiction to meth and opioids, dropping out of school and her current homelessness to the video and to Pornhub.

Kristof reports the teen is now “off drugs for a year but unemployed and traumatized, is living in her car in Bakersfield, along with three dogs that have proved more loyal and loving than the human species. She dreams of becoming a vet technician but isn’t sure how to get there.”

The article is illustrated with a questionable photo essay led by an image of the at-risk 19-year-old in a skintight shirt. The New York Times photo editors and Kristof are essentially deploying the same “barely legal” approach that the article appears to condemn. It’s one of the most blatant forms of 'pornsplotiation': the headline of Kristof’s piece is, for maximum effect, “The Children of Pornhub.”

More testimonials weave in-and-out of the piece, but it’s clear that Kristof does not care about each individual story as much as he cares about illustrating his — and Exodus Cry’s — monumental talking point: someone, somewhere should “do something” about Pornhub.

Each story is essentially the same tragic story: someone’s innocence was violated and recorded, the video was shared online (Kristof rarely specifies if the videos were also shared on YouTube, Facebook or any other major non-adult platform) and Pornhub has “monetized” and “profited” from it, allegedly as part of their “business model.”

You might miss it in passing, but several of the stories show that Pornhub’s reporting system actually worked, although the company admittedly has had difficulty tracking re-uploads of previously removed videos.

'Somebody' Must Do 'Something'

“So what’s the solution?” Kristof asks, immediately after sensationally ending a section of the story with the mention of one victim's murder.

First, Kristof says his campaign is not to shut down Pornhub, or online porn.

“Columnists are supposed to offer answers, but I struggle with solutions,” he writes, although his “research” appears to have largely consisted of incredibly creepy searches on Pornhub, interviewing victims, endorsing SESTA-FOSTA and Section 230 repeal, and memorizing whatever Exodus Cry/Trafficking Hub’s Leila Mickelwait told him.

Kristof’s censorship-craving mind tries to wrap itself around the complex 1996 debates that resulted in Section 230: “If Pornhub curated videos more rigorously, the most offensive material might just move to the dark web or to websites in less-regulated countries,” he muses. “Yet at least they would then not be normalized on a mainstream site.”

Wait until he figures out the "Moderator's Dilemma."

“More pressure and less impunity would help,” then he concludes, to his own satisfaction, before endorsing again “limiting Section 230 immunity” (i.e., SESTA-FOSTA) because it “leads to better self-policing.”

Finally, Kristof almost gives up: “I don’t see any neat solution. But aside from limiting immunity so that companies are incentivized to behave better, here are three steps that would help: 1.) Allow only verified users to post videos. 2.) Prohibit downloads. 3.) Increase moderation.”

Ah, “increase moderation.”

Yes, Nicholas Kristof: you’ve finally arrived at the real issue, and what your headline should have been: “Large Tech Platforms Have a Serious Moderation Issue.”

Clearly, the New York Times and Kristof thought that headline wasn't as "sexy" as "The Children of Pornhub" and a picture of an at-risk teen.

And anyone in the — still legal — adult industry can tell you, that's just plain wrong.

Gustavo Turner is News Editor for XBIZ.

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Reproduction in whole or in part in any form or medium without express written permission is prohibited.

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