Daily Telegraph Runs “Cheese and Pizza Emojis as Secret Code” Story

From the UK Daily Telegraph:

Paedophiles using cheese and pizza emojis as secret code on social media

Cheese and pizza emojis are being used as a secret code by paedophiles to communicate on social media sites such as Instagram and Twitter, online safety groups have warned.

A group of more than 100 volunteer parents has banded together to hunt down and report accounts using the emoji to signal they are sharing sexualised images of children, in a bid to evade detection by the social media giants.

Members of the parents’ group told The Telegraph they often found such accounts sharing images of children taken in family settings such on beaches or gardens, which appeared to have been stolen from the parents’ social media profiles.

…The group of parents was started by India, a 27-year-old executive assistant from London, who asked the paper not to use her surname, and who stumbled across the child image accounts on social media.

Since then she has set up Twitter and Instagram pages, called ProtectPD, dedicated to naming accounts she finds sharing child images so her followers can report them en masse to the social media giants.

…India, who has had direct talks with officials at Instagram over the issue, said the accounts often signaled what they were doing by using cheese and pizza emojis, to represent ‘CP’ meaning ‘child porn’…

The story, by the paper’s social media correspondent, has been met with some incredulity. The story is not impossible, but the notion that banal symbols have a secret meaning that allows us to identify and expose malign actors is an old trope of urban myths, and there is a risk here that innocent people will find themselves falsely accused simply because they have used the emojis in their plain sense.

In this instance, there is also the particular context of “Pizzagate“, the conspiracy theory that has since largely folded into QAnon. Some social media users have expressed the opinion that the Telegraph has been taken in by a QAnon group, while QAnon supporters have cited the article as evidence proving their claims that elite abusers communicate openly via an extensive vocabulary of code words, some of which are Pizza-related. (1)

One problem with the story is that it is difficult to scrutinise the claims for ourselves. An individual or group claiming to have exclusive information that pertains to some topic of urgent public interest is always a tempting prospect for journalists, but more than once we’ve seen how the end result is flawed journalism that ends up promoting misinformation (the Sun‘s “Hijacked Labour” fiasco is a recent instance of this; some reports about Islamic extremism from about a decade ago are another). Did the journalist check out India’s identity and her claims to have 100 associates? Did he see screenshots of the emojis being used in the way claimed?

Bellingcat’s Nick Waters observes that:

The social media accounts of this group were set up in (wait for it) August 2020. Bit of a red flag.

It takes about 30 seconds of scrolling to find some absolutely insane stuff, for example implying Avicii [a Swedish musician who took his own life in 2018] was murdered for exposing child trafficking.

In contrast, though, India’s own account (now protected) goes back to 2009, when (if taken at face value) she would have been 16 years old (no direct link here as the trail may lead back to an unrelated individual).

Another concern is the nature of the research being undertaken. The story is careful to specify that the the group has uncovered the sexualising misuse of innocent images that were taken from legitimate social media accounts belonging to parents. But surely the nature of their project is very likely to lead to them accessing indecent and/or abuse images? Someone else who reviewed some of the group’s content before it was deleted from the internet suggests that it posted “images with details blurred”, which may indicate that it indeed found such images; but “research” is not a legal defence for accessing illegal images, let alone downloading them to add blurring. Further, she suggests that the group’s exposure activities may actually be making it easier to find such material (she asks: “What sort of idiot would publicise hashtags to an English speaking audience that are used in the Philippines that lead to illegal content?”).


1. A New York Times article on the origins of Pizzagate from late 2016 notes that “A participant on 4chan connected the phrase ‘cheese pizza’ to pedophiles, who on chat boards use the initials “c.p.” to denote child pornography.” Of course, it is possible that code words as reported in the media then get taken up for real, although it seems an odd thing to do if the point is to communicate discreetly.