Jessica Heygate
Jun 19, 2022

‘The world’s largest film festival’: Stunt exposes scale of child sexual abuse material found online

American agency No Fixed Address used AI to generate 85 million film posters that visualize the scale of child sexual abuse material distributed online.

‘The world’s largest film festival’: Stunt exposes scale of child sexual abuse material found online

As the Tribeca Film Festival draws to a close, a new festival purporting to be “the world’s largest” is being advertised around New York City.

But there won’t be red carpets, glitzy gowns or screenings at this event. Attendees of ‘The Unwanted Film Festival’ will be shown millions of sobering fake film posters, intended to represent child sexual abuse material that is spreading rapidly and constantly online.

There were 85 million images and films flagged by users as suspected child sexual abuse material (CSAM) in 2021 — roughly equivalent to one piece of content being uploaded every two seconds, according to the Canadian Centre for Child Protection (C3P).

This represents a 31% spike in suspected CSAM online from 2020.

The “staggering” statistic set the foundation for the campaign, which aims to raise awareness of the proliferation of CSAM online and pressure tech companies to take action.

“It is such a huge number, and it's hard for anyone to fathom,” No Fixed Address chief creative officer Alexis Bronstorph told Campaign US. “So we figured if we could contextualize this number for people, it would make it easier for them to understand the issue and to talk about it and fight for change.”

To visualize the scale of the issue, No Fixed Address applied AI to create 85 million fake film posters that represent all of the CSAM reported in 2021.

The concept of the film festival “allows us to talk about the issue without having to get to the really tough stuff,” Bronstorph says.

On the campaign website, one film poster will be posted every two seconds. An in-person activation in New York City projects the film posters across the walls and floor of a building using 3D projection mapping. The two-day event will take place in Lume Studios on Broadway on June 15 and June 16 —timed to coincide with the Tribeca Film Festival.

Passers-by are being guided to the event by “wild postings” on a construction wall positioned nearby Tribeca Film Festival cinemas. Streek Attack donated out of home media space for the campaign.

No Fixed Address also developed a two-minute trailer alongside editing house Fort York.

How the campaign was designed

The titles and taglines of the posters were inspired by the words and sentiments of CSAM survivors. Examples include “Violated: They’ll Never Forget,” “Trapped: A Real Life Nightmare” and “Exploitation: It haunts your waking hours.”

No Fixed Address created 55 “film” titles in the five most spoken languages globally: English, French, Mandarin, Hindi and Spanish. A few titles were also created in German as part of plans to launch the campaign at the G7 conference in Germany at the end of June. The festival will wrap up in Toronto for the Toronto International Film Festival in the fall.

Given the sensitive nature of the topic, there was significant human oversight on the AI engine. The team curated a database of 75 images that were deemed “impactful but respectful.” The AI then matched titles with images, and overlayed different colors to create 85 million unique posters.

No Fixed Address built and trained the AI engine in-house. “After vetting the consumer-grade AI platforms available to us we determined that none of them were going to be able to give us either the control of content or the fidelity of output that we needed,” Bronstorph said.

The creative team consulted with survivor groups like Phoenix 11 to advise on the content and overall approach. Trigger warnings have been placed on the content, and representatives from C3P who have been trained to provide support are present at the live experience to answer questions.

Signy Arnason, associate executive director at C3P, said the response from survivors has been “generally quite positive.” “Many of them are happy that their story and experiences are being told to the public, as it is one that is often left in the dark,” she said.

The solution to stemming the spread of CSAM

The campaign aims to both raise awareness of the spread of CSAM online, and encourage the public to rally for action. The web experience includes a petition members of the public can sign to demand that tech companies including  Twitter, Facebook and YouTube prevent the spread of CSAM online.

“These companies have the tools to stop this, they just have to use them,” said Bronstorph.

C3P has developed a free tool, Project Arachnid, which uses hashing technology to track and flag the spread of known CSAM so tech platforms can quickly remove it. But many have yet to implement it, Bronstorph said. “They could be using this and they are not, because then they would have to admit there is a problem.”

Arnason says the solutions that would prevent the vast majority of CSAM distribution on the internet “are surprisingly simple.” She suggests tech platforms could block users from uploading content when their IP address is linked to the dark web, require a verified account registration prior to uploading content and be more vigilant in monitoring what users upload and share.

“In the same way many platforms invest in technology to block or remove copyrighted music or videos, the same tools exist for blocking CSAM that has been previously confirmed by law enforcement, industry moderation teams and NGOs like ours,” said Arnason.

“Ultimately, the problem isn't a lack of solutions. It has come down to a lack of will and perceived incentive from the industry to protect its most vulnerable users.”

Addressing the issue is critical when the true extent of CSAM distribution “far exceeds” the 85 million figure that is reported online, which only represents images and videos the international child protection community encounters across the open web, Arnason said. It doesn't account for material that has been downloaded onto personal devices or distributed on encrypted or hidden offender channels. 

The Unwanted Film Festival is the first major piece of work to be released under new No Fixed Address chief creative officers Bronstorph and Kelsey Horne. 

Campaign US

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