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 development has prompted a former Government child safety advisor to warn parents to avoid sharing images of their children openly on social media in case they are stolen and traded online.
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.
She said: “I couldn’t just scroll past it as at the end of the day these are people’s children.
“There are pictures of little boys aged five or six on the beach in their swimming trunks and chances are that picture was taken by their parents on their holiday. Somehow that picture has gotten into their hands.”
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’.
Following the revelation, John Carr OBE, an online child protection expert who formerly sat on the Government’s UK Council for Internet Safety, described the phenomenon as “horrifying” and said social media giants had to do more themselves to hunt down and delete the account.
He said: “It is understandable that parents want to share pictures of their children with friends and relatives, but if their social media accounts are not private these photos can be seen – and taken – by anyone.
“This is about parents not thinking because they are not aware that these bad guys are out there doing this.”
Vaishnavi J, Head of Safety at Instagram, told the Telegraph: “Any content that endangers children is abhorrent and we’re committed to doing everything we can to keep it off our apps.
“We remove accounts that share or solicit this type of content and report them to the police. We also use technology that’s constantly improving to find and remove known child exploitation imagery.
“We’ve been working with India to investigate and remove the accounts she’s identified and we’re grateful for her help.”
A spokesman for Twitter said: “Twitter has a zero tolerance policy for child sexual exploitation content. We aggressively fight online child sexual abuse and have heavily invested in technology and tools to enforce our policy.
“Our dedicated teams work to stay ahead of bad-faith actors and to ensure we’re doing everything we can to remove content, facilitate investigations, and protect minors from harm — both on and offline.”