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Adult entertainers’ claims of blacklisting conspiracy by Meta on shaky ground

Adult content creators claim to have evidence of three Meta executives taking bribes to "blacklist" them in order to boost the platform OnlyFans.

SAN FRANCISCO (CN) — A federal judge indicated an amended class action against Facebook and Instagram claiming a conspiracy to blacklist online adult entertainment workers associated with OnlyFans competitors may not have enough to advance.

Plaintiffs who work in online adult entertainment claim the social media giants' parent company Meta engaged in a scheme to reduce competition in the market and force providers to work exclusively through OnlyFans. 

A 53-page amended complaint filed in September says Meta employees and entities affiliated with OnlyFans engaged in covert payments and manipulation of shared terrorism-related databases and Meta’s internal algorithms. The plaintiffs claim some of their posts removed and accounts were suspended after they linked to OnlyFans and other pornographic websites. 

Since the amended complaint was filed, three Meta executives have been identified by name in a court filing — including Nick Clegg, Meta’s vice president of global policy, and Nicola Mendelsohn, vice president of the global business team. The plaintiffs accuse them of being as the “John Does” who accepted bribes from OnlyFans to help the platform dominate the industry. 

One plaintiff claims her followers stopped seeing her posts as often and her Instagram account was deleted for three days. Another claims her Instagram site was deleted but that the platform reversed course after meeting with her union’s lawyer about enforcement of Meta’s policies on sexually explicit content. 

The plaintiffs claim accounts were removed or deprioritized not for violating the sexual solicitation standard, but because their content linked to platforms not affiliated with OnlyFans. They say “blacklisting” was done by adding false filters to individual databases or lists of dangerous organizations and individuals, then included in shared databases to identify adult entertainers or the platforms as related to terrorism. 

Each plaintiff claims their revenue was “adversely affected” because in 2019 web traffic to OnlyFans began increasing while traffic to three unidentified adult-entertainment platforms dropped.

A key exhibit in the new complaint is an article with information from two anonymous sources reporting that performers’ accounts were flagged with an internal code only available to the Facebook engineering department, reducing the accounts’ visibilities.

The plaintiffs say they need discovery to analyze tips that Meta employees received wire transfers — filed under seal — as well as a whistleblower report and internal analyses from “one or more of the Meta defendants.”

On Wednesday, Senior U.S. District Judge William Alsup assessed the motions from Instagram, Facebook Operations and Meta Platforms, Inc. to dismiss the case and strike the second amended class action. He had dismissed the original complaint, finding the plaintiffs failed to “plead enough facts to state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.” He urged them to "nudge their claims across the line from conceivable to plausible.”

Meta says the amended complaint still does not have information that backs up the plaintiffs' colaims to make “the inference of culpability plausible” for why accounts were removed or deprioritized.

“The most obvious explanation for that phenomenon isn’t a conspiracy to secretly manipulate terrorist databases. It is enforcement of Meta’s Sexual Solicitation Community Standard, which at all relevant times expressly prohibited content that ‘links to external pornographic websites,’” the defendants argue in their motions to dismiss.

The defendants also pushed against the claim that Meta is liable for the conduct of employees who may have abused Meta’s internal processes. While the plaintiffs identify three Meta employees who allegedly received wire-transfer payments, “The complaint does not allege that those individuals actually did anything," the defendants say in their motions.

“This is not the stuff of a well-pled complaint,” Meta argues in the filing. “Federal-court class actions do not proceed on a hope and a prayer that plaintiffs might develop support for their claims in discovery.”

In court Wednesday, the plaintiffs’ lawyer David Azar said more people have come forward and there is new evidence of an internal investigation at Facebook.

But Meta attorney Winn Allen told Alsup the plaintiffs rely too heavily on anonymity.  

“All they have is anonymous sources of unknown reliability … and hearsay conversations with another lawyer who refused to sign the complaint and be subject to Rule 11,” Allen said. 

Alsup said he never said the plaintiffs’ complaint was insufficient, but wanted to see additional support for their claims. He also chastised Azar for saying the plaintiffs now have new information to add. 

"Where does it say you can rely on anonymous sources? What law says that?" Alsup asked. “Why didn’t you look at the documents yourself? You were supposed to get the records yourself and you didn’t. You could have subpoenaed them.”

Azar said the new information came after the plaintiffs filed the amended complaint. He read aloud from the internal report received Oct. 11 which named the three employees accepting bribes and who — according to an anonymous source — worked to “take down OnlyFans competitor accounts and flag competing URLs."

Gizmodo published an article about the revelation of the Meta employees in late October.

Alsup compared the entire discussion to a conspiracy theory with no proof, assessing only motives. 

“I don't have an answer for you today,” he told the attorneys, and adjourned. 

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