By Chris Pollard For The Mail On Sunday
22:00 29 Jul 2023, updated 22:06 29 Jul 2023
- Among the symbols being adopted are small boats and a variety of landmarks
People-traffickers are using emojis to bypass filters aimed at blocking online advertising for illegal small boat crossings.
Social media giants, including Chinese-owned TikTok, have faced increased pressure to crack down on criminal gangs exploiting their platforms to tout for business.
But smugglers have been staying one step ahead by using emojis instead of keywords and photos, which can be easily detected by software introduced to automatically trawl for illegal adverts.
Among the symbols being adopted by the gangs are small boats and lorries, as well as the British and French flags and a variety of landmarks.
Border Force predicts that the next three months will follow a similar pattern to last year, when 51 per cent of the record-breaking 45,755 small boat arrivals – many of whom found passage through social media adverts – arrived in August, September and October.
Last night, Natalie Elphicke, Tory MP for Dover and Deal, called on TikTok to prove it was taking people-smuggling seriously.
She said: ‘It beggars belief that a boat emoji and British flag can defeat the great computers of Tiktok. The law must be changed so that if they don’t take down this illegal material, social media firms will face legal sanctions.
‘Let’s call time on the TikTok traffickers.’ Earlier this year, Border Force chiefs claimed that advert blocks had led to a decrease in crossings, particularly from Albania. But traffickers are circumventing the problem.
One advert says: ‘Boys ready for journey tonight. Maximum 25 people on (emoji of a small boat).’ Another features the word ‘Rruge’ – Albanian for ‘road’ – with an emoji of the British flag and a pointed finger, superimposed on a photo of a red phonebox and the Houses of Parliament. In the caption space underneath are emojis of a boat, lorry, plane, the Union Flag and salute.
In other adverts emojis of the English, British and French flags are used instead of words to signify a journey’s start and end points.
The adverts also promise would-be migrants that they can meet King Charles and will get good jobs once in the UK.
A border security source said: ‘Smugglers are one step ahead at every stage. This is a ruthless trade. They’re not stupid. Social media giants must get a grip.’
After this newspaper told TikTok of our findings, a spokesman said its guidelines were clear.
‘We prohibit content that facilitates human smuggling and trafficking,’ they added. ‘We have removed the content shared and permanently banned the accounts for violating these guidelines.
‘We work closely with UK law enforcement and industry partners on this issue.’