In the HJ Talks About Abuse podcast, we often try to keep up with the news and in particular, developments in online sexual exploitation so our listeners are aware of what is out there in the ever-changing technological world. This week we look at the issue of catfishing.
Recently we have seen a Northern Irish man face court in what is touted as the UK’s biggest “catfishing” child abuse investigation. The facts are, of course, bizarre and alarming.
But first, what is catfishing and should you know about it?
Catfishing is a type of deceptive activity where a person creates a “sock puppet” social networking presence, or fake identity on a social network account, usually targeting a specific victim for deception.
Catfishing is often employed for romance scams on dating websites. Catfishing may be used for financial gain, to compromise a victim in some way, or simply as a form of trolling or wish fulfilment.
This might not make the situation any clearer, so by way of example, we have noted the plot of the 2010 American (alleged) documentaryCatfishwhich follows a young man, Nev, as he builds a romantic relationship with a young woman named Megan on Facebook.
The relationship started when Megan’s young sister Abbey sent Nev a painting which showed talent far beyond her years. This led to Nev being in contact with all of the family including the mother, father and attractive older sister – Megan.
The relationship blossoms online as Megan sends Nev art work and songs purportedly created by her, along with photos of herself. On later investigation Nev finds the songs were lifted from YouTube and other lies about the young sister’s art career come to be known.
The film crew follow Nev to the family house where they meet Angela, the mother of both Megan and Abbey. Angela constructs a series of lies about her health and the family situation to avoid Nev meeting the remaining members of the family.
In the end, it transpires that Angela is playing all of the characters in this fake Facebook life and Nev had been corresponding with the one person the entire time. Over the course of nine months there were over 1,500 messages exchanged.
The documentary illustrated the concept of creating a fake online personality in an elaborate rouse to live out a fantasy life – now represented by the term catfishing.
However, this term has now evolved to represent a range of online behaviour which can be both criminal and extremely dangerous to young people on social media.
The case in Northern Ireland saw Alexander McCartneycharged with possession, making and distributing indecent images of children as well as sexual activity with a child and intimidation to commit sexual activity with a child having occurred between May 2018 and July 2019.
The prosecution said it is estimated that McCartney had more than 300 alleged victims, who he often contacted on social media.
The court heard that McCartney would befriend a child by pretending to be someone else before asking them for an image.
He would later write to the alleged victim telling them if they didn’t do as he said, he would show the nude photographs for the entire world to see.
The prosecution said that the children targeted, aged between 10 and 12 and mostly female, were “left in distressed states”.
The court also heard that McCartney had also been selling indecent images on a fraudulent account, through which he earned £700 in three weeks.
This demonstrates a very real threat in social media – one often does not know exactly who is on the other end of the platform or communication device.
In this podcast, we have addressed many concerning developments in the online world regarding social media and child sexual abuse. It is obvious that the sinister motives and ways in which those can be carried out are developing faster than law enforcement or the social media companies can to combat such crimes.
So, what can be done? Unfortunately, in our view, the best immediate solution is education so children can manage the risks posed online when using social media and their parents can be alive to those risks.
Whilst this solution is obviously not ideal, it would be imprudent to simply wait until the parliament can properly regulate the social media industry to self-police in a more robust and proactive way.