Ex-Les Quennevais and Hautlieu pupil Emily Chiang spent three years on her PHD research that looked into three aspects of language used within paedophile groups on the dark web.
She has looked into the language used in web chats by a real offender who pleaded guilty to more than 40 charges related to grooming, blackmail and distributing indecent images of children as well as compared language used by paedophiles and undercover officers posing as paedophiles online. She has also studied the language of ‘newbie’ offenders joining hidden online forums.
Dr Chiang (31), a post-doctoral researcher at Aston University, described the dark web – which can only be accessed using special software – as a ‘collection of heavily encrypted websites, forums and social networks’ that ‘notoriously provides spaces for illegal activities’.
She wrote online: ‘It’s where child sexual offenders meet to support each other and share indecent images and advice on abuse techniques – with near-complete anonymity. This provides a resource for individuals to learn the “skills” to become more dangerous offenders.’
Dr Chiang, who shares her work at conferences and with police forces, said because interaction by offenders on such forums on the dark web are ‘exclusively linguistic’ – solely typed messages – language analysis offered a great insight into their behaviours.
Writing about her work studying the language used by new offenders, she said: ‘Abusive communities are governed by strict rules – for example, not giving out personal information – to preserve security. Invariably, they are made up of members with varying levels of offending experience and expertise. An interesting subgroup are those who identify as “newbies”, with little or no experience of abusing or interacting in dark web environments.
‘Understanding newbies can help determine offenders’ experience levels. It is the first step to tracking how offenders progress to become more experienced and prolific.
‘It can also help undercover police to portray realistic identities. When interacting with offenders who are often extremely distrustful and keenly aware of possible police presence, posing as the newbie might in fact be the easiest way to enter an offending community.’
Her research, which involved looking at 71 posts from six child abuse forums, identified key recurring language features. She tweeted to say: ‘Main takeaway: new offenders attempt to gain community membership by performing a kind of dual identity – the ‘competent newbie’ – to acknowledge their lack of experience and at the same time demonstrate an understanding of community rules and practices.’
She told the JEP: ‘One of the most important things is showing what studying linguistics can do and reveal.’