They sprang up on Twitter, one by one, spreading like a viral meme. These weren't the typical pictures of cats or baby animals that tend to trend on a weekend, they were photos of naked women being recklessly uploaded and retweeted hundreds upon hundreds of times. No, only some tweets were of women. Most were of girls who appeared to be as young as 14.
On Saturday night the hashtag #TwitterPurge hit the social network's trending charts when it was ignited by the now disabled account @SCVPurge and was spurred on by many others. The account used the release of The Purge: Anarchy, a film that imagines the country making all crime legal for one night out of the year, to call on Twitter users to upload sexts they've received, many of which were of high school age girls in various states of undress and sexual positions—textbook child pornography.
Victims routinely move, switch schools and jobs, or change their names and phone numbers to escape their harassers.
This was one of the most public acts of "revenge porn" to date: a mass betrayal of hundreds of people who had sent compromising photographs of themselves to those they trusted, only to have them broadcast the pictures on the second biggest social network in the country. Even if a girl was careful enough in concealing her identity by leaving her face out of frame, uploaders released their Twitter and Instagram handles and identified the girls in front of thousands. Other accounts joined in as instigators, giving out the Snapchat usernames of exposed girls when a post reached a certain amount of retweets. They'd embarrass the girls further by exposing some of their usernames if they received only a single retweet. One copycat account, @SCV_Purge1, tweeted, "Remember everyone! We are not the bad ones its those who are Dming us and sending in your nudes that are bad So think twice of who u trust."
The only control the victims had were over their own accounts, which some quickly deleted. Many pictures, though, were linked to accounts that had been deserted, so those girls won't find out about their exposure until they log back in. One girl who had a sext linked to her account hadn't tweeted since September of last year.
if you're participating in this #twitterpurge you are a horrible person. You're ruining someone's life and could push them to suicide.— MeaganAnne♔ (@meagann_annee) July 20, 2014
Goes to show how quick people are to hop on the bandwagon for exposure.Twitter Purge is immature,ignorant and something many will glorify.— C.T.F.™ (@CrisisTheFuture) July 20, 2014
#TwitterPurge is far from the first instance of nude photos being exposed on the Internet without someone's consent. Notice the mention of suicide in the first tweet I posted above. "You're ruining someone's life and could push them to suicide," Meagan Anne writes. In case this strikes you as an exaggeration, it's not. In 2008, 18-year-old Jessica Logan hung herself in her room after she was the target of bullying after an ex-boyfriend distributed a sext she had sent. Outside of suicide, victims routinely move, switch schools and jobs, or change their names and phone numbers to escape their harassers. A do-it-yourself protection program fit for an FBI informant.
There are entire communities devoted to gathering pictures of young girls and sharing them with each other. Reddit and 4Chan were known to host forums that shared nude pictures of young girls, with some members going as far as posting girls' names, addresses, and phone numbers. After years of controversy, Reddit took down one of their most notorious forums, r/jailbait, in 2011. While these websites reside on the dark corners of the Internet, it doesn't make them any less real.
Just a few years ago, Hunter Moore, who referred to himself as a "professional life ruin-er," created the site IsAnyoneUp.com, which was fueled by jealous men who wanted nothing more than to embarrass an ex-girlfriend by posting their naked photos. The site amassed thousands of submissions before it was taken down in April 2012 after a two-year run, not before becoming the catalyst for dozens of copycat sites. The shutdown was more than two years ago, just around the time Snapchat was turning into a major force with its iOS app, recording some 25 Snaps sent every second.
When it comes to posting sexts, a vengeful ex-boyfriend isn't always the culprit; dedicated hackers can swipe photos off of computers and accounts.
Snapchat's success is built on the illusion of "disappearing" messages: that users could swap nude photos risk-free because they'll erase after seconds. It was thought of as a way to enjoy sending sexts without having to worry about it appearing on sites like IsAnyoneUp. No trace, no regrets. But unlike having a physical photo and taking a flame to it, making media disappear in the digital world is more difficult than seeing it vanish from a screen. Hell, saving Snapchat sexts isn't even that complicated. There are apps in Apple's App Store right now that let you save photos and video without the sender ever knowing. Or, users can grab a tablet or camera and simply record the Snap as soon as it's displayed. The U.S. Government even went as far as accusing Snapchat of using "deceptive" advertising and placed them on independent monitoring for the next 20 years for perpetuating this mirage.
When it comes to posting sexts, a vengeful ex-boyfriend isn't always the culprit; dedicated hackers can swipe photos off of computers and accounts. Some use them as blackmail, demanding girls to send more pictures or risk having them post what they already have, as a former Mitt Romney intern did in 2013. He allegedly texted one victim:
Listen to me. If we don’t have a deal I will send the pictures to those people. Is that what u want? remember what’s at stake. do u want ur family and everyone in DC to see your tits? Just agree to e-mail me a pic of you in a bra.
This also happened to Amanda Todd, who killed herself in 2012 after she flashed an anonymous man over a webcam and had her picture sent to family and friends after being forced to perform strip shows for her blackmailer. She told her story in a YouTube video before her death:
I've written a handful of posts about the methods people can use to secretly save Snaps, as a way to warn readers about the risks of sexting. But it's a double-edged sword, because I'm simultaneously warning people about the risks of sexting while giving away the methods to save them and potentially creating more victims. I wanted to make the risks real and take them out of the realm of "it will never happen to me." A sort of Red Asphalt for sexting, if you will. But this doesn't seem to be working, so here it is: if you want a fool-proof way to send sexts that won't leak, you're not going to find it. It's time to stop sexting.
I get it. Sexting is fun. Sexting usually leads to sex. But even if you send a sext to a long-term significant other who you're sure would never ever post your sexts, one thing you don't have control over is how well they're protecting them. Are they saving your sexts on their phone? Is that phone password-protected, in case they leave it in a subway or theater? How good is that passcode? If they're stored on a computer, is the folder they're saved in encrypted? Despite these precautions, there are still ways to retrieve photos, among other information, from devices even if they've been reset to factory settings and wiped clean. When it comes to keeping things private, there are just too many links in the chain that can break.
As of now, laws to fight cyberbullying and the posting of nudes haven't proved a strong enough deterrent. Attorney Mady Atkins said in Slate, "some laws are going to be too broad and some are going to be too narrow." In describing one of her female clients who had discovered that her nude picture was on a website and had been viewed by 30,000 people:
It took me two days and about six hours to get the photos down. First, I had to register the images with the U.S. Copyright Office for $35. Why? Because that was the only clear law the person who posted the photos was actually violating. Because they were selfies, my client’s daughter owned the photos—she took them—and so by posting them, her ex had violated her copyright. Not her body, not her autonomy, not her freedom to live in the world without having been exposed unwillingly to 30,000 strangers, but her copyright. And if they hadn’t been selfies? Well, she likely would have been out of luck.
It's important to note that Twitter reacted relatively quickly in getting most of the @SCVPurge and copycat accounts removed along with their pictures, thanks to its policies. There are groups who think outlawing revenge porn would impede our free speech rights. Even if you live in a state like California where uploading revenge porn is illegal, proving that a specific person uploaded a photo could be difficult. (The "SCV" in @SCVPurge stands for Santa Clarita Valley in California, where it's thought to have originated.) Even if someone is found guilty, it doesn't wipe the photo from every hard drive it's saved on.
Unless you're without reserve about having your body posted online for the world to see, you should stop sexting, no matter how much that person on the other side of screen is pressuring you to do so. There's nothing wrong with showing off your undressed body, as long as you're of age and consent to it. That's something we can agree on. Yet sexts can quickly turn from foreplay into ammo that can be used against you.
I wish solving this situation was as easy as asking these former lovers, Internet creepers, and the like from not doing so, but there are so many who are devoted to doing just that. The bodies of victims are reduced to a digital commodity of a few hundred pixels that can be infinitely multiplied with a click of a mouse. It's clear that the safest path of protection is not sending a sext at all. There may very well be a day where we can send a sext to anyone and have complete control over it. This is not that day.
More often than not, the only barrier between you and a compromising picture being uploaded is trust, either between another person or a company, and unfortunately—time and time again—trust proves to be as fleeting as a trending hashtag on Twitter.
Jason Duaine Hahn is a Complex News Editor. Follow him on Twitter here.