|"Acquaintance insulting" ("ji-in neungyok" in Korean) is a form of online sexual harassment in which perpetrators post raw footage with humiliating stories, or edit the faces of their classmates, acquaintances or even family members onto pornographic images or videos, and distribute them on social media platforms. / Screenshot from Telegram|
By Lee Min-young
This piece is the second in a series of stories on digital sex crimes and image-based abuse, supported by the Judith Neilson Institute's Asian Stories project. Watch our first production here, the documentary film, 'Nth Room: The making of a monster,' which explains the massive Telegram sex abuse case, and how similar patterns of digital sex crimes are being discovered across Asia.
The nightmare of being a victim of digital sexual abuse
A school teacher in her 20s one day receives a message from a complete stranger, telling her that her photos and personal information are being shared among thousands of Telegram users. She finds out that someone has been distributing what appears to be fake nude photos and pornographic videos of her, as well as saying extremely vulgar and sexually humiliating things about her.
She is completely unaware of who distributed her photos, how her personal information was leaked and how many people have seen them, making it difficult to seek help from the police.
What do you think are the odds of a person, let's say you, being sexually molested online with men sharing nude photos that you have never taken, videos you have never filmed, and having fun making up stories about your sex life and how promiscuous you are in real life?
As scary as it may sound, anyone can be a victim of sexual image abuse. It just takes a single photo from one's social media to create fake pornography.
Team Flame, the two college students who first broke the story of the "Nth room," a massive digital sex crime case where perpetrators forced young girls to perform sexually explicit acts on camera with thousands of users paying in cryptocurrency to watch on Telegram, told The Korea Times that they once personally contacted a victim of "acquaintance insulting" last year.
"We told her that her photos were being shared in Telegram chat rooms and that she was being sexually harassed there. Later she reported it to the police, but the only answer she got was that it was nearly impossible to track down those who had shared and distributed the images on Telegram," they said.
What is "acquaintance insulting?"
"Acquaintance insulting" ("ji-in neungyok" in Korean) is a form of sexual harassment that takes place via online platforms or messengers, including Twitter, Telegram and Tumblr, where perpetrators generate composite photos by adding the face of their classmates, acquaintances or even family members to pornographic images or videos for distribution.
Team Flame worked together with the victim to track down the individual who first uploaded the images and discovered that the perpetrator was an old former acquaintance. It turned out that he had feelings for her when he was attending the same school as her but that those feelings came out in a very lopsided and twisted way, to the point that he wanted to destroy her for not responding to him. "He uploaded thousands of photos of her, both raw and synthetic images. Some of them were photos that included the victim's friends, and he kept sexually harassing both her and her friends in the chat room."
|Celebrities and K-pop idols have long been subject to digital sex crimes such as deepfake pornography and sexual image abuse. There are many Telegram chat rooms to this day that are called, "Let's rape OO (name of celebrity)." / Screenshot from Telegram|
From K-pop stars to ordinary people
Generating fake images by editing a person's face into pornography has long been a type of crime that celebrities or members of K-pop girl bands only were subject to. However, these days, non-celebrities are also being targeted in many online platforms, such as Tumblr and Telegram.
"We are seeing a lot of men's communities active on these platforms that are grouped by different regions. They target specific girls living in that area and share real information about them, along with sexual images of them. They find it much more stimulating when they know that they could bump into those girls anytime," said Seo Seung-hee, the director of the Korea Cyber Sexual Violence Response Center.
The most common types of acquaintance insulting are: editing the victims' faces into pornographic images, editing the images of one's male genitals or semen onto the victims' photos and creating fake X-ray vision photos where one can see through the victims' clothing.
|Multiple chat rooms on Telegram can be found, where perpetrators post images of acquaintances and tell other users to rape the women when they see them on the streets in order to "put them in their place." / Screenshots from Telegram|
The increase in these cases has prompted South Korea to pass new laws attempting to outlaw sexual image abuse of any sort, including deepfake videos and synthesized pornographic images, through legislation that went into effect in June of last year, setting punishments of up to five years in prison or fines of up to 50 million won.
If a crime was committed for commercial gain, the prison term can be increased to seven years. The new regulations do not, however, appear to have put an end to the problem.
Hard to catch
There are loopholes that perpetrators seem to be taking advantage of to continue the harassment.
"Recently, we are discovering new types of acquaintance insulting where perpetrators post raw footage from social media containing an acquaintance's personal information and spread false stories about them mainly to humiliate the victims sexually," Seo said. The new legislation only outlaws the creation and distribution of artificially manipulated images and videos. In order to punish those who share actual selfies downloaded from someone's Instagram and say inappropriate things about that person, the victims can only file a defamation suit at best.
Another problem is that the numbers of arrests are just not keeping up.
The Korea Cyber Sexual Violence Center has been helping acquaintance insulting victims since 2017, when cases began to be discovered on online platforms, but not many of the victims were able to seek justice, because the arrest rate has been very low.
According to the Korean National Police Agency, 94 perpetrators were arrested for creating pornographic images of women they know, using images taken from social media from Dec. 2020 through April 2021. The cases involve generating synthesized images of hundreds of women and operating a website or chat room on encrypted messenger apps to sell them, or creating fake nude photos of university colleagues using AI technology and distributing them on social media.
"We've seen thousands of people in a single chat room where victims were molested, so considering the fact that this kind of activity is not just happening in one chat room, on only one single platform, it's clear that the arrest rates are ridiculously low," Seo said.
She says victims more often do not know that their photos are being shared by strangers on these secret communities, unless someone tells them, or they happen to discover it themselves, which is very unlikely. Even if they somehow find out, it's very difficult to gather evidence and information to identify the perpetrator, due to the anonymous nature of sexual abuse in the digital world.
Even worse, most of the perpetrators of acquaintance insulting, which involves AI technology and advanced photo editing skills, are teenagers, young natives of the digital era who grew up in the presence of technology and use social networking platforms heavily. "Teenagers in most cases know how to engage in criminal activities and never get caught," Seo said.
|The Korean National Police Agency has arrested 94 suspects for the production and distribution of fake pornographic images of women they know, using images taken from social media from Dec. 2020 to April 2021. / Graphics by Lee Min-young|
Among the suspects of acquaintance insulting arrested from Dec. 2020 to April of this year, 65 were teenagers, which accounts for 69.1% of the total criminal suspects. Perpetrators in their 20s accounted for 18.1% of the total figure.
The role of social media platforms
However, the good news is that the ongoing police investigation into digital sex crime cases and the introduction of new laws tackling the issue, ever since the Nth Room case drew nationwide attention, have resulted in pressuring platform users to shy away from these problematic chat rooms.
"Acquaintance insulting cases are seen less these days on Twitter and Tumblr because social media companies have been filtering out such content and many users who posted acquaintance insulting materials have had their accounts shut down or blocked," said Seo Seung-hee, the director of the Korea Cyber Sexual Violence Response Center.
However, Team Flame says that although acquaintance insulting chat rooms on Telegram are seen less often these days, users are still sharing sexually abusive digital content in a more private way. "In the chat rooms, users are more careful about exchanging malicious content, but they do it anyway. They tell each other to send private messages, so the interactions are still happening."
Team Flame stressed that platforms are also the ones that should be held accountable. They have found that even though some platforms have been cooperating with police investigations, thousands of videos and images still appear on the platforms simply by searching a few keywords, such as, "acquaintance insulting," "photo manipulation" or "deepfake porn," without any age verification process."
"If you report those accounts to Twitter, the platform deletes some of them, but leaves most of them unaddressed, citing the fact that, "The posts you reported do not violate laws. We still have a lot more work to do here with social media companies." Team Flame said.
"When we were helping the police with the investigation last year into the Nth room case, Telegram mostly ignored our requests. It took at least two weeks to more than a month to get answers from Twitter and Instagram. So, if the police fail to get these platforms to cooperate in a timely manner, they are likely to miss the perpetrators. The discussion of how social media companies will take accountability for the problem of sexually exploitative content being distributed in and out of their platforms should continue."