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No one knows you’re a dog on the internet (actually, they do!)

Monday, May 21, 2012
posted by Rita Handrich

Contrary to the now famous New Yorker cartoon, people on the internet do know you’re a dog. Sort of. We’ve all heard of undercover police officers pretending to be children in online chat rooms as they attempt to identify pedophiles. The assumption behind this strategy is that an adult can successfully manipulate perceptions of their gender and age on the internet. That may be helpful for catching pedophiles, but as a general rule it appears likely untrue.

New research demonstrates that it is quite possible to discern the age and gender of someone posing as a child online. Researchers cite a 2007 case where an alleged pedophile identified in online sting operations said he knew all along he was talking to a middle-aged man rather than a teenage girl and so he was simply role-playing. A jury acquitted him.

For the study in today’s blog, researchers divided 46 undergraduate and graduate students ranging in age from 18 to 38 years of age into two groups with the intent to have them lie about their gender and age in internet chats with each other. One group was told to pretend to be a 13 year old girl in the internet chat of up to 30 minutes that followed. Following the chat, all participants estimated the age and gender of their unknown chat partner.

None of those pretending to be a 13 year old girl was successful in the ruse. No one even thought they were 16 years old or less. When questioned about how they determined their internet chat partner was not a young teenage girl–reasons were given that had to do with both style of communication (i.e., language used, emoticons used, syntax and colloquialisms) and content of communication (i.e., chatting about football teams, shopping or television shows).

So how, say the researchers, can covert operatives become better liars? Likely by learning the content information their gender and age would be likely to know (and reading magazines and watching TV shows those girls would watch). Even better, though researchers imagine the “middle aged men who are covert operatives” would complain, they could practice chatting with adolescent females to observe content and style first-hand. In other words, being an impostor is not a job for an amateur.

When it comes to litigation advocacy, there are likely two ways this study is potentially useful.

First, if you are actually prosecuting someone caught in an internet sting operation–this research would say it’s a good defense for them to say they knew the ‘teenage girl’ with whom they were chatting was in reality, a balding, 45 year old man. This research says we simply are pretty good at intuiting gender and age of our chat partners (or we are not very good at pretending to be what we have not been for years or even ever). Conversely, if you are attempting to prosecute pedophiles through the use of internet chat-room impostors, you might want to assess the credibility of their ‘skills’ by validating their effectiveness in a blind study, to avoid the defense that resulted in the acquittal in 2007.

Second, it reminds us of a way to teach jurors about increasing their likelihood of identifying deception. Tell them to use more than one source of information. Not only the apparent credibility of the speaker (which is often linked to likability), but what does s/he say, how does s/he say it, and does the language used seem to fit the person speaking?

Generally speaking, we are not that good at identifying deception. While we have given you some ways to identify a psychopathic killer, in general, it simply isn’t that easy. But seemingly irrelevant research, like improving covert operatives performance in internet chat rooms, can often give you ideas for helping jurors ‘see’ deception more effectively than they might on their own.

Lincoln, R., & Coyle, IR (2012). No-one knows you’re a dog on the internet: Implications for proactive police investigation of sexual offenders. Psychiatry, Psychology and Law.

Image taken by Rita Handrich

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