Alicia O'Sullivan woke up last Thursday week to more than 100 messages on her phone. They were from "friends, family and followers on Instagram, people I hadn't spoken to in years". Immediately, "there was a feeling of anxiety and distress in the pit of my stomach. And then when the screenshots started to come in, it went from bad to horrific."
“I hate to be the bearer of bad news Alicia, but it looks like someone’s after making a fake account about you,” one of the messages read.
Somebody, she discovered, had taken her photos from Instagram and created a new Instagram account in her name without her permission. But it was worse than that. “On top of my posting my own photos, they were putting up photos of girls nude from the neck down, so you weren’t able to see the face. And the insinuation was they were my photos, which they weren’t. The illicit photos weren’t mine.” Some of the photos had a caption “saying ‘join me, subscribe to my account’ with a link to an adult content account.
Under one photograph of a semi-naked woman whose face is not visible, the caption reads, “Are you ready for me tonight? Watch out to my AdmiremeVIP page for my surprise content.” Admireme.vip is an 18+ subscription-only website, which describes itself as “a platform for VIPs to share their most intimate and secret content”.
O’Sullivan (19), a law student at UCC, immediately made an application to Instagram to have the page taken down on the grounds that someone was impersonating her. It was gone by the end of the day, which she believes is not always the case, and she got her own page back 48 hours later. She posted about her experience on Twitter and her genuine Instagram account, and when she heard from a number of other young women who had had similar experiences, she decided to report it to the Garda.
“There seems to be a targeting of young women to try and sell whatever they’re trying to sell,” she says. She decided to make a complaint, “just so it’s been noted. I’m a rational person and understood there may be nothing they can do.”
But the response she received from the gardaí she initially spoke to compounded what was already a distressing situation.
“To say the experience was horrific is an unjust understatement. The conversation wasn’t about the account. [The guards] didn’t ask to see the pictures of the account, they didn’t ask the username on the account, they asked nothing about details of what was in the pictures. The conversation was more about me, my person, what sort of photos I post. It was stated [to me], ‘Well, you shouldn’t post photos on your account with 4,000-plus followers if you don’t want them getting out.’ And I was like, ‘What does that mean? I don’t have any provocative photos on my account – and even if I did, why does it matter?’”
She sought advice from one of her law professors
After that, O'Sullivan felt "it's not about me anymore. If this targeting of young women to sell pornographic or abusive content is happening", then gardaí need to be better trained in how to deal with it, she believes. So she sought advice from one of her law professors, Louise Crowley at UCC, and learned that what happened to her may be a criminal offence under the Harassment, Harmful Communications and Related Offences Act of 2020, known as Coco's Law.
Section 1 of the Act extends the definition of an “intimate image” to include one that “is, or purports to be the person’s genitals, buttocks, or anal region . . . or breasts . . . in which the person is nude.” Under section 2, distributing such intimate images without consent is a criminal offence punishable by a fine and up to seven years’ imprisonment.
Armed with this information, she made four further phone calls to gardaí in Cork city, Bandon and Clonakilty. She felt “nobody was sure” how to handle the complaint, until she finally got through to someone who did seem to understand exactly what had happened to her. She returned last Saturday to make a statement to two investigators from the Divisional Protected Services Unit, and believes that what happened to her “is being treated with the seriousness it deserves . . . That’s what should have happened from day one.” To have to explain her complaint repeatedly “it’s so unnecessary and stupid and distressing”, she says.
A Garda statement confirmed that “an injured party had contact with staff from the Divisional Protected Services Unit (Clonakilty) on Friday 9th April and met with investigators from the DPSU at Skibbereen Garda station on Saturday 10th April”. As it is an ongoing investigation, the Garda could make no further comment.
Claiming to be another person on Instagram (which is owned by Facebook) violates Facebook's community guidelines. "We have a dedicated team that’s tasked with detecting and blocking these kinds of scams," a spokesperson for Facebook said. Artificial intelligence and machine learning are used to proactively detect bad content before anyone reports it, and automated abuse prevention tools can proactively detect and block fake profiles created to pretend to be women.
"Clearly an offence has been committed where an intimate image has been distributed without [a person's] consent of what is her, or purports to be her. That's an offence under Coco's Law," says Labour Senator Ivana Bacik, whose party first introduced the Bill which came into force earlier this year. The law is named after 21-year-old Nicole Fox, who died in 2018 following years of online bullying.
The emphasis now needs to move on to training and enforcement, Bacik believes. “The first thing is to reassure young women that this is now criminalised.”
Beyond that, “guards on the front desk need better training. This is a long-standing problem where sexual crimes are concerned. We need to have frontline gardaí trained in human empathy. And, secondly, we need specialist training for those who take the statements that will go on to form the investigation” of alleged crimes committed under Coco’s Law.
Having learned about O’Sullivan’s experience, Bacik intends to raise the issue in the Seanad of the need for a publicly funded campaign of awareness. “The whole point of Coco’s Law was never just about providing a sanction. It was about seeking to prevent [these crimes] and change attitudes.”
Social media companies have a bigger role to play
O'Sullivan has since formed a campaign group, Safety Over Stigma, involving more than 30 people, some who have also been targeted in this kind of scam. She plans to campaign for better training of gardaí; the education of young people on online behaviour and digital literacy; and to lobby social media companies to take more responsibility for what people are allowed to post on their platforms. "Social media companies have a bigger role to play. The fact that anyone can just log in with an email and a password and do and say what they like, that's dangerous."
The Garda has urged people who believe they have been victims of crimes including harassment, coercive control or stalking to report it and to keep a record.
Asked about training for gardaí on the enforcement of the new legislation, a spokeswoman said: “There are currently 27 divisional protective service units operational, at least one DPSU in operation within every Garda division. Approximately 320 personnel are assigned to DPSUs . . . Personnel assigned to DPSUs have been provided with a bespoke training course consisting of a number of modules addressing issues such as investigation of sexual crime.”
One of the first people O'Sullivan went to for advice was her friend and fellow UCC student Harry McCann, who is founder of the Digital Youth Council. He believes this type of abuse is becoming more frequent. "It's usually the same thing. Somebody's Instagram is virtually copied." The accounts targeted "typically [feature] girls in gym gear, in bikinis, dressed for a night out. [The criminals] replicate their images, they re-follow people they follow, and they share a suspicious link in the bio trying to sell something – usually pornography." He suspects the perpetrators "aren't based in Ireland".
The victims are young and may be less inclined to follow through with a complaint, feeling that they won’t be taken seriously, he suggests. O’Sullivan “did what nobody else does and went to the guards”.
The fear is that somebody looks at that before a job interview
McCann believes that this type of crime “is the same as somebody walking around and pretending to be you. It is damaging from a reputational point of view. Somebody’s online profile is a part of who they are. The fear is that somebody looks at that before a job interview, and they see a profile attached to you with pornographic images and links – there’s reputational damage there.”
O’Sullivan has written to the Taoiseach, Minister for Justice and Minister for Communications on behalf of her newly formed group, highlighting her experience and the way it was handled by gardaí.
She wrote: "In the year 2021, I hoped as a young woman growing up in Ireland and watching the country progress on issues like this that we were past . . . victim blaming."