Editor’s note: A previous version of this article contained an image that did not meet our editorial standards. We’ve updated the story.
Amanda Todd left haunting traces of the online life that would led to her exploitation, abuse, and ultimate suicide. And it was all so painfully predictable.
According to multiple accounts, Todd was a regular user of BlogTV, a live video chat site frequented by teens and where, about three years ago, she flashed her breasts on camera. She was only 12 years old. It was an innocent mistake.
Unbeknownst to Todd, someone had taken a screen grab of that moment. A year later, he contacted her on Facebook, threatening to distribute the images to her friends and family unless she performed more explicit acts on camera. When she refused, the blackmailer made good on his threats.
It was the beginning of a two-year ordeal in bullying and harassment. Todd committed suicide on Oct. 10. She was 15.
Maybe Todd knew that people could record everything that happened on BlogTV, maybe she didn’t. But she probably couldn’t have guessed that someone would use that moment to ruin her life. And she almost certainly didn’t know that blackmailing teens on sites like BlogTV is an all-too-common experience.
In February, a 14-year-old Michigan boy visited an “unnamed video chat site” and flashed his penis for the camera. Much like Todd, he probably didn’t know someone was recording the event. But later a man showed him a screen grab of the moment, showing the boy’s face. He threatened to share the photograph with gay porn sites unless the boy conceded to his demands to “play.”
“it’s simple if u do what ur told the vid will NEVER b seen by anyone but me if not it will be,” the man wrote. “ill add your name and email so if anyone googles u they will see ur video. So u wanna play or b a famous gay porn star?”
ArsTechnica reported what happened next:
The boy felt he had no choice. When the man ordered him to dance around the room and remove his clothes, he did so. When the man ordered him to masturbate, he did so. When the man ordered him to lick his own ejaculate, he did so. The man then told him to show up the next day for another session.
That session was “even more depraved than the last,” Ars Technica wrote. And, of course, the man was still filming everything. Now he demanded the boy bring a friend and that they perform oral sex on one another.
The boy broke down in hysterics in front of his brother, and they told their parents. The police were called. Soon enough they’d zeroed in on 39-year-old Richard Leon Finkbiner of Brazil, Ind. When the police sat him down to ask him about the crime, he confessed: He’d blackmailed 100 children in the exact same way.
BlogTV and sites like it have created an entire Web ecosystem of teen video bloggers and fans who record their every move using screen grabbing, or capping, programs. They call themselves “cappers.” Back in 2010, this capper community was big enough to spawn its own news show—”The Daily Capper”—a cheaply animated YouTube series narrated by a creepy, computer-generated voice.
It’s not hard to imagine what makes a site like BlogTV so appealing to kids growing up in a society obsessed with stardom, where people and entire families become rich and famous solely for having their faces plastered across our TV screens. Mix that in with the hormonal haze of puberty and you have recipe for disaster.
BlogTV’s success is highly dependent on this appeal to young people—among BlogTV’s 2.5 million monthly visitors, men aged 18-24 are highly overrepresented compared to the Internet at large, according to Web data firm Alexa. The company doesn’t track users younger than 18.
The site features a section specifically targeting children. The ostensible reason for the section is clearly to protect children, but does it in fact put them at even greater risk?
The “junior” section, which features prominently on the homepage, limits participants to only those aged 13-15. But the site’s security amounts to a simple trust system. If you tell BlogTV you are 13 years old, BlogTV believes you.
A screaming yellow warning post greets visitors to the juniors section, with no less than five points admonishing kids to be careful (as if a warning has ever stopped teens from making bad decisions).
”All blogTV junior members … must be fully clothed at all times!” the post warns.
“REMEMBER that people can record you or take screen shots of you at ANY TIME! So, NEVER do anything sexual on camera for anyone, no matter what! You do not know where these pictures or videos may end up!”
Whatever the intention, the section is in fact a funnel, pushing all the kids on the site into one easy-to-find space—a great big target that may as well read “kids here” in flashing neon lights.
BlogTV moderators ban teens who engage in explicit acts as soon as they learn about them. But it’s still hard to imagine a site with a more ideal structure for enabling sexual predators. Indeed, pedophiles and blackmailers prowling the “junior” section on BlogTV has been well-chronicled.
The blog Let’s Talk Blog TV recounted a four-hour session in 2009 where a chat room egged on a group of teenage girls to perform sexual acts for the camera. It was “more like a version of Romper Room for pedophiles,” the blog’s author wrote. According to the same site, on multiple occasions children—sometimes scantily clad—have featured prominently on the site’s home page.
In another instance, also in 2009, a young girl held the number one spot on the site for over an hour as she stripped for the camera. “Where are the mods today?” the author wrote.
In 2010, around the time Todd was first blackmailed, a Los Angeles local news broadcast dug into alleged instances of child abuse on video blogging sites, including BlogTV.
Multiple episodes of The Daily Capper, meanwhile, have reported on blackmailers in the capping community, who operate similarly to the ones who took advantage of Todd and that 14-year-old boy in Michigan.
Was BlogTV the place where Amanda Todd first exposed herself to the future blackmailer? She almost certainly was a user. Eerily, someone who appears to be Todd featured in two Daily Capper videos, one of which may hint at the perverse mind of Todd’s stalker. According to the narrator:
A mysterious BlogTV girl named Amanda is said to flash her tits randomly at low view counts when she “feels horny.” She flashed twice this Thursday, the second one when she had over 90 viewers. Her account, which is named b33 has lasted for over a year and according to the stats she has over 33 live shows under belt … After she got off BlogTV chatters voiced their suspicions that Amanda was actually a video loop. Her repetitive unvaried movements and lack of sound certainly seem to support that suspicion. As does the fact that she disconnected before the chat, as one would do when one was changing from one loop to another. [Emphasis added]
Was it Todd on camera, or her blackmailer playing a robotic, sadistic game of shaming and punishment?
The Daily Dot reached out to BlogTV for comment, but did not hear back. If you have any information about Todd’s blackmailer, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police are asking you to send tips to amandaTODDinfo@rcmp-grc.gc.ca.
Photo via DailyCapper/YouTube