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2022-03-05 03:35:21

In December 2021, Huang Pu’s friend received a stark online message from a complete stranger. It warned that several of her photographs, replete with numerous obscene remarks, had been shared without her consent in a pornographic chatroom on the social media app Telegram.

Sifting through the group’s chat log led Huang and her friend to something worse. Since September 2021, the same perpetrator had shared more than 400 photographs of her.

He didn’t stop with her. He had also shared images of his girlfriend, her roommates, and many other women. Many of these images came from the womens’ WeChat and QQ profiles, and some had been uploaded multiple times.

The group chat had more than 7,000 members, and obscene images and crude comments were commonplace. When uploading these stolen images, men also summarize their supposed relation to the victims — classmates, coworkers, or even lovers. The app is usually accessed in China using proxy services.

Sometimes, group members also uploaded screenshots of chat logs with the women to prove the circumstances in which they received the photos. Crass comments like “Scored!” or “Piece of cake” often accompanied such posts.

In addition to photos of pregnant women, women at their weddings, or women at work, Huang and her friend also found a few accounts that specifically shared photos of girls in junior high. They often featured students in classrooms, while in uniform; and those who shared them claimed to be teachers, leading other members to exclaim, “That’s got to be convenient!”

Such chatrooms continue to proliferate online despite a crackdown across China in 2020, following the infamous “Nth Room” case in South Korea, where dozens of young women, including minors, were sexually blackmailed, and had their recordings sold online.

The case sparked outrage in China, and eventually led to the country’s anti-pornography office shutting down several domestic websites that had been selling or otherwise distributing sexually explicit photos and videos.

In dark pockets of the web, however, such sites and chatrooms continue to flourish.

A screenshot shows photos shared by users. Beijing Youth Daily

A screenshot shows photos shared by users. Beijing Youth Daily

Group photo

In the Telegram chatroom, sharing photos of women without their consent was just the first insidious act that Huang and her friend stumbled onto. Certain members even egged others on to commit acts of sexual assault.

A user named “Puff” claimed that a woman in a photo he shared was his friend whom he frequently pressured into getting drunk. Other members encouraged him to take advantage of her.

Some did not share photos directly. Instead, they posted short summaries of specific women: who they are, what makes them special, and their relationship to the chat member. Those interested in a certain woman would send a private message asking for her picture.

It’s like a meat market. You express your interest and they’ll send you photos in a private chat.

“It’s like a meat market. You express your interest and they’ll send you photos in a private chat,” explains Huang. Once the person in question has sent the photo, they’ll continually hound the recipient to reply with a “group photo”: an image of the recipient in a lewd pose or masturbating to the original.

One member named Lukas even complained in the chatroom that the last time he sent someone a photo, the recipient couldn’t send him back a “group photo” because they claimed to only have one phone.

He ranted: “Everyone needs to have at least two phones — this should be included in the group rules.” And if someone accepts photos and refuses to send a “group photo” back, the sender will often take a screenshot and denounce them in the group as a freeloader or a mole.

The “touring brigade”

To obtain proof that her ex-boyfriend had taken intimate photos of her and uploaded them online without her consent, Ai infiltrated another chatroom on Telegram for several months: this one had more than 200,000 members.

With over 3,000 messages sent every day, if Ai left the screen for just a short while, she would have to spend a good 20 minutes catching up. This endless stream of pornographic images and degrading comments — including ones about her — left her shellshocked.

“In that world, they no longer care about anyone else — only about their own shameless pleasure,” she says.

Members consider their vulgar language a form of compliment towards women. One anonymous user said he believes women share photos of themselves to showcase their charm. According to him, whether or not they have charm is determined by how well they appeal to male fantasies.

Even when it comes to the most banal or wholesome images, group members have no shortage of twisted remarks. No matter how innocent a woman appears, they often end up finding some “evidence” that she’s secretly promiscuous.

To spread awareness about this phenomenon, Huang Pu, late in December, helped her friend share her experience on a public WeChat account. Her statement quickly drew several hundred thousand views. But within just two days, more than 500 people joined the very chatroom she complained about, claiming to be part of a “WeChat touring brigade.”

The sudden influx warned the Telegram chatroom members, created in February 2021, that the outside world had been alerted to their existence. Its leader, whom the members referred to as dalao (meaning a “big shot” or “head honcho”), vanished and deactivated his Twitter account, which had more than 50,000 followers.

Incidentally, the notorious chatroom originally gained so many members precisely because this dalao, according to a member of the chatroom who requested anonymity, had an abundance of “quality resources,” which he also shared on Twitter.

In response to the wave of outrage following its exposure, many members have been on the defensive: “What does it mean to ‘share without consent’? These women already made the choice to upload their photos to social media for all to see — where does it say that I’m not allowed to share them?” wrote one.

Others chose to leave the group immediately, sending farewells like “I’ll see you when I see you.”

Some just did not care. To them, it doesn’t matter that outsiders seethe and simmer. A few members have even expressed excitement at the exposure.

freegine/BBTree/VCG

freegine/BBTree/VCG

Too close to home

When uploading photos, the vast majority of members crop out any details that allow the woman to be identified, lest she is alerted to their behavior.

However, a tiny percentage of members specifically preserve the photo’s watermark or include the victim’s social media handles so other people can harass them. They request that people “send screenshots after they’re done trolling, to show how she responded.”

Bai joined similar groups on social media platforms because he “liked looking at pretty women.” Soon, he noticed many users sharing photos that women had taken in their everyday lives, often asking the community to “appraise them.”

This included making malicious assumptions about the women’s personal lives. For instance, the mere fact that a woman wore glasses would be interpreted as a sign that she was “easy” or uninhibited in bed.

On several occasions, Bai asserted that such comments were excessive and could potentially encourage men to commit acts of sexual violence, which provoked a slew of abuse from other members.

Stunned at the apathy, in February 2021, Bai began tracking down women whose photos were uploaded without their consent to tell them to keep an eye on people in their circle of friends. Many did not believe Bai, often suspecting that he was harassing them, until he sent screenshots of the chat logs.

Of the close to 70 women Bai has since contacted, the vast majority merely deleted the photos from their social media, or set their accounts to private. Having failed to track down the pervert in their midst, some women have had no recourse other than posting warnings on their social media accounts.

Only three women chose to file police reports after carrying out their own rigorous investigations. Many have thanked Bai, which gives him a sense of achievement, but most haven’t stayed in touch and he has no way of knowing how they’ve fared since. Occasionally, he visits their social media pages, but most have stopped posting online altogether.

College student Hao Si found out through a classmate that her photos from high school, as well as those of her classmates, had been shared on Twitter. The poster’s profile photo featured one of her high school friends. In the comments, the perpetrator and his followers discussed them in extremely offensive terms.

Soon, several students quickly reached out to one another and, after comparing their mutual friends on WeChat, turned their suspicions towards Wang, a male high school classmate.

Some students could hardly recall his name — at school, he couldn’t have been a less remarkable boy. On social media, he had attempted to curate a “sophisticated” image. “Every day, he was drinking tea, tasting expensive spirits, making Western dishes and studying art,” says Hao Si.

Huang Pu’s friend was among the dozens of women Bai had warned. Just like Hao Si, she too eventually tracked down the man who had harassed her in the Telegram chatroom. That he was a boy she knew and was friends with more than six years ago seemed “an absurd farce.”

He had the same username on WeChat and Telegram — a shortening of his real name — while his profile image was a photo of him and his current girlfriend, something many in the chatroom had derided as “beta behavior.”

To his friends, he was a mild-mannered postgraduate from an affluent background, who was preparing to test into a graduate program at a prestigious university. For his girlfriend, he was an “innocent dope.”

In just five months, he had shared more than 400 photos of six different women in the Telegram chatroom, among other online places.

Upon discovering this breach of trust, Huang’s friend was devastated. In her statement on WeChat, she recalled that, in their six-year friendship from high school to university, they had “shouldered one another through trials and tribulations, sharing joy and sorrow.”

DigitalVision/VCG

DigitalVision/VCG

Confrontation

When called out by Hao and several others, Wang first posted an apology on his WeChat profile. In the short post, he apologized nine times while regretting his “perverted and reprehensible” behavior.

However, he’d made this post invisible to the more than ten other women he’d harmed. Hao guessed that he’d perhaps intended to make the post visible only to them, but had chosen the wrong setting.

Wang then quickly added the women to a WeChat group and apologized to them personally, claiming that he had acted out of a sense of inferiority. Several of them had previously rejected him, while one was a “two-time victim.”

A few years ago, because they “were classmates and hadn’t even turned 20 yet,” she chose to forgive him. She didn’t think it was possible that he would do it again.

He kept saying sorry, telling me that he’d do whatever it took to make it up to me.

Ai, however, went to the police the moment she discovered her ex-boyfriend had shared intimate photos of her on social media platforms. “He kept saying sorry, telling me that he’d do whatever it took to make it up to me — even claiming he’d take his own life,” she says.

At the police station, her perpetrator’s parents knelt down in front of her, begging for forgiveness. Ai thought he’d never do it again, but a year later, her photos showed up again in chatrooms with thousands of members.

“He used them for his enjoyment in the most shameless ways,” discussing with other members “just how much money I was worth,” says Ai. He even considered sending the photos to some of Ai’s classmates.

He never explained his motives. Before the two had broken up, he had already shared intimate photos he’d taken of her without her consent. “In other words, his behavior had nothing to do with revenge,” she says.

Ai later found out that he’d even shared her contact details with strange men, encouraging them to harass her. “Truthfully, what he found exciting was the prospect of humiliating me,” says Ai.

Psychologist Pan Huimin explains that this is probably a cuckold fetish. “Any fetish is only permissible provided that it doesn’t cause harm,” she says.

d3sign/Moment/VCG

d3sign/Moment/VCG

Legal recourse

Huang initially couldn’t understand why, after filing a report with the police, her friend ultimately chose to settle things privately with the man who shared her photos.

The women usually don’t dare stand up for themselves.

In these chatrooms, people who share images are generally close to their victims and know their personal information. “So the women usually don’t dare stand up for themselves,” says Huang, with a sigh.

When she saw that men were again sharing and “posing” with her image in chatrooms, Ai went back to the police. She knew her ex was volatile and that, if she allowed this to go on, she would be in even more danger. “The fear of further humiliation was worse than the fear of possible retaliation,” she says.

But the police have their limitations. One woman says: “The police have had great difficulty resolving cases regarding this application [Telegram] as it is operated overseas.”

The first time Ai went to the police, her ex-boyfriend shut his Twitter account down and deleted his side of all conversations in the chatroom before they brought him in for questioning. The authorities said that, without proof, they simply didn’t have a case.

It’s among the prime reasons why many of these chatrooms migrated to Telegram, particularly after similar groups had been banned from QQ and Baidu, two Chinese platforms. They refer to Telegram as a “mothership that will never sink.”

The police rarely investigate cases involving the infringement of portrait rights or the invasion of privacy.

The second time around, Ai spent several months in the group gathering evidence before reporting her abuser to the police for “spreading obscene content.” However, the screenshots she’d collected didn’t meet the legal threshold of 50 images to build a case.

“Though police said they’d confiscated his phone and had restored its data, he was ultimately only detained for five days,” explains Ai’s lawyer.

Ai’s lawyer also told her that this was probably the most closure she’d get. “The police rarely investigate cases involving the infringement of portrait rights or the invasion of privacy. These cases are mostly filed as civil suits,” says Lü Xiaoquan, a lawyer at the Qianqian Law Firm in Beijing.

Such proceedings usually result in the defendant being required to undo the negative impact of their actions and provide compensation for the emotional distress they’ve caused.

Shijue/VCG

Shijue/VCG

Hidden

Following negotiations, the man who shared photos of Huang’s friend sent her compensation for “emotional distress,” along with a callous remark: “This should make things between us even.”

Though he said that he’d removed all of the information he’d posted, traces still linger online.

In addition to being saved and re-shared by other chatroom members, victims have also discovered that their intimate photos and videos were put behind paywalls on pornographic websites.

In the past few months, a woman whose photos were shared online without her consent has been harassed by more than 50 strangers. These men have sent her the photos of her they already have, and told her they want to pay for more “content.”

Though these unsolicited interactions have caused the woman much distress, she hasn’t found any solutions other than turning off the WeChat configuration that allows her to be added as a friend.

Initially, she couldn’t understand why anyone would steal her photos. She even wondered if it was her own fault. “There was nothing I could do. I had no alternative but to pretend that it had never happened — to numb myself,” she says.

Upon being released after five days in jail, Ai’s ex-boyfriend is active online, again. He’s been liking photos of her on Twitter.

Ai says she feels like she’s drowning — she has no way to breathe, nothing to cling onto; the more she struggles, the deeper she sinks. Meanwhile, her perpetrator has found a new girlfriend and is busy with his studies, as if the whole thing had never occurred.

Recently, media exposure has led many to infiltrate the chatroom Huang mentioned, and its former leader’s departure has caused an explosive influx of spam.

Members grumble that “the group has been ruined.” They’ve begun to share links to other groups and invite each other to new chatrooms. Now that a light has been cast on this dark pocket of the web, more than 7,000 of its members have fled the shipwreck, in search of a new safe haven.

To protect interviewees’ privacy, Beijing Youth Daily has given them all pseudonyms.

A version of this article originally appeared in Beijing Youth Daily. It has been translated and edited for brevity and clarity, and published with permission.

Translator: Lewis Wright; editors: Zhi Yu and Apurva.

(Header image: mm-studio/Vectorstock/VCG)