Editor's Note: This is the first part of a two-part series on cyberbullying. Part two can be found here.
Bullied incessantly, she went online. But even in a cyberhaven where identities can be rewritten, trouble found Amanda Todd.
While the teenager's schoolyard bullies taunted and even assaulted her in person, their online counterparts were more methodical, preying on her vulnerability. It is a difference that shines a light into the darkest corners of the Internet, where sexual predators hide in plain sight, bolstered by a cloak of seeming anonymity.
Among the websites Amanda frequented was blogTV, a video-chat community where strangers mingle and high-school reputations don't exist. Some members broadcast themselves singing or playing music while others do how-to tutorials or talk about current events. Broadcast categories on the site, which is skewed toward a younger demographic, include music, comedy, sports and entertainment.
Whereas on sites like YouTube and Ustream Amanda posted recorded videos of herself, on blogTV she spoke with others live, trying to develop the relationships she wasn't able to at school. The site prohibits nudity and sexual content, though offenders usually have a small window before they are discovered and banned. The site lowered its age restriction to 13 from 16 in 2008.
While blogTV is a carefully moderated video-chat site, the Daily Capper is a community that targets girls just like Amanda. Named after its members' chief goal of taking incriminating screen caps of unsuspecting chat partners, the group is known to lurk in video-chat communities – such as blogTV, Tinychat and Stickam – and engage young girls by plying them with compliments.
From there, a small group take it even further, using any incriminating images they may have obtained to then blackmail their victims into showing and doing more. Flashing, among cappers, is often referred to as "showing."
Every year, the Daily Capper hosts a twisted online "award ceremony," emblematized with a golden webcam. In a crude YouTube video resembling an animated newscast, awards are handed out in categories such as "best blackmailer'; "cam whore of the year"; and "capper of the year." In 2010, someone with the screen name Kody1206 was nominated for "blackmailer of the year" – for his dealings with a young girl who is not Amanda – while someone with the screen name Viper2323 was nominated for "most annoying."
While Amanda was never referenced in that video, she was briefly mentioned in another Daily Capper video update. As images of Amanda appeared on screen, the animated newscaster in the December, 2010, video claimed the teen, who "has been talked about this week," said she had recently been banned from blogTV for "showing."
In her final YouTube video, Amanda told of being in just such a predicament: In Grade 7, she would go on webcam to meet and talk with new people. After being called "stunning, beautiful, perfect, etc.," she was asked to flash and she complied.
"1 year later I got a msg on facebook from him … don't know how he knew me," she wrote on cards. "It said … if you don't put on a show for me I will send ur boobs. He knew my adress (sic), school, relatives, friends, family names." An image circulating online apparently of Amanda lifting her shirt bears an on-screen blogTV graphic in the upper right-hand corner.
Patrick McGuire, Toronto-based managing editor and writer for Vice magazine, says the disturbing connection highlights the seedy subculture within video-chat communities where sexual extortionists hide in plain sight.
"From what I have observed ... these guys have figured out a really easy system of basically conning these girls into doing what they want," said Mr. McGuire, who has researched the subculture extensively for his ongoing coverage. "If you watch the Amanda Todd video, she talks about these guys telling her she's perfect and beautiful and pretty. That seems to be the first step into getting these girls' trust. They befriend them with the sole malicious purpose of getting them to do what they want."
While the video-chat sites have a mix of males and females speaking on a range of subjects, those targeted by the Daily Capper are young girls appearing to seek attention and, perhaps, validation.
Mr. McGuire called it alarming that Amanda appeared to be only a blip on the community's radar.
"To dive into the world of the people that were (seemingly) tormenting her, and to realize that in the grand scheme of things, she didn't even mean that much (to them), that has a lot of gravity."
Days after Amanda's suicide, the hacktivist group Anonymous released the personal contact information for a Lower Mainland man with the screen name Kody1206, whom it believed to be her blackmailer. While the age and address didn't appear to be accurate, a man with a similar name does have an outstanding file in Surrey Provincial Court for sexual assault and sexual interference of a person under 16 in offences that do not relate to Amanda. As well, a person with that screen name has tweeted from the Lower Mainland – and about video chat rooms. When approached by a reporter, the accused said he knew Amanda but was her friend. He, in turn, fingered the American man with the screen name Viper.
To date, police have neither confirmed nor denied Kody1206's connection to Amanda Todd, saying only it is "unfounded."
First of a two-part series
Part two: What can be done about what's happening in these video chat communities? What is the conversation parents should be having with their children? We speak to the experts.