Dan Murrell
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The super-recognisers of Scotland Yard

How an elite police unit is catching some of London’s most prolific criminals.

A successful thief sets his own rules and the best ones live by them. These were some of Jimmy McNulty’s: target luxury stores only, dress as smartly as the wealthiest customer, engage and charm the salespeople if approached. Never rush, never panic, and always trust in your powers of sleight of hand.

Here he is at 12.59pm on 28 September 2013, ringing the bell of the Leica Store in Mayfair, where cameras sell for thousands of pounds. He is 40 years old, with short, dark hair and of athletic build – McNulty is the name given to him by a Metropolitan Police detective who saw a resemblance to Dominic West’s character in the television series The Wire. He wears a pink dress shirt, a dark cardigan and jacket, smart shoes. Under his arm is a wad of papers. McNulty picks up a camera, and then a pair of binoculars, carefully appraising them. Two store assistants stand a few metres away. When they turn their backs, he slips the camera inside his jacket. He asks to be let out and casually strolls away.

This is McNulty again at 4.39pm on 18 October 2014, sitting at a table in Buy Fine Diamonds, a retailer in Hatton Garden, London’s jewellery district. A salesman lays out a selection of bracelets. McNulty uses a jeweller’s loupe to examine several items. When the salesman stands up to retrieve a piece from a window display, McNulty strikes, pincering a bracelet and dropping it into his pocket. The salesman returns and from under his nose McNulty lifts another bracelet into his palm and closes his fist.

Now here he is at 6.27pm on 13 May 2015 at the Hackett clothing store on Regent Street, Piccadilly. After slipping a few leather accessories into his sleeveless jacket, McNulty picks up a pair of shoes from a display, walks to an empty sales counter and stuffs them down the front of his trousers.

That was his favourite place to hide stolen goods: merino wool jumpers, cashmere scarves, fancy shirts and wallets disappeared below his belt. He hit Salvatore Ferragamo on Sloane Street, Smythson on New Bond Street, Aquascutum on the Brompton Road, Alfred Dunhill on Jermyn Street, Ede & Ravenscroft – the oldest tailor in London – on Chancery Lane. Boutiques in Islington, galleries on the Portobello Road, the Space NK and Jo Malone cosmetics shops. At Linda Farrow, an eyewear shop in Mayfair, he slipped a pair of sunglasses into his jacket and then, as if it were a game, asked the assistant for a business card.

McNulty had a rule for closed-circuit ­television cameras, too: ignore them. More than 400,000 CCTV cameras watch over London and most upmarket shops have them. But McNulty knew they were used mostly as deterrents. Even if the footage was sent to the police, at best he’d be fingered for a single crime, he thought. Unless, of course, they recognised him as a serial ­offender and found out his real name. What were the chances of that?

***

Since the 19th century, doctors have known that some patients who suffer brain trauma lose the ability to recognise faces, a condition known as acquired prosopagnosia (from the Greek prosopon, “face”, and agnosia, “not knowing”). In the 1970s scientists discovered that a congenital form of the disorder affects a much wider segment of the population – ordinary functioning people who have never experienced head injuries and have perfect vision.

Studies suggest that two out of every 100  people have developmental prosopagnosia, meaning they have great difficulty recognising faces, sometimes even their own in the mirror. To identify someone familiar, a face-blind person relies on clues such as voice, gait, posture or unusual facial characteristics.

Among the best-known prosopagnosics was the late doctor and author Oliver Sacks, who became aware of his bewildering predicament as a schoolboy in London. He learned to pick out his best friends, Eric Korn and Jonathan Miller, by their ­specific features. “Eric had heavy eyebrows and thick spectacles, and Jonathan was tall and gangly, with a mop of red hair,” Sacks wrote in the New Yorker. When he looked at old photographs a decade after leaving school, Sacks could not identify a single classmate. Stephen Fry and Jane Goodall are other well-known sufferers of the disorder, which is associated with lesions in a part of the brain known as the fusiform gyrus.

In 2009 a trio of researchers led by Richard Russell published the results of their study, which aimed to determine if there was a third group of people when it came to face recognition, whose problem (or rather talent) was that they struggled to forget a face. Russell, a psychologist who was then based at Harvard, tested four people claiming to have superior face recognition abilities, including a 26-year-old female student who told him: “It doesn’t matter how many years pass. If I’ve seen your face before, I will be able to recall it.” Russell set his subjects and a larger control group two tasks, involving famous faces and unfamiliar faces. In both, the test group performed “far above average”, leading Russell to coin the term “super-recognisers”. “In both face recognition and face perception, the super-recognisers are about as good as many dev­elopmental prosopagnosics are bad,” he and his colleagues wrote.

Around the same time, Detective Chief Inspector Mick Neville of the London Metropolitan Police was reaching his own conclusions about people with an exceptional ability to recognise faces. In 2007, Neville had set up a unit to collate and circulate images of unidentified criminals captured on CCTV. Officers were asked to check the Met’s “Caught on Camera” notices to see if they knew any of the suspects. “It became apparent that some officers were much better than others,” Neville told me. “For example, if I received 100 names, some officers would have submitted ten or 15, while in the main they were one-off identifications.”

At first, Neville assumed that the prolific officers simply knew more criminals than the rest. Then he realised that it had more to do with their ability to remember faces: the best identifiers could spot a suspect they had never met merely after viewing a photograph of them.

In early 2011, he discussed his findings at a conference attended by Josh Davis, a psychologist at the University of Greenwich. For his PhD, Davis had studied the use of CCTV identification in court proceedings. “Most of my research had shown that people were not very good at face-matching,” Davis told me one recent morning when we met at a cafeteria on campus. “So I was suspicious of the police claims.”

He agreed to test the facial recognition skills of 20 officers who excelled at Caught on Camera identifications. To Davis’s surprise, most of them scored much better than the norm, and a few were exceptional.

That August, the London riots broke out. Met officers trawled through tens of thousands of hours of CCTV footage, ­identifying 609 suspects responsible for looting, arson and other criminal acts. One officer, PC Gary Collins, made 180 identifications, including that of one of the most high-profile suspects, who had thrown petrol bombs at police and set cars on fire. During the riots, the man covered his mouth and nose with a bandana and pulled a beanie low over his forehead. Collins recognised him as a criminal whom he had last seen several years earlier. The man was convicted and sentenced to six years in prison.

Now convinced of the super-recogniser theory, Neville assembled a standby team of 150 officers who excelled at identification. Over the next few years, as McNulty was slipping jewels into his pockets and stuffing luxury shoes into his trousers, the officers were deployed in high-profile investigations, including the Hillsborough inquest and the Alice Gross murder.

Gross, a 14-year-old girl from west London, went missing as she walked along a canal towpath in August 2014. The Met operation to find her was the biggest since the London 7 July 2005 bombings. But it was only after ten of Neville’s super-recognisers were brought in to the investigation that her body was discovered in the River Brent.

The team zeroed in on one of the suspects, a Latvian construction worker called Arnis Zalkalns, whose wife had reported him missing a few days after Gross disappeared. A CCTV clip showed Zalkalns cycling along the canal 12 minutes behind Gross. In footage from an off-licence later in the day, the officers recognised Zalkalns, who was buying a few Carlsbergs, and council cameras captured him cycling back to a particular spot on the River Brent at dusk. At his next sighting in a shop, later in the evening, he was wearing fresh clothes. The super-recognisers suspected that Zalkalns had changed because he had been back to the crime scene. They informed the officer in charge, who ordered a fresh search of the stretch of river­bank where they had seen Zalkalns – and Gross’s carefully concealed body was found.

***

On May 2015, the Super-Recogniser Unit was established at New Scotland Yard, the first – and still the only – dedicated team of its kind in the world. Initially it comprised four officers whose skills had been tested by Josh Davis and who were seconded from elsewhere in the force. (The unit now has six men and one woman.)

Detective Sergeant Eliot Porritt, who had worked on the Alice Gross murder, was the most senior recruit. A 36-year-old former plain-clothes officer from north London, Porritt had been largely unaware of his superior face recognition skills until a few years ago. “As a boy, I watched The Terminator and Aliens with my father, who worked for Billboard and Hollywood Reporter magazines. I now remember him being amazed when I noticed that an actor – Bill Paxton – was in both films, even though he looked different in each role,” Porritt told me. “But I didn’t think too much of it at the time. I assumed everybody saw what I saw.”

The main function of the super-recogniser officers was to attend large events, such as music concerts and the Notting Hill Carnival, and spot criminals there. In their downtime, they were tasked with trawling through the Met’s forensic image database, which holds more than 100,000 stills of unidentified suspects captured on CCTV camera or on mobile phones in London since 2011. Each picture is linked to an unsolved crime – in essence, a cold case – and is tagged with the date, location and type of offence, along with the suspect’s distinguishing features, such as race and hairstyle.

As they scrolled through the images, the officers first checked whether they recognised anyone from their time on the streets or previous Caught on Camera appeals. The next challenge was to link suspects involved in multiple crimes, using their powers of recall and recognition to match images – a process they called “snapping”.

“Basically we’re saying, ‘This guy and that guy in those two pictures are the same person – snap!’” Porritt told me when I visited the Super-Recogniser Unit one after­noon. “And you’ve got two strands to it: the people we already know and who we try to link with as many crimes as possible; and people who we don’t know but who we still link and then try to identify.”

It was difficult, painstaking work: the images were often grainy, the lighting poor and camera angles awkward. Furthermore, a criminal’s appearance could change over time. But if snapping led to an arrest it would be worth it: a person charged with multiple crimes was likely to be sent to prison rather than receiving a suspended sentence and being left free to reoffend.

In early August 2015 one of Porritt’s junior colleagues (who asked for his name to be withheld) was looking at CCTV images from the borough of Kensington and Chelsea, where he had worked as a beat cop. The officer noticed the same, smartly dressed thief – the man the team later nicknamed McNulty – in two stills taken in upmarket shops. Snap. Then another, and another – snap, snap. As he broadened his search to other affluent boroughs of London, the officer kept seeing the same face. He printed out the images of the serial shoplifter and tacked them to a wall in the office. He told me: “When I had 13 or 14 crimes, I said to Eliot, ‘There’s £35,000 worth of goods stolen by this guy. We need to do something.’”

They downloaded the CCTV clips from where the stills had been taken. McNulty’s hands were so fast that in some cases the officers had to slow the footage down to ascertain exactly when the theft had occurred.

“I hate using the words ‘talented’ or ‘good’ for a criminal, when they could be so many better things, like a street magician or a dextrous watchmaker,” said Porritt. “But when we watched him [McNulty], it was like: ‘That’s good.’”

Porritt sent out a media appeal and the London Evening Standard published a story about the “sleight-of-hand thief”. Through tip-offs, the police learned that the man’s first name was Austin. Porritt’s colleague keyed the name in to the Met’s custody image database, which stores mugshots of everyone arrested in the capital. There were 73 Austins. Number 14 looked familiar. “I think I’ve got him!” the officer shouted.

Jimmy McNulty was Austin Caballero, a born-and-bred Londoner. He was on the arrests database because he had been caught stealing an expensive rug in January 2015, but the police, unaware of his other crimes, had freed him on bail. He skipped his court hearing. There was a bail address but when Porritt and his colleague knocked on the door, there was no sign of the thief. Caballero was on the run.

By then, it was clear that the task of searching the database should be the primary focus of the Super-Recogniser Unit, not just something to do in quiet times. The team had identified, apprehended and charged dozens of suspects, from shoplifters to commercial burglars and perpetrators of assaults. (Three in every four of the unit’s completed cases have resulted in a suspect being charged in court – against fewer than one in five cases in the wider Met force.)

The super-recognisers had also assisted other units struggling to close cases. Police in north London had obtained CCTV images of a man accused of sexually assaulting women on buses but were unable to identify him. Porritt and his colleague Alison Young used Oyster card data to map out the suspect’s travel patterns and noticed that he often began his journey at Camden Road Overground station. One afternoon, they went there to make inquiries. While on the concourse, Young, by chance, spotted the suspect – whom she had only seen in CCTV stills – passing through. “Oh, my God, Porritt, that’s him,” she exclaimed. They ran ­after the man and slapped on handcuffs. (The sexual offender pleaded guilty in court and was convicted.)

By the end of 2015, the team had much to celebrate. Yet there was frustration, too: the unit’s most high-profile target was still at large. The tally of offences linked to Caballero, rising by the week, stood at 42.

***

At 2am on New Year’s Day, Caballero ordered a taxi. He was out of cigarettes and did not feel like walking to the shop. On the way home, he tried to jump out of the cab to avoid paying the £5 fare. When the driver locked the doors, Caballero hit him with his shoe. The driver called the police, who arrested Caballero and took him to Holborn Police Station. “New Year’s Day is the worst shift you can possibly work,” Porritt said. “Holborn was absolutely manic, with prisoners all over the place, chaos.”

Caballero gave his name as Jack Donaghy and claimed never to have been arrested before. He was charged for the assault and bailed. One of London’s most wanted men in terms of numbers of crimes – involving stolen goods worth more than £100,000 – was about to walk free.

Just before he could do so, the custody sergeant noticed the red hand that appears on the police computer screen when the person booked has not been fingerprinted. Caballero tried one last ruse, saying that he had to rush home to be with his children. It failed. When his prints were scanned, his real identity was revealed.

At 10am that morning the super-recog­niser team was notified. Porritt drove straight to New Scotland Yard to write up the case summary for the police lawyer. “It was longer than my dissertation at university!” he told me. Meanwhile, in the interview room at Holborn Police Station, his super-recogniser colleague James Rabbett showed the suspect the poster that the unit had made using CCTV images of his crimes. “Caballero was gobsmacked,” Rabbett told me. “He then got a bit arsey, saying, ‘I’m not speaking to you until I’ve had a cigarette, I’m getting out of here, you can’t do this to me.’ And then it was: ‘Yeah, it’s gonna be a full hands-up. Let’s get it done.’”

When formal questioning started, Caballero gave his name and date of birth, then smiled, put his head on the desk, and refused to talk. Based on Porritt’s evidence, the police lawyer agreed that Caballero should be charged with 42 crimes.

Word of the Super-Recogniser Unit’s success was spreading. In January, Porritt flew to Cologne to advise German police investigating the mass sexual assaults that had occurred in the city on New Year’s Eve. Enforcement agencies as far afield as India, Australia and the United States – as well as other parts of the UK – visited the unit or ­requested information on its methods.

One of the most common questions asked of the team is whether computers will put the super-recognisers out of a job. After all, some countries, including the UK, already use facial recognition technology at passport control. Porritt’s unit has its own software but this has been responsible for only one of the 2,010 identifications made since May 2015. DCI Mick Neville reckons that it will be ten to 20 years before software is advanced enough to be a useful tool, and even then super-recognisers will still be needed to analyse the results and identify the suspects.

Josh Davis, the University of Greenwich lecturer, agrees. “Algorithms will get better and we will be able to build 3D representations of faces. But people change appearance and we as humans are primed to see through those changes.”

Meanwhile, studies into the science ­behind super-recognition continue. Anna Bobak, a research fellow of the Centre for Face Processing Disorders at Bournemouth University, said that the exceptional ability to identify faces has a strong genetic component and that efforts to train people to be better recognisers had yielded mixed results.

In her experiments, Bobak found that whereas most people concentrate on a person’s eye region when looking at them, super-recognisers often focus on the centre of the face, around the nose. “That’s not to say that the nose is important, but more that people can perceive the whole face better,” Bobak told me.

***

On 1 April, Austin Caballero appeared at Blackfriars Crown Court and pleaded guilty to 42 charges. He was convicted and sentenced to three years and nine months in prison. Weeks later, his name still featured in the whiteboard list of “top ten serial offenders” in room 901 at Scotland Yard – and the number of his crimes was rising. For even though Caballero was now behind bars, his old thefts, caught on camera, were still being solved. 

Xan Rice is Features Editor at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 28 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double Issue

Mike Lombardo via @moreMiLo
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“I was almost brainwashed by him”: How male YouTubers get away with preying on young fans

A multitude of YouTube stars have been accused of taking advantage of young fans, but little is being done to tackle the problem.

In June, a 24-year-old YouTuber named Austin Jones was charged with two counts of producing images of child abuse. Court documents allege that the internet personality – who has more than half a million subscribers to his YouTube channel – solicited explicit videos from two of his young female fans. According to the criminal complaint, Jones asked one of the teenage girls – known only as Victim B – to dance for him, and said: “Bounce again and smile at the camera while you bounce. And while you bounce, say ‘I’m only 14’ 3 times throughout the video.” Jones has been released on bail and is awaiting trial. Jones’ attorney Gerardo Solon Gutierrez points out that the singer is “innocent until proven guilty”.

A few weeks later, a YouTuber known as Durte Dom was accused of filming a 15-year-old girl from behind while she danced at a party, without her consent. “He filmed my ass dancing,” the girl wrote anonymously on Twitter. Dom responded to the allegations via the social network, writing: “the party was 18+, the girl snuck in. don't fool yourself.” He says he will now “start having people sign release forms” before he films them.

These allegations are not isolated. In 2014, a Tumblr user called Olga accused the YouTuber Tom Milsom of coercing her into sexual activities when she was 15 and he was 21. Milsom did not comment publicly on the accusations and was never charged. Only a month earlier, a YouTube musician, Mike Lombardo, was jailed for five years on child pornography charges after soliciting explicit photographs and videos from 11 of his underage fans. 

These events set off a series of other allegations. Vlogger Alex Day admitted to having “manipulative relationships with women” after 14 women and teenage girls accused him of manipulation and abuse. One anonymous 15-year-old wrote on Tumblr that Day had sex with her knowing she was underage and “didn’t listen to me when I asked to stop”. Day denied any sexual relations with underage girls, and none of his alleged victims pressed charges. Another YouTuber, Ed Blann, admitted in a now-deleted Tumblr post that he “manipulated” an of-age fan into sex even after he was “repeatedly told to stop”. Like Day, Blann never faced any charges, but, also like Day, he apologised for his actions.  

 In September 2014, a 19-year-old woman accused the YouTube prankster Sam Pepper of raping her, and another woman filed a police report accusing him of rape. Pepper denied the accusations, was never arrested and charges were never filed. He did, however, apologise for YouTube pranks that included pinching women’s behinds while wearing a fake hand.

A Tumblr post set up to track emotional and sexual abuse in the YouTube community to date features allegations against 43 YouTubers.

***

Social media revolutionised the concept of celebrity – and celebrity-fan interactions. YouTubers are both incredibly adored and incredibly accessible. Products they design sell out overnight and their live events fill arenas. At the same time, fans are often just a few clicks away from engaging in private, one-on-one conversations with their heroes.

“I feel like I was kind of blinded to the whole situation, like I was almost brainwashed by him,” says Ashley LaPrade, a 16-year-old who claims that when she was 15, Austin Jones coerced her into creating sexualised videos on the messaging app Kik. She posted screenshots of their conversations on social media after the news of Jones’s arrest broke.

“It was kind of casual at first and he asked me to model his merchandise for him... so I did. I took a couple pictures and I’m a gymnast so I was trying to like impress him and I did like splits and stuff,” she says. She alleges that Jones asked her to film herself from behind while bending down or dancing. “I didn't want to upset him and make him not like me,” she says.

LaPrade explains that as a young 15-year-old fan she “looked up” to Jones and was initially excited by his interest in her. After she began to feel uncomfortable with his requests, they stopped talking, but she continued to listen to his music and go to his concerts. She says that she only realised the severity of his actions after his arrest.

Many young fans like Ashley are initially unable to comprehend that anything wrong – legally or morally – has happened to them. Neesey Pathan is a 20-year-old student and YouTuber who claims she was sexually harassed by Sam Pepper when she was 15. In 2014, she posted a YouTube video of her allegations, showing screenshots of alleged conversations with Pepper in which he asks her to “do a naked a dance” and show him her cleavage.

“As a young naïve 15-year old girl, I just wanted to keep talking to him because I was a huge fan,” Neesey tells me. “When he started to get inappropriate with me, at the time that made me feel uncomfortable but I didn’t understand how serious that was, because of how young I was.

“I wanted him to stop being inappropriate with me but I didn't want him to stop speaking to me.”

***

Since the concept of celebrity was invented, nefarious individuals have used their fame to manipulate and take sexual advantage of young fans. In the 1970s, Lori Mattix was a “baby groupie” to musicians – alleging in a Thrillist article that she lost her virginity to David Bowie aged just 14. When the guitarist Ted Nugent couldn’t legally marry 17-year-old Pele Massa, he became her guardian instead. Anna Garcia met Prince aged 15 and began a relationship with him aged 17. “I guess it’s kind of a dream to a young girl of 17,” she said in the Nineties. “You can be influenced very easily and stuff like that because he’s 12-13 years older than me.”

It now seems as though a slew of YouTubers have taken advantage of this imbalanced fan-creator relationship, and have deliberately exploited the naivety of their young fans. Ashley and Neesey both claim they were emotionally manipulated.

“I think I put him on this pedestal, which put him in a position to very easily manipulate me and get what he wanted,” says Neesey. “I was just so excited to get to speak to someone who I had looked up to for a long time.”

Ashley claims that when she wouldn’t film increasingly explicit videos for Jones, he treated her coldly. “He went on about how he was in a bad mood now and he didn’t want to talk any more,” she says. “If I did something wrong to him, like if I didn’t blow a kiss or something, then he would make me redo [the video].”

In 2015, Jones was first accused of asking his underage fans to film themselves twerking. In a video entitled “Setting The Record Straight”, he admitted to asking for the twerking videos and said he became suicidal after this news became public. “I’m a pretty insecure person... I began researching different suicide methods. I started planning my suicide. It’s something I was very, very serious about,” he says in the video. 

“A lot of times when we were talking he was talking about how he was going to therapy so I kind of felt bad for him and that’s why I didn't really say anything [to the authorities],” says Ashley.

The American National Domestic Violence Hotline outlines on its website that threatening suicide can be a form of emotional abuse. “If your partner regularly threatens suicide, particularly whenever you’re not doing something he or she wants you to do, or when you’re trying to leave the relationship... this is a form of emotional abuse.”

According to Neesey’s screenshots, Pepper flippantly mentioned he was “suicidal” when she refused to show him her breasts. In Olga’s blogpost about Tom Milsom, she alleges: “he’d like sob and cut himself in front of me he threatened weird suicidal shit a lot”.

“Obviously, if someone is saying to you that they're suicidal, you want to help them, because obviously they don't mean it but as a young person you think they do,” explains Neesey. “And you don't want to be held responsible for them hurting themselves and you maybe care about this person because you’ve been watching them for so long. So you’re manipulated into carrying on contact with them because if you don’t, what will happen...” 

***

To date, Lombardo is the only YouTuber who has ever been jailed for sexually abusing his fans. There are a multitude of reasons for this. Some victims are too afraid to press charges, fearing backlash from a YouTuber’s fandom. Many victims are unable to see the severity of their abuse until they are older. More still are manipulated into silence. Parents can’t comprehend YouTube stardom, and fail to understand what is happening in their children’s lives. Some victims simply don’t know which authorities to turn to.

“I'm kind of steaming about this whole issue,” says Michelle LaPrade, Ashley’s mother. “I can’t even look at a picture of the guy. It makes me want to punch him.”

At the time, Ashley never told her mother about Jones’s behaviour, but Michelle overheard conversations about it between her daughter and her friends. “I feel like a bad mother. I never even really investigated it. Because I know girls and their drama and you know, [they] overreact sometimes.”

After Jones’s arrest, Michelle wanted to report his interactions with Ashley to the authorities, but she found her local police department unhelpful. “I don't know who to turn to,” she says.

Many more victims are unaware that a crime has even occurred. “When I was 15 I didn't see how problematic it was,” says Neesey. “I knew it was a bit strange, and I did feel uncomfortable, but I didn't realise that he was actually sort of committing a crime in terms of asking a minor, as an adult, to do these things...

“It wouldn't even have crossed my mind to go to the police.”

While the UK has the large-scale Operation Yewtree into sexual abuse by celebrities, there is no equivalent for YouTube. Despite the multitude of allegations spanning half a decade, there is no single helpline or dedicated investigation into YouTube abuse. When questioned on this, a Home Office spokesperson said:

“We cannot allow social media platforms to be looked upon as a safe space for predators to target our children and share indecent images. It is vital that communication service providers have easily identifiable reporting systems for people to flag inappropriate or illegal content – and that they are clear about what is and isn’t allowed on their sites.”

A YouTube spokesperson said: “We have clear policies against harassment and we enforce these policies by removing both flagged content and comments that break our rules as well as terminating the accounts of repeat offenders.”

Sam Pepper is still on YouTube, where his channel has over two million subscribers. Alex Day returned to YouTube in December 2015, and now has over 80,000 subscribers. Austin Jones’s YouTube channel remains live, though he is not allowed to use social media before his trial.

***

“I feel like it is really hard to be taken seriously,” says Ashley. On social media, people are prone to victim-blaming Ashley and other alleged victims, saying that they should have stopped replying to the YouTubers harassing them. “Yeah, we did send stuff back but it was... we were being pressured into it and we didn't want to upset him or anything like that,” Ashley says. Her mother tells me she is glad Ashley “took the high ground” in not sending overtly sexual videos to Jones.

Unsure which authorities to speak to, many victims turn to social media to discuss their abuse. Accusations play out on Tumblr, Twitter and YouTube itself. Ashley tweeted screenshots of her interactions with Jones, while Neesey created two videos about her conversations with Pepper. Although this is an effective, and unprecedented, way for victims to get their voices heard, many online are distrustful of complaints that didn’t go through the authorities. Many more leave misogynistic and hateful comments.

“People will just be absolutely horrible to you and call you demeaning things... I got called a flirt, I got told it was all my fault because I continued speaking to him...” says Neesey, of the reaction to her videos. “I think that's a lot of the reason why people sometimes don’t come forward, because they don't want to go through all that stress again. They’ve already dealt with the situation; why would they want to deal with the stress of people being horrible to them about it?”

Some commenters criticise Neesey and other victims who have made YouTube videos and claim they were doing so for attention. “No one in their right mind would do it for attention because the attention you get is negative,” Neesey says. “I honestly don’t believe that someone would sit down and accuse someone of doing something if they didn’t mean it. So I really think it should be taken seriously.”

Whether it makes sense to those outside of the community or not, many victims' first recourse is social media, not the police or authorities. The accusations about Durte Dom – the YouTuber who allegedly filmed a 15-year-old dancing – were publicised by another YouTuber, Elijah Daniel, on his Twitter page.

Damon Fizzy is a YouTuber who called out Austin Jones after the initial accusations in 2015, and continues to do so on Twitter now. Although he agreed to speak with me, he was unable to find time to do so over a series of weeks.

For many YouTubers and their victims, social media is more important that the traditional media. Perhaps this makes sense – when the Mail Online covered the arrest of Lombardo, the YouTuber who solicited child abuse images from 11 underage fans, they added inverted commas around the word “star” in their headline. If the media and the authorities can’t take YouTube seriously, how seriously will they take accusations of YouTuber abuse?

***

In the past, YouTubers have often been good at self-policing. Hank and John Green are American brothers who run the YouTube channel Vlogbrothers, which has over three million subscribers. They own a record label, DFTBA, and run the annual YouTube convention VidCon. Lombardo and Day were DFTBA artists, and were dropped from the label after the accusations emerged. The Green brothers also banned Pepper from VidCon.

After the storm of accusations in 2014, an enormous number of popular YouTubers made videos in response. Hank Green explained consent to his audience, while the comedy YouTuber TomSka created a guide to YouTube gatherings. The popular YouTube duo Jack and Dean even made a music video about consent. The community came together to exile those who weren’t being punished in other ways. The subscriber numbers on the accused’s channels dropped dramatically.

Yet within a few months, many disgraced YouTubers can return to the platform to harness a new generation of fans, many of whom might not be aware of the accusations.

“YouTube still allows them to create content and make money off it, and that to me is just communicating that the behaviour is just not that bad. It’s sort of equivalent to a slap on the wrist and it doesn't convey the extremity of the situation of what they’ve done,” says Neesey. “I think they should be completely ostracised from the community, and have their status stripped from them, and I think YouTube should support that. Because they’re criminals.”

On Twitter, YouTuber Damon Fizzy claims he received backlash from Jones’s fans when trying to speak out years ago. “It’s crazy the backlash I received versus now. I was literally treated worse than the person who uses his underage fans for sexual gain,” he wrote.

And it’s true that YouTubers’ leagues of adoring fans can make it difficult to speak out about abuse. It is hard for many adults to understand how consuming being a young fan can be, particularly when manipulation is involved. When I ask both Ashley and Neesey what they would say to young female fans who start talking to YouTubers, they both say this is fine. Neesey warns that when a youngster becomes uncomfortable, they should end communication, but both she and Ashley feel that safe, normal fan-creator interaction is fine, indeed desirable.  

Sapphire Putt is a 20-year-old who claims a YouTuber coerced her into filming videos of herself dancing when she was 16. When I ask if she thinks it would be OK for the YouTuber to return to YouTube, she says she would be “cautious” but “wouldn’t throw the possibility of maybe giving him a chance again”.

“If he actually shows that he’s learned, you know, I would give it a chance and if he would mess it up again then that’s it, you know.”

When I ask Ashley what she would say to people who remain fans of Austin Jones she says: “I’d say that I probably understand... but they also need to understand that what he’s doing isn’t right and no one should be treated the way he is treating people.”

***

The NSPCC is currently calling for an independent regulator to scrutinise internet companies and fine them if they fail to keep children safe.

“We want the government to draw up a list of minimum standards that internet companies must observe to protect children, and children should be automatically offered safer accounts that protect them from grooming and harmful content,” an NSPCC spokesperson says.

“We know from our Childline service that online sexual exploitation is increasing so it’s vital that more is done to protect young people from abusers who use social media to target and manipulate them.”

For now, Ashley is simply glad things didn’t go further. “It's scary not knowing what could've happened, knowing that I was brainwashed like to believe it was OK, and I'm just happy he's not able to message other girls at this point,” she says.

Neesey hopes that schools will get better at teaching consent. “As a young person, I knew I felt a bit uncomfortable but I just thought that I was being dramatic... so I think people need to be educated, for sure.”  She says education needs to be improved not just in schools, but in the media.

“Unfortunately, people are sort of used to it now, after quite a few YouTubers, so it’s sort of like, ‘Oh another one.' People aren’t talking about it as much – not that it’s old news, but it’s not as shocking. People aren’t giving it as much attention as it needs.”

The NSPCC advises that if a child is worried about an online situation they should talk to a trusted adult or contact Childline on 0800 1111. Parents can find out more about talking to their child about staying safe online by searching Share Aware or visiting www.nspcc.org.uk

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 28 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double Issue