By: Irene Neumann
Snapchat is an increasingly popular messaging and photo sharing application for iPhones, iPads and Android devices. How it works and what it does is part of the reason for the app’s success. Its premise is simple: photos or videos that are sent to a recipient can be viewed only for the number of seconds that you set on your device before they “self-destruct” on the recipient’s phone. But, is there not an Achilles Heel at play? According to Joan Knies with Crisis Connection, “[t]he app is supposed to tell you if someone takes a screenshot of your photo, but it doesn’t always work.” It gives users a “false sense of security,” she adds. Hence, in this hypersexualized age when many people send racy photos as part of their dating relationships, intimate and sexually explicit images can land anywhere in cyber space. Ironically, it becomes a temporary app with permanent consequences.
Snapchat is situated in the social media landscape among other traffic-brokers like Twitter and Facebook. It is an appealing app that is used by marketers, advertisers, politicians, and youth, among others. News outlets can publish articles on its service, for instance. Add to this, the messaging app’s portal for in-depth storytelling. That it is an effective app to reach an audience, there is no doubt.
Of late, the White House—amid celebrities, politicians, and media publications—has joined Snapchat in an effort to reach out to the millennial age group. Statistics on Snapchat users help clarify the broad reach marketers can have by connecting to this app. For instance, 200 million people had used this app by the end of 2015, seventy-one percent of its users are less than 34 years old, and Snapchat is said to house about 800 million photos.
Three key elements are at play with Snapchat to explain its success: lots of content, traffic, and e-commerce. Yet the sexually explicit images and videos contained within the app’s mix—and those leaked —leads some to ask: Is Snapchat peddling porn? Let’s explore first its “self-destruct” photo feature and how Snapcash ties in, as we explore the controversies concerning this app.
Snapchat has an “ephemeral” feature, that is, the capability to “self-destruct” a photo once a recipient views it at a rate of 1 to 10 seconds set on the device by the sender. This feature is precisely behind its appeal to minors who believe sexting is less risky using this app. By some accounts, the app has been used to send temporary photos over 350 million times per day. But, do they always self-destruct?
According to the Pew Research Centre’s study titled, “Teens Social Media & Technology Overview 2015,” forty-one percent (two in five) of all American teens 13 to 17 use Snapchat. A typical teen sends and receives about thirty texts per day. Fifty-six percent of older girls in any teen group tend to use Snapchat. Another interesting finding is that middle and upper income teens lean toward Instagram and Snapchat as opposed to other social media platforms.
Considering the large number of youth who use Snapchat, let’s move on to the controversies and dangers associated with this service.
There are several dangers posed by the app. For instance, young women can be lured to share sexually provocative and explicit photos with strangers, leaving them vulnerable to exploitation, sextortion, and cyber sexual-assault. Equally vulnerable are the teens and tweens who send “sexts.” Specifically, sexts are the nude or semi-nude images teens have been known to send to each other ”privately” via their mobile devices. Snapchat is thus popular among teens who believe their sexts would self-destruct after viewing. However, most mobile phones can easily take screenshots, thus allowing sexually explicit images to be uploaded on the Internet by abusers. That is why the FBI, for one, sends a message of caution to parents, warning that the app’s promise that private photos will vanish in 10 seconds could still leave their children vulnerable. In response to criticism, Snapchat now notifies a sender if a recipient screenshots a photo, but recipients who use third-party apps, can save images secretly. When captured by the use of screenshots, sexts can be posted elsewhere surreptitiously, often by a jilted boyfriend.
This brings us to the phenomenon called “revenge porn.” Some, in fact, claim the new era of revenge porn began on Snapchat. We know how easily screenshots can be captured in time; imagine, then, how easily a jilted boyfriend can screen capture his former girlfriend’s sexually provocative photos and then post them online, for instance on Facebook. Why? It is a devious way to deal with anger and to exert a form of power by tarnishing the reputation of another. It is a serious problem because many teens have been arrested for Snapchat sexts that, once posted online, are viewed by authorities as a form of pornography, and in some instances seen as human trafficking. Twenty-seven States in the U.S. have revenge porn laws.
Another danger is that the sexually explicit images are often considered to be softcore, or in some depictions, hardcore pornography. The long term consequences are many. For instance, viewing, downloading or sharing any of the Snapchat photos leaked in a breach called “The Snappening” is an invasion of privacy that could lead to a Federal prison sentence. The Snappening occurred in 2014, when approximately 200,000 private, intimate photos—many belonging to the 13–17 year old under-aged users—were stolen and leaked, found their way on 4Chan and other sites. Hence, parents need to be vigilant and to take preventative action. Connect Safely offers a parents’ guide to Snapchat.
In May 2014, the messaging service had to settle with Federal Trade Commission (FTC). The FTC compelled Snapchat to submit to an independent privacy monitor for 20 years, a deal similar to the one the FTC struck with Facebook. The settlement was over its claim that all messages sent were “ephemeral,” which is not possible when those messages can be screenshot and saved.
In 2014, Snapchat took steps to prevent any new “egregious privacy fumbles” as it launched Snapcash. Snapcash was enabled by a process that associates Snapchat ID with Snapcash. To move cash, a seamless process takes place; users never log out of Snapchat. It features an integration of the Square Cash platform, allowing secure cash transactions with the debit card network for users who have registered their card. Square Inc.’s website explains how Square partners with Snapchat to offer their users access to Square Cash. One caveat is that users must be 18 years of age or over to send cash.
So, now a Snapchat user can easily send money to another user to pay for dinner, but this feature also enables the commodification of sex. After much public pressure, Snapchat in 2014 developed rules of propriety on its app’s usage (see Snapchat Safety Centre guidelines), even so, many abusers have devised schemes to avoid expulsion.
According to a New York Times article written by Nick Bilton, the app lets users pay a small fee to view acts by strippers, lap dancers, and porn stars, people who have infiltrated Snapchat. Despite so much free pornography on the Internet, some pornography users are willing to pay for a more personalized experience than that which a porn website or webcam can offer. Bilton explains, these abusers comprise a small fraction of the app’s 200 million users, and while sexting is no longer the main use on Snapchat, “it’s ludicrous to think that an app that allows you to send videos and photos that automatically disappear won’t be used to also transmit nude images.” He points to a Juniper Research study that reveals video chats and subscription services on mobile devices accounted for $2.8 billion in porn-related revenue in 2015. The National Center on Sexual Exploitation has seen how the ability to send money on this platform is used to further sexual exploitation, and for this reason added Snapchat/Snapcash to its 2016 Dirty Dozen List.
NCOSE has been warning of the dangers of Snapchat since its early days, but felt that with the launch of Snapcash and surveys indicating that is commonly used to monetize sexually exploitive messages, Snapchat now belongs on the Dirty Dozen List of leading contributors to sexual exploitation in America. Snapchat, along with Square, are now profiting handsomely from the distribution of pornographic messages through the app. The app went from reported revenue of $3 million in 2014 to projected revenue of $50 million in 2015. A major contributor to this growth is the development of the feature Snapcash.
While not all Snapchat users engage in sending or receiving sexually explicit content, it represents a growing market as the demand for pornography reacts to Snapchat’s supply. Given all the dangers posed by the combination of an app commonly used for sexting with a feature that facilitates the transfer of cash, NCOSE is demanding that Snapchat enforce its policies against pornography and provide easy ways for users to report sexually exploitive content for removal.
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