We analysed online groomers’ conversations to find out how deceptive they really are

Being lied to? Burdun Iliya/Shutterstock

The online world can be an exciting place for children. But internet-related sex crimes against children and young people are reported an average of 15 times per day in England and Wales alone.

Researchers looking into how online groomers work have found that gaining victims’ trust is a key part of engaging them in sexually explicit behaviour. During this process, groomers hide their main intention, to sexually abuse the victim, by developing a friendly and personal relationship with them.

Though you might expect that they deceive and lie to encourage their victims to go along with their plans, the truth is that, generally, online groomers are not as overtly deceptive as we might assume. Groomers’ use of identity deception – deception around age, location and appearance – is fairly low (5-33%), and some identity deceptions have actually been found to reduce the likelihood of groomers meeting offline with victims.

Criminal intent. Sander van der Werf/Shutterstock

Deception and lies

Our research looks deeper into the language used by online groomers. We analyse real chat logs against key linguistic indicators of deception – emotional expression, pronoun use and cognitive complexity – to find out just how deceptive they really are.

When people lie they tend to use words that are emotional. Negative words, like alone, angry, or blame, represent an unconscious feeling of guilt and anxiety, as well as a lack of concern over the development of the social relationship. But lying does not always make people feel guilty, it can also make them excited or proud, which is reflected in the use of positive emotion words, such as awesome, beautiful or best. These words are particularly important during trust development, and are often used to appear convincing and “sell” the interaction.

Lying is a cognitively complex task. When telling the truth, more detailed abstract information can be provided without thinking too much. Liars tend to use concrete terms that can be experienced perceptually – like seen, felt, heard – to enable them to focus on their deceit. For example, responding to the question “what are you doing?” in a abstract way would be to say “it’s a nice day so I decided to walk rather than get the bus” compared to the concrete response “walking home”.

Pronoun use is another key deceptive marker and gives insight into where the communicator focuses their attention. Those who use the first person-singular pronouns I, me and mine, tend to be more honest, self-aware and “own” their story. For example, “I am too old for you but I just thought I would talk to you”. Second person pronouns – you, you’ll – represent dishonesty, interpersonal distance and deflection of blame: “you tell me what you like best?” or “told you, it’s up to you, want you to feel good.”

Finally, first person plural pronouns (we, our, us) are considered to represent honesty and a shared identity. Research has shown that using “we” to include “you” and “I” recognises that specific people are part of the same group. This is important for groomers as they attempt to isolate victims from their social network, by creating a new group identity that exists only between the two of them.

Honesty

When we applied these deceptive indicators to 64 online grooming conversations, totalling around 150,000 words, we found something quite surprising: groomers do not follow a clear pattern of deception. Judgement of their own behaviour appears to be positive and focuses on developing the relationship. There were signs of honesty in the use of abstract language and attention on themselves – that is to say the I, me and mine – but also signs of deception seen in high frequencies of “you” terms and positive affect words (love, beautiful), and low use of “we”.

Examining the strength of the emotional words, we found that groomers use either strongly positive (happiness, fantastic) or negative (rape, harm) words as opposed to neutral terms (shy, challenge). So underneath the positive drive there are signs of a more implicit feeling of negativity.

One important factor to consider here is how the anticipation of future events – be it sexual activity online or offline – limits the groomers’ ability to explicitly lie to their victim. We know that groomers employ a “scattergun” approach to find victims, contacting dozens if not hundreds online to increase their chance of success. This also limits their ability to lie, as maintaining this level of deception would be an impossible task.

However, there are signs of a more deep-rooted form of deception: deception of the victim and possibly themselves about their true goals. For no matter whether the “relationship” is truthful or deceptive, the outcome can be viewed no other way than as the sexual abuse of a minor.