Democracy & Elections

Sextortion as Dystopia: About That Black Mirror Episode

Quinta Jurecic
Monday, October 24, 2016, 12:00 PM

Last Friday, Netflix launched the latest season of Black Mirror, a dystopian anthology series specializing in bleak, twisty set pieces about the capacity of technology to enable new and inventive forms of human cruelty.

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Last Friday, Netflix launched the latest season of Black Mirror, a dystopian anthology series specializing in bleak, twisty set pieces about the capacity of technology to enable new and inventive forms of human cruelty. (The titular “black mirror” refers to the screen of an electronic device that has been turned off.) The show has already gained a certain notoriety: mention “the one with the pig” to your Black Mirror-watching acquaintances and see how they react.

So I was intrigued to learn that the third episode of the new season, “Shut Up and Dance,” deals with a subject about which I’m familiar: sextortion. Spoilers below.

The plot runs as follows: After a teenager named Kenny unwittingly downloads malware onto his computer, he begins to receive threatening messages announcing that the sender has filmed video of him masturbating through his laptop camera. Threatening to release the video to his friends and coworkers if he doesn’t comply with their demands, Kenny’s unknown tormentors force him through a gauntlet of increasingly arduous tasks, culminating in a demand that Kenny and a fellow victim “FIGHT TO THE DEATH.”

What makes Black Mirror work, when it works well, is that its worlds are both disorienting and weirdly plausible. Watching “Shut Up and Dance,” I was struck by how accurate the show is to the reports of sextortion we reviewed in our study on the topic. Examining federal and state criminal records, we found 80 cases in which online attackers forced victims into producing sexual photos or videos, usually by somehow obtaining a cache of explicit images of the victim and then using that as leverage to demand more. By our count, this amounts to the remote sexual assault of over 3,000 people—and that’s in a study that is surely underinclusive.

Kenny’s sextorters follow more or less the same script as that used by the defendants whose cases we studied, routinely setting a ticking clock by which their victim must comply ... or else: for example, “be there in 45 minutes or we leak [the] video.” Using the location services app on Kenny’s phone, the perps are able to constantly monitor whether or not Kenny is acquiescing to their demands. Sextortionists often use technology to obtain a similar level of seeming omniscience: in the Jared James Abrahams case, for example, Abrahams used productivity software to monitor when his victims read his emails.

Midway through the episode, Kenny teams up with another sextortion victim who’s been forced into similar tasks after being catfished while attempting to strike up a rapport with a sex worker. That’s another piece of verisimilitude. By our count, catfishing accounted for 65 percent of the cases we reviewed, while hacking—sometimes through malware similar to the program that Kenny downloads—was used in 19 percent of cases. Together, these methods are the two most common means by which sextortionists obtain the initial photos or videos of their would-be victims.

As far as I know, the type of errand-tasking sextortion on display in “Shut Up and Dance” doesn’t exist. (I imagine we would have heard about it if it did.) While it’s clearly sextortion, it’s not within the realm of the cases we’ve seen actually take place: it’s not sextortion used to demand sexual photos or video, which we examined in our study, and it’s not sextortion for money, which has become somewhat of an industry in the Philippines. But nevertheless, the episode is surprisingly true to the psychological reality of sextortion.

This leads me to the twist.

Black Mirror is well-known for its twists, which usually have something to do with revealing the persecuted to have actually been among the persecutors. At the episode’s end, as Kenny unwillingly prepares to fight to the death with another victim, we discover that he was filmed while looking at child pornography. So was his sparring partner. Their tormentors aren’t just tormentors; they’re also dispensing a form of vigilante justice.

This is familiar ground for Black Mirror, which likes to ponder our collective lack of sympathy for those among us who have sinned. Other unfortunate Black Mirror characters who face similarly harsh justice include, variously, an amoral pick-up artist, a domestic abuser, and an accomplice to child murder. The show is about technology, but it’s also about power: how it’s wielded and over whom; who is punished (or not) for what, and how. It’s no coincidence that not one but two episodes deal extensively with domestic violence and men who do their best to assert control over women.

As I’ve written, this issue of power and control is at the heart of sextortion as well, and often with a similarly gendered tilt. One sextortionist, Jeremy Brendan Sears, admitted to the FBI that his sextortion had only “a very minor sexual thing to it,” and was mostly about gaining “power” and “control” over his victims. Another, Michael C. Ford, told police that he began sextorting because he wanted to fill a “power void” left by his wife’s role as the “alpha and breadwinner” in the family.

Likewise, when sextortion victims talk about their experiences, they often describe their feelings of profound helplessness under the onslaught of demands from their harassers. One woman has said that she felt like a “slave,” constantly forced to explain where she was and when she could next provide new photos.

Though the victims in “Shut Up and Dance” aren’t forced to provide photos, the episode’s depiction of the viselike control exerted by the unknown vigilantes over Kenny and his fellow unfortunates is true to this central question of power. “They” can force Kenny to leave work early, deliver a mysterious cake, rob a bank, and fight for his life in gladiatorial combat. And ultimately, they can have the police waiting to arrest him as he trudges, bloodied, out of the woods.

So no, sextortion as Black Mirror presents it isn’t a form of sextortion that we’ve seen before. But the episode’s thesis about sextortion as a means of transforming technology into a means of total control over another person is entirely reflective of the phenomenon.

It’s common to say that Black Mirror takes place in a world “five or ten minutes from now.” “Shut Up and Dance,” however, unambiguously takes place now. All the technology used in the episode exists already, from the malware on Kenny’s computer to the quadcopter drone that the vigilante group uses to watch Kenny and his opponent attempt to kill each other. And when, at the episode’s end, the vigilantes text Kenny and his fellow victims to announce that, despite everything, their photos and videos are still going to be released to the public, the same image of a grinning face that they use to announce their trick is a common sight on the internet today.

In other words, sextortion doesn’t need further technological or science-fictional embellishment to become one of Black Mirror’s trademark glimpses into a dystopian future.

It’s already dystopia enough.

Quinta Jurecic is a fellow in Governance Studies at the Brookings Institution and a senior editor at Lawfare. She previously served as Lawfare's managing editor and as an editorial writer for the Washington Post.

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