A stunning report by ProPublica and Columbia Journalism has ripped back the curtain on how unprepared companies are to handle user complaints. The investigation revealed operational incompetence and clearly show that the apps so many of us use are defective products.
In the report “Addressing Rape in Four Minutes or Less” ProPublica and CJI found that at OkCupid and other dating apps, moderators are expected to resolve customer claims of sexual assault in minutes — and with zero special training.
We have been arguing for years that it is scandalous that the multibillion-dollar online dating industry – an industry which specifically facilitates in-person intimate encounters – has no meaningful standards for responding to reports of harm and removing offenders from platforms
“Despite pledges to shield users from sexual predators, the companies have done little to abide by them. Most companies have loosely defined procedures that force employees to rely on their own judgment.,” the investigation explains. “Dating app users who report an attack often have to badger companies to take action.”
“Dating app users who report an attack often have to badger companies to take action.”
The investigation found that “The responsibility of responding to reports of assaults falls to the workers, known as moderators in industry parlance,” who field customer complaints, billing disputes, and scammer alerts.
“For dating app moderators, many customer complaints take just seconds to address,” they explain. “But complicated cases, like those involving sexual assault, can put moderators behind their hourly quotas for the rest of the workday, according to multiple current and former employees at these and other dating platforms. Such systems frequently fail victims.”
They found that “no site has a team exclusively dedicated to addressing a risk inherent in an industry built on intimacy: sexual assault. Experts say online dating companies routinely fail to anticipate abuse and implement safeguards to prevent it.”
“Complicated cases, like those involving sexual assault, can put moderators behind their hourly quotas for the rest of the workday.”
Not only are moderators vastly under-trained and over-worked, there simply aren’t enough of them, “Employees at nearly every dating app said the team never scaled up as millions of users joined. The volume of customer complaints, they said, outpaced the staff’s ability to handle them. At PlentyofFish, for instance, executives managed about 85 total employees in all departments over a five-year period as the company’s registered user base more than tripled from 30 million to 100 million. That meant, in later years, more than 1 mllion users per staffer.”
This latest investigation comes after ProPublica published a groundbreaking report in 2019 titled “Tinder Lets Known Sex Offenders Use the App. It’s Not the Only One,” in which a spokesperson from Match Group confirmed: “There are definitely registered sex offenders on our free products.”
No one collects official statistics on online dating sexual assault in the U.S., so for that report CJI surveyed more than 1,200 women who said they had used a dating platform in the past 15 years. Among this small group, more than a third of the women said they were sexually assaulted by someone they had met through a dating app. Of these women, more than half said they were raped.
In March 2020, ProPublica published another report about dating apps failing to respond to reports of known offenders, “Emily C. remembers telling Bumble that a man she met through its popular online dating platform had sexually assaulted her. The company didn’t respond, she says. Two months later, after seeing his profile photo on the app, she recalls the same report-no-response scenario playing out,” the report explains. “Emily C., who requested her last name be withheld to protect her privacy, has matched with this man on other dating apps. Companies use geolocation to find matches for users, and he lives within a 3-mile radius of her Brooklyn apartment. When she spotted him on Tinder that year, Emily says she alerted the platform. Again, she never received a response.”
The March 2020 report was game changing, Carrie explains: “It prompted congressional action which I participated in where we demanded information about the practices.”
For their latest investigation, CJI and ProPublica conducted research on 224 dating app users through a questionnaire that sought input from people who had been “affected by sexual violence” after using a dating app.
- 188 of those said they had experienced assault or harassment after using a dating app or had been matched with a sex offender or inappropriate person
- 71 said they had reported a sexual assault to a platform, most of them in the past three years. Of those users, 34 said they never heard back. (CJI was able to interview 33 of the 188 who said they experienced some form of assault or harassment and obtained police reports or documentary confirmation in 11 of those instances.)
The investigation also tells the stories of people like Natalie Dong, who was raped in her home by a man she met on dating website Coffee Meets Bagel. The rapist told her he used multiple dating websites, so she contacted them to warn them about the predator weaponizing platforms to gain access to victims.
When Natalie contacted Tinder, sending his username, age and phone number, the process dragged on for weeks with no outcome. “He is dangerous,” she wrote in one email, “and your women users deserve to be kept safe.”
It took her standing outside the headquarters of Tinder, with a poster board draped from her neck which read: “MY RAPIST IS STILL ON TINDER” before she finally got email from Tinder letting her know it had banned the accused user.
“I was like, ‘It was that easy?’” she told ProPublica. “Why did I have to go down there to get you to do this?”
In both of their most recent investigations, ProPublica have featured Carrie Goldberg’s calls for reform and greater accountability for dating apps. “We have to reform Section 230,” said Goldberg, who believes there needs to be a congressional hearing of dating app CEOs, “so that victims can hold liable companies whose negligence is facilitating rapes.”
It’s clear that bloating their profit margin is far more important to dating app execs than doing anything about their dangerous products being used as catalogues for sexual predators to source, rape, stalk, and harass victims.
You may remember our case against Grindr. Matthew Herrick’s life was turned in to a living hell by the app. Over the course of 10 month, more than 1,400 men, as many as 23 in a day, showed up at his door, each one expecting either violent and degrading sex, drugs, or both. “It was a horror film,” Herrick told BuzzFeed News in an interview. “It’s just like a constant Groundhog Day, but in the most horrible way you can imagine. It was like an episode of Black Mirror.”
Grindr is a wildly successful and wealthy organization. In 2018, the app reportedly had more than three million users. Grindr’s approach to the stalking and harassment facilitated by the app? Absolutely nothing.
Before he came to us, Matthew had emailed and called and begged them to do something. His family and friends also contacted Grindr about the fake profiles—in all, about 50 separate complaints were made to the company. The only response they ever got was an auto-reply: “Thank you for your report.”
“For Grindr to call itself a “safe space” for the gay community, Herrick said, is a “facade.” “They create this idea of who they are and who we as the gay community want them to be, but they were never that, and they will never be that,” Herrick told BuzzFeed News. “They always will just want to print more money.”
As Carrie Goldberg told Law360: “Herrick v. Grindr is a civil lawsuit born from the urgent need for immediate help in a life or death situation. While the goal of most Section 230 cases—and litigations in general—is financial compensation for past injuries, Matthew’s suffering was ongoing.”
But, as Carrie explained, “This case is not only about justice for Matthew. We are fighting for future victims’ rights to sue any tech company that knowingly, or recklessly, aids their abusers and causes victims harm.”
“What’s more, determining the scope of the Communications Decency Act is a crucial component of society’s current debate about the responsibility internet companies bear for the harm their technologies arguably propagate. This could be no truer than this moment when mass shooters are radicalizing and posting propaganda on the likes of 8chan, mentally ill people with restraining orders are murdering with weapons purchased from online gun sellers, and individuals with warrants out for their arrests are killing people they match with on dating apps and torturing individuals they meet in the back seats of pooled rideshares.”
The full ProPublica/CJI investigation – featuring stories and responses from many more apps – is here, and we highly recommend reading it, particularly if you are a dating app user.
Read the full series from Columbia Journalism Investigations and ProPublica:
- Addressing Rape in Four Minutes or Less: Dating App Reps Left Unprepared to Respond to Assault Victims – May 2021
- He Sexually Assaulted Her After They Met on Bumble. Then She Saw Him on Tinder. Then Hinge. – March 2020
- Tinder Lets Known Sex Offenders Use the App. It’s Not the Only One. – December 2019
We help victims plan a safe escape when they are ready. We can represent you in family court to help you get an order of protection, and in civil court if you are seeking further compensation for the hell you endured. Let us know what’s going on and talk through your options here or on 646-666-8908.