The ''dark web'' is a collection of highly encrypted websites, forums and social networks and provides spaces for illegal activity. It’s the place where perpetrators, mainly of a sexual nature, meet to support each other and share obscene and illegal images, exchanging tips to improve their techniques of abuse and boasting almost total anonymity.
A real resource for this type of individuals to learn new ''skills'' to commit increasingly ferocious and well-studied crimes. In response to this crime model, a skilled category of law enforcement deploys undercover agents who, pretending as admirers, supporters and emulators, are able to access secret groups and forums in order to gather valuable information.
For obvious reasons, given the undergrowth in which it nestles, it is not usual to speak of the dark web except in articles of momentary sensation by the press, mainly relating to sexual violence and child abuse.
As a behavioral analyst, I feel that the interactions between perpetrators of similar or complementary crimes can have a devastating impact both on the victims and on the part of the community that is highly influenced and prone to emulation. It is necessary to better understand the communication methodologies used by those who hold the roles of master or simple sympathizer adept, since the exchange of information is almost
exclusively linguistic (albeit with elements of emotional-visual impact).
This type of approach can help us to carry out a profiling as detailed as possible of the members belonging to the various subgroups of the dark web, portraying a hypothetical perpetrator of an ”online crime”.
Like all violent communities, we are faced with a reality strongly governed by rigid rules; such as the prohibition of providing personal information to safeguard security, and, at a well-structured hierarchical scale that goes from the highest level to the level of offensive skills and experience, up to the member defined as ''neophyte'', who he approaches the practices of abuse and is highly at risk of mental plagiarism by individuals with dominant personalities.
Understanding the type of person and the emotional levers that push newbies to follow these criminal models, can help determine the levels of interaction within the community and plan an emotional-informative counter-move capable of blocking new followers in the bud.
I consider it as a first step to monitor the methods used to grow and improve one's modus operandi and feed's charge of violence and emotional-sexual satisfaction.
By adequately preparing undercover agents and providing them with an identikit of the typical model belonging to any mediocre neophyte, one could overcome the barrier of distrust that makes communication difficult between members of dark web communities who, aware of possible infiltrators, they leave little to
chance and basic human interaction.
Many ask me how newbies who self-identify and attempt to join established offensive communities online approach me. To answer this question, I examined the rhetorical moves and blocks of text with distinct communicative functions in the initial posts of newbies.
Through a manual analysis I was able to distinguish several elements, excluding the typical features of instant messaging such as ''greetings'' and “signatures”
1- Express reasons. Newbies state their reasons for wanting to join the community.
This involves the expression of interest in specific groups united by age, type of images, methods and purposes of thought, as well as the same language of communication.
2- Demonstration of alignment and affiliation. Newbies highlight their affiliation with the community, and demonstrate that they are aligned with its interests and ideals.
This implies the affirmation of particular types of sexual interest and the sharing of personal experiences of abuse. A common strategy is ''de-lurking'', whereby newbies reveal their passive presence as mere spectators and the desire to switch to an active role. This demonstrates previous knowledge of community rules and practices and affirms readiness for the new degree of exposure.
3- Express appreciation. The group of abusers shows their appreciation for individual members and for the community as a whole, through praise, compliments and expressions of gratitude. This type of action leads the new member to feel part of an elite family, here is the emotional lever that I consider highly dangerous as it is capable of leading the individual to carry out increasingly heinous crimes in order to gain approval.
4- Demonstration of novelty. Newbies openly refer to their status as a beginner. Aside from explicit statements about being new to groups and subgroups, they often claim they have no offensive experience. Therefore they often ask other members for tolerance before the first act of violence is committed.
5- Demonstrate value. Members tend to show that they are useful to the new community. They may, for example, offer indecent images or demonstrations of specific skills or services. This can include drawing hyper-realistic indecent images.
6- State the limits. Newbies explain how they may not be able to meet community expectations or requirements, often claiming a lack of specific skills or lack of indecent imagery. A way of apologizing by demonstrating one's inferiority.
7- Search for support. New offenders can seek help, support, or further information about any problems regarding online or offline crime. These may be technical problems relating to the sharing of material, or the access of children or minors in relation to a hypothetical moral guide.
The conclusions of this research step, suggest that there is no single standard model of novice offender. Everyone approaches the dark web community using different methods and techniques although they share the same desire for emotional or sexual satisfaction.
Therefore a good general strategy is to take on some sort of hybrid role: the ''competent beginner''; ready to admit a lack of offensive experience and, at the same time, demonstrating full understanding of community norms and expected behaviors of its members. the self-imposed ''newbie'' label positions them not as outsiders with the role of spectators but as already part of the community, albeit temporarily relegated to a low-level role.
The anonymity offered by the dark web naturally makes constant surveillance difficult, but not impossible. Linguistic analysis of dark web spaces can further help unravel the communication strategies of abusers, identifying their roles and activities and assisting the police in credibly assuming the role of adept.
Dr. Valeria Rossi
Criminologist, Profiler & Behaviour Analyst
Board Team Member of IPO Section Italy