FOCUS: Digital transgression and the changing nature of crime

FOCUS: Digital transgression and the changing nature of crime

Jakob Demant, Silje A. Bakken, Sidsel K. Harder, and Kathrine Elmose

Societies have changed and so has the nature of crime. For over a decade, cybercrime has been much discussed, leading to an increased focus on cybersecurity.  This in itself has sparked the development of a related industry – developing solutions for individuals, organisations and governments, to protect them from attack. While these developments in technology are affecting societies – their structures, and our relations within; technology is also changing the way crime to perpetrated and experienced.  Of growing relevance is the rise of crimes facilitated by, and committed via, online-based platforms and ready-to-use scam and fraud products. Common types of crime found in cyberspace include: online drug dealing, image-based sexual abuse, sharing and using stolen credit card information and so forth. Very little technological expertise is needed to engage in these new types of criminal activity and as they are committed without direct social interaction, they could potentially be understood by many of victim-less or less severe.

In this article we aim to summarise some key findings from across a collection of on-going research projects being undertaken at the University of Copenhagen’s Department of Sociology.  We will focus on the online market for the sale of illegal drugs and strategies through which non-consensual exchange of digital sexual images are being shared. Selling illegal drugs is against the law, while the situation with regards to sharing nude pictures (at least in Europe) is not in and of itself illegal, if it is between consenting adults. Where it becomes a crime is when the perpetrator forwards or sells such images non-consensually.  If the pictures are of children, such activity is categorised as child-pornography and the legal consequences are severe. The trades and exchanges of both drugs and sexual pictures takes place on the encrypted ‘dark net’, on open social media sites, file-sharing-services, and through messaging applications, among others. It is this dark space on the web which our research group is developing specific methodologies to investigate.

Denmark is an especially interesting context for studying cultures of sexuality and substance use, because both explicit sexual material and drug consumption are normalised practices integrated into the everyday lives of Danes. Denmark is (in)famous for being the world’s first country to legalize pornography and even though substances other than alcohol are illegal, they are sold openly in certain parts of Copenhagen. The use of cannabis, especially, is understood as a normalised intoxicant that is incorporated in mundane leisure activities, seeking to achieve a ‘relaxed togetherness’ between young Danes. In Denmark, drugs are also an accepted part of young people’s night life, where they are used to facilitate flirting and casual sexual encounters in night clubs (Harder and Demant 2015). For many Danes, smoking a joint or googling online porn is considered part of experimenting with one’s personal preferences, and it is within this culture of everyday life that our studies are situated.

Past and present research – extending the methodological scope
Both the research on digital drug markets and sexual image sharing has traditionally been dominated by quantitative research designs. Much research on illicit digital markets has been produced using datasets constructed through webcrawling. This has led to useful information based on the downloaded market data, for example, feedback comments and ratings. However, qualitative insights are also critical if we wish to shed light on participants’ engagements in such market spaces – to understand the rationales and the emotions driving their practices. Similarly, within research on sexual image sharing, only recently has the vantage point of ‘perpetrators’ and bystanders been examined.

To analyse sexual image exchanges, both with and without consent, we have used surveys that include detailed questions to examine the experiences of sending, receiving, and forwarding sexual images. In addition, we have used digital ethnography to observe the digital (inter)actions and non-consensual exchanges between sharers, as well as supplementing our observations with e-mail- and telephone-supported individual interviews with perpetrators of image-based sexual abuse. Third, we have  conducted analyses of documents and images collected from recent Danish police cases investigating illegal, digital sharing of sexual images.

Our studies on digital drug dealing started in the early years of cryptomarkets (from 2012), and has since evolved, as the market itself has, to focus on drug dealing via social media, as well as on Clearnet etc. (Demant et al., 2019). Cryptomarkets are international drug markets found in the encrypted dark net, which is an online space only accessible through certain browsers like The Onion Router (Tor). The space is often called the deep web, signalling its inaccessibility from the surface web, where the dark part consists of illegal activities. While those engaging in illicit activities are often a hard-to-reach population, the encryption used in Darknet provides the security of anonymity that in some cases can also mean easier access to data scraping and encrypted interviews.

Our research on cryptomarkets has examined ordering characteristics (e.g. drug type, orders being placed internationally/domestically), differences found across national contexts, and perceptions of risk as evidenced in the strategies buyers and sellers use to agree sales and engender a sense of trust in such processes.  Our research draws on both quantitative and qualitative data. One of our latest projects focuses on social media drug dealing, aiming to describe how both semi-public (e.g. Facebook, Instagram) and private online platforms are being used to sell and source illegal drugs. Here, we use digital ethnography to understand how markets are formed and where and how drug dealing takes place.  This has been supplemented with 107 semi-structured online interviews with Nordic online drug dealers and buyers. 

Digital drug dealing
Our studies focus on the social and communicative aspects of markets and examine how trust between sellers and buyers is established and regulated.  We have developed an analysis which sets out the normative expectations established between sellers and buyers in a ‘digital interaction order’ (Goldsmith & Brewer, 2015). We have found that cryptomarkets, to some extent, solve the information problem of illegal activity, between two unknown partners over the web, through the use of technology (escrow systems handling crypto currencies etc., and formalized feedback systems) (Bakken, Moeller & Sandberg, 2017). However, we have also found that social media drug dealing makes use of social clues drawn from pictures, language, and cultural cues, as well as encrypted one-on-one communication (Demant et al., 2019) to establish legitimacy in the selling process.

Are such transactions spatially constrained?  While cryptomarkets are designed to be global and to by-pass traditional routes of drug trading, we have noted that over the years the market space has become increasingly regional and even national in scope (Demant et al., 2018). In social media drug markets, we find that dealing rarely moves across city borders, and that these digital instruments become mechanisms for organising local sales. Thus, we argue that this technology has facilitated a more local (illicit) entrepreneurial spirit, rather than one seeking to break geographical boundaries. By operating online, dealers can easily sell drugs as entrepreneurs instead of being connected with organized criminal groups, and marketing practices become a crucial aspect to their success. The online, digital context also provides a greater share of information among market participants, both textually and visually. Taking advantage of this, as researchers, has brought valuable insights into a space that for a long period of time was relatively closed-off to those not involved in illegal activities directly.

Digital exchange of sexual images
Our study of non-consensual image sharing is located within a framework keen to conceptualise this activity as a market place for illegal activity.  Our work is partly based on covert digital ethnography of encrypted online darknet platforms on The Onion Browser (Tor) where such activity occurs, and is supported by online interviews with those non-consensually sharing sexual images. Our studies conclude that non-consensual image-sharing evolves across two different sharing environments simultaneously: an acquaintance-based sharing environment and an organized sharing environment. The former is characterised by apparently transparent relations among sharers and is practised on social media sites (Facebook, Snapchat). Such online activity is also closely related to similar practices in offline contexts where pictures are also shared and discussed, e.g. school and local sports clubs. However, such practices spill over into, and interact across, more organised environments – such as dark web pages, volas, and discords.  Here relations between users are typically anonymous.

Our findings also illustrate that particularly in these more organised environments there is an implicit market structure in operation – where particular types of pictures are demanded and subsequently supplied. Traded pictures within these organised environments are bought and sold using different currencies such as money, pictures (i.e. barter trades), status granting through reviews, or conversely negative assessments in the form of disdain – via the comments made. Meanwhile, within the acquaintance-based environments – such as on social media – the currencies at play are status, recognition, membership of social communities, and revenge. Thus, the activity constitutes a market where images are negotiated and traded, while both social, emotional, monetary and sexual currencies are drawn on, all the while exploiting those whose images are being non-consensually shared.

In our 2017 survey, data from more than 65,000 young Danes, aged between 12 and 25 years, found that around 3.5 % of respondents had shared images non-consensually. These respondents could be characterized as predominantly male, with a personality trait suggestive of a lower ability to postpone gratification, who were also risk-takers when it came to having unprotected sex and binge drinking. Fourteen per cent of the respondents received images of others sent non-consensually, but 80 % of these receivers did not forward the pictures. These young people can perhaps be thought of as digital bystanders, who intervene in image-based sexual abuse, simply by not acting as forwarders (Harder, Elmose, Gaardhus, & Demant, 2019).

Meanwhile, our analysis of Danish police cases where a prosecution was made for non-consensual image sharing that did not constitute child pornography by law, demonstrates that sexual images shared without consent can be argued to fit the genre of pornography in three important ways.  First – all the images are sexually explicit and focus on skin and close-ups of body parts. Many of the images are not that explicit in and of themselves, but when they are compiled and shared as part of a larger collection of images or on pornographic sites, they become imbued with a highly sexualised connotation. Second – the images allow the viewer to identify the subject of the image, showing usually their face.

We have found that private sexual images are often shared without faces in consensual exchanges, while the non-consensual sharers deliberately add forms of identifications, such as social media profiles, names and locations. Third – the images seek to narrate sexual fantasies by sharing stories about the women in them. In the organised forums, the images gain authenticity by being shared alongside accounts of sexual experiences that the sharers have supposedly had with the victims. Previous studies of pornography have argued, that porn is a ‘leaky’ media industry, and police cases about image-based sexual abuse provide insights into the ways pornography and privacy intertwine in online spaces.

The everydayness of the Internet
Early internet research focused on the characteristics that made the internet different from offline interactions and envisioned how, for instance, the digital community of avatars in e.g. “Second Life” might be indicative of a whole new form of existence. The idea was that the digital context would allow anyone to do and be anything they wished, opening up both new possibilities as well as challenges for social interaction and the protection and welfare of members of society. However, early empirical studies of online interactions have showed that most people use the Internet for practices they would also engage in offline, e.g. shopping and other mundane activities.

The same can be argued for digital crime and sexualised interactions.  Scholarship on digital sexual networks has found that the majority of people do not use the online sphere to experiment with their sexuality or gender, rather it has provided an efficient way for meeting partners with whom one shares already established sexual preferences. Similarly, digital drug markets have simplified drug trading and provided users with easier and safer ways to get the goods they want.  Key to note, however, is that the majority of buyers and sellers were already familiar with, using and/or selling drugs before they entered digital drug markets.

The entanglement of the online and offline spheres has also resulted in a blurred line between the criminal and what is arguably ‘the experimental’. While drug dealers’ markets may be largely local, we find that the drug dealers themselves become much more fluid in terms of how they move in and out of crime. This digital drift between types of dealing and when and how one does so is related to the lower restrictions that come with the potential of very large and open social networks presented to the sellers by social media and cryptomarkets. Such movements might imply that while youth crime seems to generally be in decline, we may have in fact underestimated the large and hidden numbers of young people engaged in illegal activity due to its relatively hidden nature.  Furthermore, because of the blurred nature of when and how one considers an action to be criminal, how young people themselves come to categorise their behaviour as criminal, problematic or having ethical concerns has become more fluid as well (Goldsmith & Brewer, 2015).

The same can be argued for illegal image exchanges. Sexual images are often originally sent between consensual ‘sexting’ partners as part of online flirting exchanges.  If or when these are forwarded and/or exchanged in virtual groups, via message boards, and through file sharing platforms, they become illegal. But the distinction may not be so obvious to the perpetrators given this is a legal grey area and does not have the same connotations as face-to-face criminal activity in terms of perceived risks and consequences

However, our findings suggest that young people do not unproblematically or without considering intent, context and content, share intimate images non-consensually. Rather than the heavily politicized headlines  in which online crime is  ‘just one click away’, our studies support international findings in arguing that there appears to be a developing ethics emerging concerning appropriate and inappropriate sexual image exchange in many communities of users. This analysis is of critical importance if we want research to influence practice and awareness-raising campaigns, because they shape how we should be addressing young people. Rather than simply informing them about do’s and don’ts, campaigns based on research can speak to the concerns and experiences that are prevalent and of importance to young people regarding sexual image exchanges and drug dealing.

Sociology has since the 1940s, see the work Becker and Cohen, been concerned with how risk-taking can be understood as social and subcultural processes that shape both meanings, perceptions, and actions. In a context of ‘new mobilities’ where both time and space are moving less synchronically, risk taking has also becomes transformed. Norms have become more fluid in nature. Understanding these changes has been the focus of our research. Digital drug dealing and sexual image exchanges are examples of how (especially) young people are inducted into digital interaction orders that no longer provide ‘naturally’ existing frameworks for determining ethical practices. While social science research has examined rules of interactions for off-line behaviour, research must now also go online to study the practices which are shaping young people’s everyday lives today – as they move more fluidly across both contexts.

As with more mundane practices, our research into illegal digital markets and sexual image sharing has emphasised that online and offline activities are strongly interconnected. Thus, methods also need to integrate online and offline data generation strategies. To investigate the blurring, constantly intersecting nature of digital everyday transgressions we use data from different sources, e.g. surveys, fieldwork, interviews and documents to analyse the nature, frequency, and outcomes of crime committed in the digital sphere. We also find that there is a close association between physical bodies, pleasure, transgression, and the mediation of different kinds of online and offline spaces. Our work ultimately argues that technology facilitates new embodiments, which are embedded in offline social as well as sexual relationships both in the present, themselves shaped by affective residues from the past.

Bakken, S., Moeller, K., & Sandberg, S. (2017) Coordination problems in cryptomarkets: Changes in cooperation, competition and valuation. European Journal of Criminology, 15(4), 442-460.
Demant, J., Bakken, S., Oksanen, A., & Gunnlaugsson, H. (2019) Drug dealing on Facebook, Snapchat, and Instagram: A qualitative analysis of novel drug markets in the Nordic countries. Drug and Alcohol Review, in press.
Demant, J., Munksgaard, R., Décary-Hétu, D., & Aldridge, J. (2018). Going Local on a Global Platform: A Critical Analysis of the Transformative Potential of Cryptomarkets for Organized Illicit Drug Crime. International Criminal Justice Review, 28(3), 255-274.
Goldsmith, A., & Brewer, R. (2015). Digital drift and the criminal interaction order. Theoretical Criminology, 19(1), 112-130.
Harder, S. K, Elmose, K., Gaardhus, J., & Demant, J. (2019). Digital, Sexual Violence: Non-consensual Sharing of Sexual Images Amongst Danish Youth. In M.-L. Skilbrei, K. Stefansen, & M. B. Heinskou (Eds.), Rape in the Nordic Countries. Abingdon: Routledge.
Harder, S. K. and Demant, J. (2015). “Failing Masculinity at the Club: A Poststructural Alternative to Intoxication Feminism.” Substance Use & Misuse 50(6):759–67.


Jakob Demant is associate professor, Department of Sociology, University of Copenhagen he researches online/digital deviance from the perspective of microsociology, criminology and digital sociology.  Sidsel Kirstine Harder  is a PhD-scholar, Department of Sociology, University of Copenhagen and studies young people’s social practices with sexually explicit digital images, particularly in relation consumption of pornography, consensual production of intimate pictures and image-based sexual abuse.  Silje Bakken is a PhD-Scholar, Department of Sociology, University of Copenhagen and researches online drug markets, using digital qualitative methods. Kathrine Elmose Jørgensen is a PhD-Scholar, Faculty of Law, University of Copenhagen and has researched the illicit practices of third party platforms’ involvement in the sharing of nude pictures. Her current work focuses on radicalization and the narrative construction of Danish foreign fighter returnees in the post-ISIS era.