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How linguistics can help us catch sex offenders

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Between 2009 and 2011, a now convicted sexual offender in his early twenties was spending much of his time online persuading young girls and boys to produce and share with him sexual images and videos. To maximise his success, he would deceive and manipulate his victims by cycling through numerous different personas—a teenage boy, a young woman, a modelling agent, for example—seemingly trying to find the best fit for the person he was talking to. Online anonymity is a significant hurdle in policing online sexual abuse, and cases like this are sadly common. As such, law enforcement agencies draw on expertise from a range of disciplines for support, including forensic linguistics. Given that this sort of online abuse occurs almost exclusively through language, linguists are in a unique position to assist police investigations by describing how language functions in various online criminal contexts as well as helping identify anonymous offenders through their language. In the case mentioned above, the online abuse was enabled by multiple online identities. The man adopted 17 different personas. To understand how online abuse works, it’s important to consider two questions: First, what strategies did the offender use in the attempt to obtain images from victims? Second, did the 17 personas’ strategies vary, or were they linguistically consistent? To explore these questions, it helps to understand how identity works. Rather than being some static, unchanging entity, identity is in some ways multiple, and at least in part, performed through language. Think, for example, about the various roles you might assume in a day- friend customer, boss, spouse, etc. And think about how your language choices might shift, subtly or dramatically, consciously or unconsciously, across each, enabling you to perform each of those different roles. The first question is fairly straightforward. Across all 17 personas, the offender’s most common linguistic moves were associated with sexual. . .

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News source: Linguistics – OUPblog

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