WARNING: This article contains disturbing content some may find upsetting. It first appeared at VICE UK
Torment and humiliation used to be a very public spectacle. But in the modern world there are new ways to be cruel, and many of them are conducted from behind a computer screen.
It started for "Victim 5" in 2013, when she placed an advert on Gumtree saying she was looking to buy a pet dog. One of the emails the 15-year-old schoolgirl received was strange. It was from Liz, an artist, who promised to pay for any dog she chose. In return, Liz wanted the girl to email her a topless selfie as inspiration for a charcoal drawing. They got chatting over email. The girl confided to Liz that she lived in foster care, was being bullied by other girls and had a young disabled brother who "meant the world" to her. She found a dog costing £275, and Liz told her she would buy it for her in exchange for a photo that "absolutely nobody besides myself would ever see". The girl emailed over a photo. As soon as she did, Liz turned nasty.
The girl was told that if she did not send more photos immediately, the one she had sent would be emailed to her bullies. The trap quickly tightened: the more photos Victim 5 sent to Liz, the more she was blackmailed and the more explicit Liz's demands got. "I will do everything I can to make your life awful," Liz told her. She threatened to mail photos to everyone in her street and school. She would speak to social services and get her disabled brother taken away and put in a home, unless the girl photographed herself in a series of degrading naked poses, holding up signs bearing messages such as "I am a slut" and "I look after my disabled brother, and now I am being forced to strip". The girl told Liz she wanted to kill herself, but Liz continued demanding photos. The girl ended up in hospital after overdosing.
At the same time, Liz was blackmailing others: a schoolgirl was coerced into sending videos of herself eating dog food while naked on the floor, licking a soiled toilet brush and a used tampon, alongside photos of herself with her legs apart, exposing her genitals, and holding up a hand-written sign with the words "I hate niggers".
But Liz wasn't a teenage girl; she was Matthew Falder, a middle-class Cambridge graduate in his mid-twenties living a double life. When he wasn't researching geophysics, out with university friends or with his long-term girlfriend, 29-year-old Falder was using encrypted email addresses to blackmail vulnerable people into taking photos and videos of themselves performing humiliating acts, which he then circulated around the darkest corners of the internet.
According to prosecutors, Falder – who grew up in a well-off part of Cheshire – treated his victims "both as sex objects and as objects of derision". On the dark web, his particular preference was for seeing children in positions of degradation and pain. On one extreme porn forum, in a thread titled "100 things we want to see at least once", he suggested "a young girl being used as a dartboard", a video depicting a child's bones being "slowly and deliberately broken" and the abuse of "a paralysed child".
Today, Falder – who joked with detectives when they arrested him, in June of 2017, that the charges against him sounded "like the rap sheet from hell" – was sentenced to 32 years in jail at Birmingham Crown Court. He admitted over 100 offences between 2009 and 2017, covering a host of sadistic online crimes against 48 people aged from their early teens to their thirties.
During his sentencing, Judge Philip Parker QC described Falder's crimes as "a tale of ever increasing depravity". The judge told him: "You wanted to assume total control over your victims. Your behaviour was cunning, persistent, manipulative and cruel."
The case marks the first successful UK prosecution for crimes linked to "hurtcore" – an extreme form of porn focusing on the non-simulated, hardcore affliction of pain, torture and humiliation, mainly on children, including toddlers. Even though Falder was a prolific offender, he was a bit-part player in a world that is about as dark as you can imagine.
British police were first alerted to Falder – or at least to his online identities, "Inthegarden", "666devil" and "evilmind" – by the FBI during a 2013 investigation into a site called Hurt2theCore. Then the dark web's most notorious hurtcore site, Hurt2theCore had thousands of members, hundreds of whom were actively involved in sharing abuse materials. Falder was a regular on the site's chat forum, which had discussion topics including "Producing kiddie porn for dummies", "Toddler childporn star", "Three Men and a Baby", "Butchered Bitches", "Young'uns bound", "Crying rape" and Falder’s own thread, "Need ideas for blackmailed girl".
This was also where Falder posted many of the images and videos he had managed to blackmail his vulnerable young victims into sending him. It explains why he forced some, including Victim 5, to hold up hand-written Hurt2theCore signs, not only as a sick in-joke for his hurtcore peers, but also as a way of branding and authenticating his content as the "original blackmailer".
"Hurtcore is a fetish for people who get aroused by the infliction of pain, or even torture, on another person who is not a willing participant," explains Eileen Ormsby, who investigated the dark net hurtcore scene for her forthcoming book, The Darkest Web. "It can be so sadistic that even most paedophiles are repulsed by it. Videos and photos generally come out of poverty-stricken countries, but the market is worldwide."
The mystery online figure behind Hurt2theCore, and much of the hurtcore dark web zone, was an online personality called Lux, who became known as the "King of Hurtcore". When police finally identified him in 2014, it turned out he was 22-year-old nanotechnology student Matthew Graham, who had been running a host of hurtcore sites under his "PedoEmpire" zone from his bedroom at his parents' house in suburban Melbourne.
Graham admitted to encouraging a Russian paedophile to kidnap, rape, torture and murder a five-year-old girl, although no one knows if the Russian actually went through with it. Graham also shared a video so dark that many on the internet had presumed it was an urban myth. "Daisy's Destruction" showed a screaming 18-month-old girl, tied upside down by the legs, being subjected to a gruesome ordeal of violence, rape and torture by a masked woman. The film was sold to paedophiles and hurtcore enthusiasts on the dark web for $10,000 (£7,140) before Graham got hold of it and – in the name of freedom, as he would later claim – put it on Hurt2theCore.
"At first I felt ashamed in myself for being attracted to such a thing," he told the Daily Dot before his arrest. "But as time went on I slowly grew more accepting of myself. It wasn't until I came across the Tor paedo community that I was able to truly feel comfortable with attractions."
In 2016, Graham was sentenced to 15 years in jail for crimes the judge described as "pure evil".
Another Australian, businessman Peter Scully, who is accused of making "Daisy's Destruction" with his assistant Liezyl Margallo, is in jail in the Philippines, charged with child murder, torture and abuse, linked to videos he made for his production company, No Limits Fun.
The cruelty is relentless. Since Graham’s PedoEmpire was shut down, new sites have popped up and children continue to be blackmailed and abused for the entertainment of a faceless horde of online molesters using new technologies to fulfil their desires. A report published in November of 2016 by the Australian National University Cybercrime Observatory raised concerns that a rise in the use of virtual reality and sex robotics could motivate offenders to seek offline victims and to "enhance their experience by incorporating live-streaming of child sex abuse with the tactile experiences promised by such technologies".
Policing the most shocking parts of the dark web is a daunting task, says Ormsby: "The dark web creates a lot of problems for law enforcement because they can't track users through the usual computer methods. They have to rely on old-fashioned detective work – trying to identify users through features in pictures and videos, or through social engineering [the use of deception to manipulate individuals into divulging confidential or personal information]."
She says that unlike other dark markets, such as guns and drugs, most illegal porn is shared among participants for free, so there is no money or cryptocurrency trail to follow. Going in undercover is often the best method, but, as Ormsby says, "To get access to the most extreme sites, members have to provide original material depicting child abuse, so obviously law enforcement can’t participate in that."
One of the hardest elements to comprehend when it comes to hurtcore crimes is motive. Both Falder and Graham were barely out of their teens when they got involved in the hurtcore scene. Neither trial has mentioned either suffering a major trauma or humiliation in their childhood that may have prompted such delight in seeing others being hurt and humiliated. It's also surprising that while wading knee-deep in a landscape which depicted almost Biblical levels of evil, Falder in particular was able to keep this side of himself completely insulated from his day-to-day life.
Senior detectives in the Falder case said that while most crimes are committed because of sex, passion, money, revenge or hate, Falder's main drive was to cause suffering and humiliation in others. "In 30 years of law enforcement I have never come across such horrifying offending, where the offender's sole aim was to cause such pain and distress," said Matt Sutton, the NCA's senior investigating officer.
"I think it just comes down to sadism," says Ormsby. "The cruelty required to participate in hurtcore is simply unimaginable for most of us. The dark web has provided a place for like-minded individuals to meet safely, and the fact that there is a 'community' – for want of a better word – might normalise their urges and acts, to a certain degree. There is an element of trying to outdo each other in depravity."
Modern day cruelty is conducted remotely, but it has the power to put its victims in a chokehold. Perpetrators are hidden in a web of online encryption, while victims are left to suffer in silence. Many of the people Falder targeted, despite being so degraded, showed amazing bravery in coming forward. They expressed relief that he had been captured and punished, but what they also remarked upon was how this particular species of cruelty, administered by someone they had never seen in the flesh, had left such an indelible mental scar.
In the words of one of Falder’s 15-year-old victims: "I think about what happened to me every day. I think I always will."
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This article originally appeared on VICE UK.