The conviction of a serial killer raises questions about the safety of dating apps

by Emily Reynolds
Nov 30 2016, 1:11am

The recent conviction of a man in the U.K. for the murder and sexual assault of four young men has led to a raft of headlines dubbing him “the Grindr killer” – a reference to a gay dating app where he met his victims. The Stephen Port case has reopened the discussion about the use of dating and hookup apps, as it’s not the first time such apps have been accused of endangering users. After similar crimes in the U.S. in 2014, the news site Vocativ ran a piece titled “Death by Grindr: Is It the New Killer App?

Chief Constable Jane Sawyers, the U.K. police lead for LGBT issues, has said she thinks apps could be “doing more to prevent offenses in the first place.” But what can technology companies actually do to protect users?

Grindr did not respond to a VICE News request for comment, but dating app Happn told us that making sure all users were “connected to a Facebook account before they go live” is key to ensuring user safety because “Facebook is particularly vigilant in applying a strong policy to prevent fake profiles.” Like most other dating apps, Happn also suggests meeting in a public place and giving your friends details of where you are and who you’re with.

But Happn’s spokesperson also noted that “meeting new people always has inherent risks,” adding, “Those with bad principles can just as easily connect with others offline as they can online.”

This is a notion supported by Sharif Mowlabocus, senior lecturer in digital media at the University of Sussex. Mowlabocus is the author of Gaydar Culture, a book exploring how gay men navigate the digital world. He told VICE News that the Stephen Port case is “a police issue, not a technology issue,” and said that blaming app designers is a distraction from the real issues.

“To question whether apps have enough safety measures in place is to suggest that these applications have a responsibility to protect their users. If they do, where does the limit of that responsibility lie? Because we might ask the same thing of bars, clubs, and other spaces where people meet and hook up.”

“Arguably neither an app nor a bar can be held responsible for what subsequently happens to people who initially meet in these spaces. In the case of Stephen Port, it is easy to blame the technology for what happened, but the technology didn’t kill and rape these men. Port did.”

Mowlabocus also points out that Port’s first victim, Anthony Walgate, did indeed take the types of precautions that hookup apps suggest: He told his friends where he was and initially met Port in a public place. “It was good advice, but it didn’t stop him being murdered.”

“We might ask what advice could possibly be given, what safety measures could possibly be put in place to prevent such a thing happening? Sadly, I do not think there are any.”

Benjamin Wilson argues that apps actually make things safer for LGBT communities. Wilson lived in Barking around the time of the murders and engaged with Stephen Port on Grindr several times.

“How many of us are using these apps, and how many of us are experiencing violence?” he says. “Not more than were experiencing it when we were at bars. In fact, using apps can help make things safer. I don’t have to go and get wasted in some gay ghetto. I don’t have to commute through straight areas in an outfit that would get my head kicked in.”

Asking whether Grindr was ‘to blame’ for the murders has also raised questions about media – and police – handling of the crime, which some feel has been implicitly homophobic.

“Coverage of gay dating and sex apps is almost always salacious and homophobic,” said Mowlabocus. “Calling Port the “Grindr killer” is not only crass, it aligns the app with murder. Why not call him the GBH killer? Or the graveyard murderer, seeing as that’s where he dumped some of the victims’ bodies? Bringing a gay dating app into the headline just serves to further demonise gay men.”

Wilson says he doesn’t think there’s anything apps can do to increase safety – but also that they shouldn’t have to. “The focus being put onto the apps is just a way of shifting blame,” he says. “It’s an insidious sort of victim blaming. Oh, they did chemsex, they were on apps.”

“For me, the focus on technology and apps is just a way for straight people, or the police, to feel like there hasn’t really been an injustice, that there isn’t systemic prejudice.”

“Port could have met his victims via contact ads in the 1970s, or via telephone chat lines in the 1980s,” Mowlabocus says. “The technology has changed. But the outcome would have been the same.”

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