It’s borderless, faceless and almost impossible to trace, but what goes on in the deepest corners of the dark web is far from victimless.
Certain content that is produced and circulated on the dark web is the stuff of nightmares — imagery people push as far away from their minds as possible — where children are being abused.
But where there is a criminal operation underway, there is often a police investigation not too far behind. Hunting Warhead, a new CBC Podcast, follows one of those investigations, which takes producers all over the world in a bid to stop the flow of child abuse material at the source.
Co-produced with Norwegian newspaper VG, Hunting Warhead is hosted by longtime CBC journalist Daemon Fairless. We spoke with the host in the lead-up to launch day to discuss the impact — and the toll — of the investigation.
The subject matter at hand repulses most people. What was it about the investigation that compelled you?
I definitely share that sense of repulsion — it’s such an understandable and natural response. It’s really tempting to want to avoid the topic entirely. Unfortunately, ignoring the issue doesn’t make it go away.
The more I learned about online child abuse — how destructive and harmful it is (and how prevalent) — the more I felt compelled to cover it. I don’t think we have much chance of combating it unless we understand it in detail: the way these networks work, the way the people who run these networks think. All of which means delving into some pretty dark territory.
There’s a line by George Orwell that I thought about a lot over the course of this project. He wrote that part of what made him a good journalist was his ability to “face unpleasant facts.” I felt a duty to do the same: to look unflinchingly at something highly unpleasant.
On a brighter note, Hunting Warhead also tells the stories of some remarkable heroes. There are the police who have devoted their lives to rescuing these children. The work they do is tireless and amazing — often at high personal cost. And there are also the Norwegian journalists we worked with — Håkon Høydal and Einar Stangvik — who are exposing the networks of dark web predators. They were really inspiring to work with. But the most inspiring people we worked with were without a doubt the victims and survivors of child-sexual abuse. They just blew me away with their courage and strength.
As a father, how was it for you to learn about what was happening to children on the dark web?
It was tough initially. The very first day I set out to do research, I got half a page into Julian Sher’s book on the history of online child abuse, One Child At a Time, and I just broke down and wept. I couldn’t understand how someone could harm a child like that. But that’s precisely what fuelled me to want to keep going.
The key to protecting our kids is educating ourselves.– Daemon Fairless, host
The more informed we are about online child abuse, the healthier we are as a society. A huge part of the issue is that this stuff goes undetected because no one wants to talk about it. The key to protecting our kids is educating ourselves.
What should people know about the type of person who takes part in online child abuse?
In terms of your average downloader, I think the most important thing to understand is that there probably is no discernable “type”. The thing that strikes me every time there’s a police sting and a bunch of guys are arrested for posession of child abuse material is that it’s always seemingly average, “normal” men. I think we like to believe that we have “Spidey Senses” that can pick up a child-abuser or pedophile. But more often than not, they just fly under the radar. Precisely because they’re so normal.
Explain the specific use of the term “child abuse” versus the more commonly-used term “child pornography.”
The term “child pornography” is often used in a legal capacity. For instance, you can be charged with “possession of child pornography.” So there’s nothing wrong with it, per se. But I found that almost every police investigator, researcher and activist — people who are really informed about the nature of the images — tend to use the term “child-abuse material”. This is because “child-abuse material” is simply way more accurate. These are images of children being abused, exploited and sexually tortured.
“Pornography” is created by consenting adults for other adults. Whether you find it offensive or not, it’s consensual. Child-abuse materials are images of criminal acts and entirely non-consensual.
Walking away from this investigation, what’s something you didn’t expect to learn or an emotion you didn’t expect to experience?
I was really moved when I spoke with the parents of ‘Warhead’. They’re good people. Kind, caring and thoughtful. They had devoted themselves to being good parents. And then their son was arrested for sexually assaulting a child and running the largest child-abuse site on the dark web. I had been thinking, understandably, about the impact of ‘Warhead’ on his victims. But, until I spoke with them, I hadn’t really spent much time thinking about the impact on his family. I think they’re quite alone in the grief they feel. My heart broke for them.
Written by Émilie Quesnel.