[00:00:00] Jordan Heath-Rawlings: Nobody signs up for a dating app because they’re planning for the worst. We might know that we won’t find the right person for us immediately, but downloading one of these apps, creating a profile and putting it out to the world is an act of optimism and hope. And that is certainly how it is sold to us.
Ad 1: Hinge wants you to meet someone great.
Ad 2: Over 16 million people have already joined Christian mingle.
Ad 3: My single sisters and I felt hopeless about dating in the big city. So we changed the game and made Coffee Meets Bagel.
Ad 4: OkayCupid. Download now, date now.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: Yes, there’s going to be muck to wade in, ask anyone who uses these apps regularly. And yes, bad dates to suffer through, and ghosting and idiots and all of that.
But it’s what sometimes happens offline on one of these dates from these apps that they don’t address. [00:01:00] It’s horrific, of course, but it’s also inevitable that on the millions of dates, the apps users go on, some of them end in sexual assault. That’s not the app’s fault of course, but what happens after that user has reported not just to the police, but to the app itself is the responsibility of these companies.
So when a user reports an assault to a dating app, what happens first? Who takes that complaint? Who makes a phone call? How is it escalated? Is the accused user banned from just one app or from all of them? And if they’re not banned and it happens again, now whose fault is it?
I’m Jordan Heath-Rawlings, this is The Big Story. Brian Edwards is a reporter with [00:02:00] Columbia Journalism Investigations, who worked on this project with ProPublica. Hey Brian.
Brian Edwards: Hi.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: Thanks for joining us. I thought maybe, um, just to give some context to what we’re going to talk about today and a frame of reference, you could begin by just telling us about Natalie Dong.
Brian Edwards: Yeah, absolutely. Natalie, uh, kind of served as the central, uh, anecdote for our story. And she was somebody who reached out to us through a survey that we conducted in partnership with ProPublica, who was our reporting partner for this story. Um, and she told us about her experience on a dating app where, you know, she, um, went out with a man and was assaulted and afterwards went to try to report him, not only to, uh, you know, the app that she had met him on, which was Coffee Meets Bagel, but a host of other apps that she knew that he was on as well.
Um, through that process and kind of, you know, the way that we were able to tell our story is Natalie is unique in that she had this experience and having [00:03:00] disparate, uh, you know, experiences with all of the dating apps and that some like Bumble, you know, responded to her immediately, and some like Tinder, she ended up having to protest outside of their office physically to get, uh, you know, a response from the company that they had removed um, you know, her, her alleged assailant from the app.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: We’re going to talk about all the various dating apps and how they handle, uh, experiences like that. But first maybe set the scene by explaining the investigation you did and what you were trying to find in the scope of it.
Brian Edwards: Yeah, absolutely. So this story really spawned from a previous story that this team had worked on. I actually joined right after, um, that story had published, but essentially the first story was a look at dating apps and was, uh, looked at, you know, how they did or did not, uh, scan for sex offenders. And what the past investigation had found was that, uh, Match Group, which is kind of a, a titan of the industry, um, and owns most of the dating apps, uh, you know, that people know. Tinder, Hinge, [00:04:00] OkCupid, Plenty of Fish, Match.com.
They had promised in the past to ban and scan for sex offenders on their flagship app Match.com, but not on the other applications that they had acquired over time. And so, during that investigation questions were raised about, you know, how these apps handle sexual assault generally. And what we did is we, we, like I had mentioned partnered with ProPublica and put out a survey and heard from more than 200 people about, you know, the, the vast experiences that they had with dating apps, with some of them, you know, reporting their, their rapes to a dating app and hearing nothing back, essentially.
What we wanted to do was set out to figure out, you know, why some people were getting responses and some people were not.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: Did you manage to do that? Um, it seems like from reading the reporting that it just varied so widely.
Brian Edwards: Yeah. So it, it, it, it did end up being a tough thing to figure out. And I think that’s, you know, why we, we worked on this for over a year and that’s that’s a big reason why I think is, is [00:05:00] because it is, it is so hard to figure out. Um, we set out to do an industry-wide look, so, you know, not just Match Group, but also, you know, some of the other big players like, like Bumble and Grindr and Coffee Meets Bagel.
And, and I think what we found is that, you know, there are, you know, no best practices, no, no, no industry standards set by any means. And what happens then is a lot of these companies are either, you know, kind of flying by the seat of their pants early on in their, in their time, or, you know, they, they don’t have set procedures or, you know, uh, a good set of procedures to handle them.
And I think what we found is that, you know, when they, you know, haven’t established these best practices, then you are having, you know, issues with getting responses to everybody. And I think, you know, kind of the second part of that and what we found in what grew from our original reporting that we never thought about was that there ended up being a whole second side to this investigation about, about moderators and the other people who are handling these complaints and the issues that they’re [00:06:00] actually facing as well when trying to respond to all these complaints.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: That’s where I was going to go next. So someone like Ms. Dong gets in touch with a Bumble or a Tinder, and, you know, I’m asking you here, generally we can get into the specifics right afterwards, um, by company. But what typically happens when you flag a user’s profile and you say, Hey, this user assaulted me.
Brian Edwards: Yeah. That’s a great question. And it’s something that we were really trying to, to dig down into, and I think what essentially happens at least industry-wide is that most places tend to have a mix of, of both kinds of, you know, AI and human employees who are sorting through these complaints initially to try to get them routed to what is, what we, you know, ended up in some of the apps themselves called kind of the appropriate tier within the moderation teams. Whereas, you know, there are people at lower levels who are handling maybe, you know, some simpler, simpler complaints, but then there are people at higher levels who are handing, handling some of these most serious cases.
Something that we did learn throughout that process is [00:07:00] that none of these teams have a specialized team to handle sexual assault, despite the fact, you know, that as we learned it is, you know, unfortunately not uncommon on these apps for, you know, sexual assault or harassment or things like that to happen. But there are, you know, these different tiers essentially where, you know, say for somebody like Natalie, you know, the hope is that it gets, it gets pushed up to this tier to somebody who is handling these more serious complaints and then they’ll respond to her.
But you know, what we found is that, you know, there are many issues along the way, both with, you know, complaints getting categorized in the wrong way to, you know, these very large workloads that moderators have that can, that can present issues for somebody like Natalie.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: So they don’t have any specific teams to handle this kind of stuff. Um, but the moderators who end up talking to people like Natalie, do they have any training in how to speak to sexual assault victims?
Brian Edwards: Yeah. So, uh, in industry-wide, you know, what we found was that, you know, most places will have, you know, some type of general employee training, you know, like, like any other [00:08:00] job, they will, you know, go through different aspects of the job, the, the nuts and bolts of moderation and how to respond to that.
But we found, you know, that, that for the most part, a lot of these, you know, applications aren’t having, you know, kind of like the, the, the in-depth training that would be required to, you know, deal with these, what are very traumatic experiences that people are having and traumatic for these moderators to respond to.
And that has left a lot of, a lot of people who are working in these situations in incredibly stressful work situations that have that, that have led to, you know, harsh consequences for them as well, kind of for their, their mental health, essentially. We got our hands on a training manual for one Match Group app, and, you know, it’s a, it’s a dozens of page manual and they have two pages on sexual assault and all it really is, is, you know, kind of some, some best guidance for how to respond to people, but really, really no more than that, essentially.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: Tell me about, uh, the Match Group in general, because I think we’re going to probably talk a bunch about them. They are, as you mentioned, uh, by far [00:09:00] kind of the biggest conglomerate of dating apps. How do they handle this? Do they even have any policies across all their apps?
Brian Edwards: So that’s a great question. And you know, something that we were digging into for awhile, um, like you said, Match Group is an absolute titan, uh, in the dating industry. I think, you know, lots of people don’t even realize that they are, you know, owning a lot of the, a lot of the, the companies that people are using for their dating apps.
But, um, we found overall, you know, Match Group apps tend to be incredibly siloed. While they may be under the Match umbrella, employees told us again and again, that they functioned essentially like individual companies. That essentially leads to them having different policies at different apps, handling them at different ways.
I think one example that we used in the story is that at Hinge, the lower level moderators are left to kind of investigate, dig into these sexual assault complaints before forwarding up the moderation chain. And compared to OkCupid, which is another one of the apps that we highlighted, they, you know, are supposed to, [00:10:00] to, to move these complaints up the chain to these higher level moderators immediately.
So there are really some big differences between these Match Group apps. Um, and one thing that Match, you know, says that they do is that they, they claim that they block, uh, people across all of their apps, essentially. Um, and that, you know, if somebody is banned on OkCupid, they’re looking to ban them on Tinder then.
But, you know, we had, uh, you know, victims who had reached out to us who had said that they had seen, you know, their perpetrators appear on other apps. And so it appears that there are even issues with that as well.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: Tell me more about what the victims do, um, to try to help other potential victims on these sites afterwards. You know, you mentioned Natalie essentially went across all dating apps, trying to ban this guy. Is this, is this a common thing? And, uh, how did they feel about that burden being on them?
Brian Edwards: I think the number one thing that we heard from victims, and I think we heard this from [00:11:00] just about every single victim that we talk to is their primary motivation for reaching out to an application was to prevent this from happening to other people. Even those that didn’t go to police, even those that felt, you know, some, some hesitance that, you know, maybe police wouldn’t do something about this. They felt that dating apps could do something about this. And that is why they reported their perpetrators to the apps.
On the flip side of that coin though, is that many times, you know, like Natalie, like others that we talked to, you know, they’re very frustrated that the burden falls on their shoulders and, you know, described it as, as, as a, as a retraumatizing thing, essentially, that they really had to, to relive, uh, that experience again.
And that was born out with experts that we talked to as well, who said, you know, having to, having to go through and rehash these things can, can be as traumatizing as the incident itself, which, on its face sounds, you know, sounds like something that might not be the case, but we heard that from both, both women and experts repeatedly.
[00:12:00] Jordan Heath-Rawlings: I’ll get to the experts in a sec, but I also want to ask you about the moderators. You spoke to a number of them, um, mostly off the record for this story. What did they describe? I mean, I can’t imagine what that job must be like if you don’t have any real kind of formal training handling this stuff.
Brian Edwards: Yeah. Uh, so yeah, we talked to 50 current and former employees and you’re correct. Most of them were afraid to talk on the record for, uh, for several reasons, some, you know, still being employed at the companies, but others, um, you know, had, had signed NDAs, um, and, and were fearful about, you know, speaking out. But they described, you know, over and over again, we heard it, uh, is that there, there are companies who, you know, early on in their time, they essentially had no set policies. It was really a free for all, the wild west was a common description. Uh, and as time would go along these teams, which were already small to begin with would not scale up as millions of users would, would jump on.
Uh, I think it’s important to think about a lot of these [00:13:00] dating apps, we don’t talk about it much, but they’re just like these other tech companies that are always in the news. They’re, they’re, they’re like Facebook, you know, they’re like Amazon, the, the ‘started in the garage’, kind of tale is one that, that Plenty of Fish, uh, the, the original founder touts, he started in his garage in Canada and it grew to a behemoth essentially. Um, and so the, the people who are at these, these companies talk about, you know, these, these tiny teams and a flood of complaints, and depending on the app, you know, uh, there may be some different experiences, but th- there was a lot of overlap.
Um, and you know, at, at, at one app, employees told us about some people having to work second jobs, to be able to pay their bills. Others told us about, you know, their coworkers having to take off work because of, you know, the stress of the job and, and feeling like they were absolutely overwhelmed by it.
And I think, you know, well, well, each app, you know, or platform has its different quirks. We heard across the board, you know, that people felt that, that there was not enough to support them in [00:14:00] the work that they were doing.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: When you were speaking to the victims, um, and doing these investigations, which apps were particularly bad at this? And were there any that were good? And now I’m just strictly asking for advice for people listening, who are considering using these apps and might be concerned.
Brian Edwards: Yeah. Um, I think that’s a, that’s a common thought that people have and, you know, it’s a good one. And so I think, you know, kind of the, the best way that I can refer to that is, you know, as a part of our reporting, we had our survey, which was, you know, not scientific, but we still, you know, had quite a few people. And I think what we saw was that Bumble by far had the best response rate for getting back to people, and Tinder by far had the worst. Again, that’s not scientific, but I think we saw, you know, born out in our reporting over time and recently that, you know, those were two, two kind of ends of the spectrum that, that stuck out to us.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: And when you did talk to the experts, did they offer, um, any solutions to this? [00:15:00] Any ways that it could have been nipped in the bud before it got this far or any you know, simple policies that could be implemented, uh, that might actually make a difference?
Brian Edwards: So experts in the, in the Trust and Safety Space, which is kind of, you know, the, the formal name for moderation now, um, they said, you know that in the past and continuing to now, unfortunately, companies, companies are just focused on growth when they start and they are not focused on, on growing out their moderation team immediately as they are growing. So initially these apps could have, could have tackled these issues, could have made sure to have strong moderation teams, policy, and training to handle these.
Unfortunately, you know, we are, we are far beyond that. That’s something that, you know, the newest dating apps can can implement now, but for those already in the space, um, experts have told us that there are still things that they can do. Uh, one point that we touched on in the story is about, about Uber and, and a company, that’s a company that, that had been hammered for uh you know, assaults, uh, of both drivers and [00:16:00] users. What Uber committed to do is they, they published a report that listed the number of assaults that they had over two years, implemented new policies to better respond to people, and partnered with a competitor to share the people that they are banning from their apps to make sure, you know, that they can’t get on either of those. And Uber is committed to continuing to publish those numbers so that people can, can measure the efficacy of what they’re doing. And that is certainly something that experts told us that dating apps could do as well.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: Did you take the results of your own survey as well as maybe some of the advice you’d gotten from the experts and put it to the companies themselves? Would they even talk to you?
Brian Edwards: Yeah, uh, we had been reaching out to all of the companies named in our survey very early on, you know, we, we attempted to talk to them for months, multiple times over several months. Um, we heard almost near radio silence. Uh, Bumble was the only platform that was willing to sit down, [00:17:00] make an executive available to us, and make an executive available to us multiple times, and to really explain the processes, uh, to us. And, you know, so I, I will give them some props, uh, for that.
Uh, Match Group though, you know, declined to answer a specific questions, only gave general statements and, and several of the other companies as well. You know, we, we, we sent them every single thing we were saying in this story in an attempt to, to talk with them about it, uh, far ahead of time. And most of them, you know, just gave general statements or, or partially answered our questions.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: So what comes next? Are there any regulations on the horizon? Are companies actively looking to fix this or did you get the sense, as I know some people we talked to about investigations do, that they were kind of waiting for you to go away.
Brian Edwards: I think your, your last point is, is absolutely true in that, you know, I don’t, I, we certainly did not, you know, in our reporting come across, you know, any, I think like widespread industry [00:18:00] changes that, that people were talking, uh, about implementing. You know, there, there are always different, uh, different safety initiatives that, that apps are, are, are rolling out. And some of those are addressing issues and some are not.
Um, but I think, you know, when it comes to, to legislation and things like that, uh, there has been some talk in Congress about kind of a couple of different efforts. One surrounds what is now the, the very controversial, uh, Section 230. And that is kind of, has been the center of a lot of discussions around, uh, speech online.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: Can you explain Section 230 for our Canadian audience?
Brian Edwards: Oh, yeah, totally. Um, so Section 230, uh, essentially was a part of a federal law created in 1996 called the Communications Decency Act. Um, and it was created to protect websites from being held liable for their users’ speech, unless it was criminal. That has been used by Facebook, by Twitter, a lot of big social media sites, um, to shield themselves from liability [00:19:00] currently. And it has really been, you know, kind of, uh, a fraught discussion, uh, within Congress here.
But, you know, kind of behind the scenes, dating apps have used that same, that same law in Section 230, to essentially, you know, deflect lawsuits and, and, and not be liable for, uh, the different harms that could come from using their websites.
And so now there is some talk among, among advocates and among people in Congress that to possibly revise Section 230 to not include, you know, dating apps in that way if there is, you know, offline harm that occurs. You know, I wouldn’t say that there is, you know, broad movement or, uh, a coalition pushing for that, but that is kind of one way, essentially that, um, that there has been talk about, about trying to deal with this.
A second way is there is a Congress person who is also, you know, one of the people who is heading some of the congressional investigations, uh, Jan Schakowsky. She, uh, introduced a bill essentially that would require dating platforms to, to enforce their [00:20:00] rules around fraud and abuse. Uh, and it, it would essentially, you know, kind of put those under the enforcement of the FTC, the Federal Trade Commission.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: The last question I want to ask you, because that’s kind of an open-ended discussion and we don’t know which direction the political winds will blow, is about the victims themselves that you talked to.
Brian Edwards: Yes.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: Were they ultimately able in all cases to get their assaulters off these apps? Are some of them still on there? Where do those things stand now?
Brian Edwards: So that’s a, that’s a tough question to answer, unfortunately. And the reason for that is, uh, we found, you know, across the spectrum that, uh, apps have kind of different policies on whether they will tell victims what the outcome of their report was.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: Huh.
Brian Edwards: Uh, so we have, you know, and we, you know, we reached out with, with the approval of several victims to, to talk to companies about these cases, to [00:21:00] see whether these people were banned or not. And the companies all refuse to do that for citing privacy reasons. Um, but you know, we have, we have several examples of victims who reported, sometimes reporting several times, and do not know whether that person, uh, was taken off the app or not.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: Brian, thanks for looking into this and thanks for explaining it to us today.
Brian Edwards: Thank you so much for having me.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: Brian Edwards with Columbia Journalism Investigations. That was The Big Story, for more from us, head to thebigstorypodcast.ca. Find us on Twitter at @TheBigStoryFPN. Email us anytime, we’ve been getting some amazing emails with story suggestions lately, we’re looking at all of them. Also some nice compliments, so thank you. And thank you to the one person who reminded me that when I say our email address is thebigstorypodcast, all one word, all lowercase, @rci.rogers.com [click here!], that I don’t need to use all lowercase. You can also find us everywhere you get [00:22:00] podcasts, Apple, Google, Stitcher, Spotify, et cetera. You can ask your smart speaker to play The Big Story podcast and you will get us there, as well.
Thanks for listening. I’m Jordan Heath-Rawlings, we’ll talk tomorrow.
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