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How law enforcement is promoting a troubling documentary about 'sextortion'

Law enforcement organizations are promoting a new film about children being exploited into sharing sexual images and videos. But many of the film's key claims lack context.
Nicole Xu for NPR
Law enforcement organizations are promoting a new film about children being exploited into sharing sexual images and videos. But many of the film's key claims lack context.

Law enforcement officials around the U.S. are sponsoring screenings of a new documentary film that warns parents about the dangers of sexually coercive crimes online. Dozens of organizations, including local police departments, universities, a film festival, the Pentagon and a U.S. attorney's office, have lent the film credibility by hosting screenings. Two other U.S. attorney's offices promoted the film in news releases.

Sextortion: The Hidden Pandemic describes what the filmmakers refer to as "the fastest-growing crime in the world that nobody knows about" and that is "1,000 times more prevalent than sex trafficking."

"When you first face this kind of crime, you have a natural aversion to it. But then you realize: Oh my gosh, this could be happening to, well, at first we thought thousands — now we know it's millions of children," said Maria Peek, one of the documentary's filmmakers, at a screening at the University of Southern California in October 2022.

The film features federal and local prosecutors, as well as Homeland Security Investigations agents, describing a serious crime against children that they believe is on the rise. But it also contains claims disputed by other experts in the field and an emphasis on large statistics that experts say muddle the scale and scope of the problem. NPR has learned that the filmmakers and the film's promotional materials misrepresented cooperation with the Department of Justice.

The project comes from filmmakers Stephen and Maria Peek, whose past work includes a documentary about a teenage dance troupe and a collaboration with a notorious antisemite and conspiracy theorist who believes that alien, shape-shifting "reptoids" control world events.

The film focuses on the dangers of trusting strangers online. But it appears that law enforcement officials and other experts featured in the film were unaware of the filmmakers' past work giving a platform to a conspiracy theorist.

Experts on child sex abuse and human trafficking tell NPR that the film could leave viewers with an incomplete and exaggerated portrait of this threat to minors. They fear the film's portrayal of the crime could hinder harm reduction efforts by skewing public perception and even fueling conspiracy theories about rampant child victimization.

The filmmakers say they partnered with the Department of Justice, which the DOJ denies

In U.S. law enforcement circles, child sextortion has come to mean manipulating a minor into creating and sending nude or sexual materials and then using that content to coerce either more content or money or a physical meetup. For victims and families, that impact has been devastating and in some cases fatal. The FBI reports that instances of child sextortion led to more than a dozen suicides in 2022. Investigators interviewed for the film say they have witnessed the number of child sextortion cases "exploding," but concrete data is hard to come by.

Most of Sextortion tells the story of a real convicted perpetrator. In 2015, a former Navy pilot was caught posing online as a teenage boy to convince underage girls to send him sexually graphic images, which he then used to coerce them into sending more sexual content. The film also features interviews with a survivor of another sextortion case, a parent of a victim, law enforcement officials and activists.

The film features federal and local prosecutors and investigators discussing real cases. It also weaves in expert voices who offer their opinions about the social origins of these crimes. At screenings, Stephen and Maria Peek have often highlighted their close cooperation with federal agencies.

Filmmakers Stephen and Maria Peek attend the world premiere of their film <em>Sextortion: The Hidden Pandemic</em> during the 2022 Santa Barbara International Film Festival.
/ Ruby Wallau/Getty Images
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Ruby Wallau/Getty Images
Filmmakers Stephen and Maria Peek attend the world premiere of their film Sextortion: The Hidden Pandemic during the 2022 Santa Barbara International Film Festival.

"We were really lucky. The Homeland Security and Department of Justice opened up this [2015] case for us. It's never been unsealed ever before," Maria Peek told an interviewer at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival. Justice Department officials deny that the department unsealed documents for the Peeks, as the trial and its case files have always been available to the public.

The film's website lists the Department of Homeland Security as an official "partner" and includes the department's seal. The Justice Department's seal had been on the film's website but was removed after this story was first published.

"The Justice Department had no involvement in the production beyond participating in an interview about the criminal case featured in the film," said a Justice Department spokesman. "The department is currently reviewing the matter, including ongoing or planned efforts to promote the film, to ensure that any action is in accordance with department policy."

The Department of Homeland Security did not respond to NPR's inquiries about how it came to work with the filmmakers.

At a screening event in October, one federal investigator featured in the film, Special Agent Paul Wolpert, was asked how did the filmmakers "earn the trust" of the Department of Homeland Security. Wolpert replied, "They have a website. So they had done something else before that made it on the internet."

A real crime, but fuzzy data

Law enforcement officials who handle child sex crimes uniformly agree that sextortion is a serious and growing crime. But others working in this field say the Sextortion film, meant to introduce the public to the problem, relies upon statistics that lack context. Promotional material for the film proclaims "the world of online grooming and sextortion" is "a present-day reality for one in seven children online."

The filmmakers attribute this statistic to a survey by Thorn, an anti-sex-trafficking nonprofit founded by actors Ashton Kutcher and Demi Moore. After this story was published, Thorn told NPR that this statistic does not come from its survey.

One of the central data points offered in the film is that the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children's CyberTipline received 21.7 million reports of suspected child sex exploitation in 2020, a figure that has grown exponentially over the past decade. But the relationship between the number of tips and the number of known child sextortion cases occurring each year is tenuous.

Of NCMEC's tens of millions of tips, the center's vice president of communications, Gavin Portnoy, tells NPR that "the vast majority" are duplicates of older content. About 0.01% were reported to law enforcement in 2021 as potential child victims warranting further investigation — context the Sextortion film does not offer. It also goes unmentioned in the film that more than 99% of the reports are made by social media sites using automated detection software to discover suspected illegal sexual content. Technology experts say it's likely that the growing use and efficacy of such software is a significant factor behind the rising number of reports to NCMEC's tip line.

In the film, then-NCMEC official Lindsey Olson describes a 98% increase in reports of online enticement to the center's tip line between 2019 and 2020, and explains that sexual extortion cases make up part of that number but doesn't specify how much. The film then cuts to experts in separate interviews discussing sextortion cases. An NCMEC report shows that 44,155 of the reports it received in 2021 were related to possible online enticement, which includes, but is not limited to, sextortion.

In the film, Erin Burke, the lead child exploitation investigator for the Department of Homeland Security, says the drastic increase in tip line reports is due to the growth of internet use generally.

"Everything in this field goes up, because there's more technology, more anonymity and more access to children," says Burke in the film.

"I will tell you that [the filmmakers] definitely made some decisions in the edit, in the storytelling, that don't necessarily align with our data here that we're seeing," Portnoy told NPR. He stresses that tens of millions of tip line reports do not equate to millions of sextortion cases per year. "I think, when we start talking about these crazy big numbers, it really dulls us to the importance of the issue and to the impact that we're seeing it have on kids."

Asked about the possibility that the film's statistics might warrant more context, Stephen Peek said in an email, "the film has never made the claim that all 29 million were sextortion cases," referring to updated 2021 NCMEC tip line numbers.

The underreporting of sexual, violent and otherwise hidden crimes can frustrate attempts to collect precise data. But estimates from federal law enforcement on the annual number of child sextortion victims are dramatically lower than tens of millions a year. The FBI has warned that 3,000 U.S. minors, primarily boys, were victims of financial sexual extortion in 2021. The bureau could not provide comparable data from previous years, so the growth rate of sexual extortion crimes against children is unclear. Despite these discrepancies, Portnoy says, "I don't know if they outweigh the positivity that could come from the film."

"We still think that the film does a heck of a job talking about the issue. [The Peeks] were really the first people to get out there with this long form."

Homeland Security Investigations officials echoed praise for the film. "Honestly, any time that HSI can get out there into the public the ongoing issues of child exploitation, including sextortion, we're going to do that. It is a huge problem and it's a growing problem," Burke, of the agency's child exploitation investigations unit, told NPR.

How narratives about child exploitation feed conspiracy theories

For decades, activism around sex trafficking and "modern-day slavery" has been plagued by a reliance on inflated statistics and inaccurate stereotypes. The Sextortion film risks falling down many of those traps, says Erin Albright, an attorney and anti-trafficking expert. She says that first impressions of crimes are very important and that poor public understanding of child trafficking and exploitation has led to people watching for the wrong threats and misallocating resources, and has fueled conspiracy theories.

"Sextortion is a very real issue. And it can cause unimaginable harm to individuals, to families," says Albright, who has done anti-trafficking training for the Justice Department and other law enforcement organizations. "I think we've learned this kind of the hard way in the trafficking world — to go down the path of fearmongering and sensationalism is actually harmful."

She says she spends most of her time in training sessions getting investigators to unlearn inaccurate things they've been taught previously.

"Any time sex and children are in the same sentence, it all gets lumped together and it turns into this weird sort of QAnon, 'save the children' rescue that is divorced from actual social context, but there aren't hundreds of thousands of children under Central Park being drained of their blood," says Albright, referring to heavily trafficked conspiracy theories that allege children are being trafficked on a massive scale to be sexually abused.

"I spend a lot of time saying to people in my community and like on Facebook that I went to high school with, like, your child is not going to be kidnapped at Target and sex trafficked."

While there is significant public concern over sexual abuse against children, researchers have in fact seen a long-term decline in these crimes dating back to the 1990s. Substantiated reports from child protection agencies, crime victimization surveys and self-reports of child abuse, sexual or otherwise, all show dramatic decreases. These measures each have their flaws, according to David Finekelhor, who directs the University of New Hampshire's Crimes Against Children Research Center. But, he says, taken together they provide some protection against claims based on intuition and anecdote. "We need to apply the best science we have in order to be sure that we're not chasing unicorns and other imaginary trends," says Finkelhor.

The idea that sexual exploitation of children is rampant in places like the United States is a key theme for people who profit off conspiracy theories. Such narratives have become a growing problem for those working in related fields, including NCMEC.

"Yeah, I'll say we've had some interesting media days with borderline crisis PR with some of the conspiracy theories that have been out there. I think about Wayfair, specifically. I think about Pizzagate," says NCMEC's Portnoy, naming two high-profile examples of viral and unfounded rumors about child sex trafficking.

He says the center values proper context around its statistics. "Without that context and, you know, we might be credited with fearmongering, and then we end up having to call and correct and change that narrative."

Portnoy says NCMEC plans to vet media partners more carefully going forward, and regarding the Peeks, "I don't see why we would partner with them again."

"We did see that they had made films. Did we go beyond that? No. I'll be really honest with you: We didn't go any further than that," says Portnoy. "We learned that they were also partnered with HSI, which made us go: 'Hey, it's good enough for them. It's good enough for us too."

Claims made by one of the film's experts are disputed

One expert Sextortion relies on is Andrew Doan, who is identified as a neurologist. Doan is a practicing ophthalmologist with a Ph.D. in neuroscience from Johns Hopkins University who serves in the U.S. Navy. He has characterized his research background as molecular neuroscience.

In <em>Sextortion</em>, Andrew Doan, a practicing ophthalmologist with a Ph.D. in neuroscience, compares narcotics addictions to pornography addiction — a claim that is disputed by experts.
Auroris Media / Screenshot by NPR
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Screenshot by NPR
In Sextortion, Andrew Doan, a practicing ophthalmologist with a Ph.D. in neuroscience, compares narcotics addictions to pornography addiction — a claim that is disputed by experts.

In the film, he compares narcotics addictions to pornography addiction and claims that the human brain develops a tolerance to sexual images that may lead to the consumption of illegal forms of pornography like "rape porn or the child pornography."

That claim is unsubstantiated and "harmful," says Nicole Prause, a senior statistician at UCLA who studies neuroscience and sexual psychophysiology as well as alcohol and opiate addiction. She explains that addiction to narcotics works very differently in the brain than other compulsive behaviors. They are different problems that require different treatments.

Prause believes Doan's statements in the film are outside his area of expertise. Doan said in a statement that his comments are based on peer-reviewed research and his clinical expertise as a physician.

In Sextortion, Doan goes on to describe what he calls "virtual autism" caused by overuse of digital media, and he claims that by 2025, "scientists and physicians project" that 1 in 2 children will be diagnosed with autism. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that in 2018, the prevalence of autism was about 1 in 44 children.

Prause called it "a shame" to see these claims in a film about such an important subject. "They could have done an excellent job, I think, covering this and the concerns that are real around that topic," she said.

Outside his military service, Doan runs a faith-based nonprofit ministry aimed at teaching families about what he argues are the impacts of overusing digital media and pornography. He speaks widely to churches about digital media addiction, and his ministry's educational materials include claims that "video games promote use of pornography" and "excessive use of digital media will also increase the risks of child[ren] being HUMAN TRAFFICKED."

One of Doan's most widely cited papers is on the purported link between pornography and erectile dysfunction, which the bulk of scientific research has shown to be weak. The paper was recommended for retraction because its authors did not obtain consent from some of the subjects. The journal it was published in is considered "predatory" by some academics because authors pay to be published and undergo little to no scientific review.

Asked about why the film features Doan and his claims about pornography, Stephen Peek called him "one of the top neuroscientists in the U.S. Navy" and said, "We can argue if porn itself is nefarious. I think we would probably agree that it is."

Beyond stranger danger

Child sextortion is not as well studied as most forms of child sexual abuse, and what we do know is changing, says Finkelhor, of the Crimes Against Children Research Center. His center's research indicates that 3.5% of minors have experienced what they described later as sextortion.

He says the picture that has emerged shows incidents committed by strangers make up just under half of the total cases, with the majority being committed by people known to the victim. The Sextortion film focuses exclusively on cases committed by strangers. "The original stereotype of a child molester was a guy in a raincoat in a park, and it was strangers who encountered you on the street or tried to sequester you by luring you into an automobile," says Finkelhor.

But he says in the 1970s people increasingly began to disclose experiences of abuse at the hands of family members, authority figures and other trusted individuals. "And we're seeing some of the same thing now with regard to internet crimes against children. The first cases that we developed knowledge about that hit the media involved strangers who lured kids into various kinds of relationships. But we now realize that there's a lot more that happens at the hands of people that they know and other peers even. And so we're having to enlarge our view and our messaging to encompass all those diverse perpetrators," says Finkelhor.

The filmmakers' past work includes collaborating with an antisemite and conspiracy theorist

Filmmakers Stephen and Maria Peek received master's degrees in film and TV from Regent University, a conservative Christian university founded by evangelical media mogul Pat Robertson.

"One of the things we're most passionate about is the power of the documentary to function like an empathy machine," says Stephen Peek.

He says that the couple's work is journalism and that a thread runs through many of their films.

"It's about highlighting someone who's trying to do something bigger than themselves. Right?" says Stephen Peek. "And it's the typical hero story. You know, they have a dream and then there's obstacles and they have to overcome these obstacles."

The subject of one of their recent films is David Icke, a notorious British conspiracy theorist and antisemite. The couple produced, directed and edited a 2019 film called Renegade: The Life Story of David Icke. Promotional material for the film, for which Icke served as executive producer, describes it as "The first authorized documentary exploring the life of famed conspiracy theorist David Icke, the 'mad man' who has been proven right again and again."

The former BBC sportscaster has become a loud voice amplifying COVID-19 conspiracy theories and has long promoted beliefs that world events are controlled by an alien race of "reptoid" people linked to "the Illuminati." In 2019, Icke was banned from entering Australia, and last year he was banned from 26 European countries over concerns that his presence at a planned demonstration in the Netherlands would be "a disturbance of public order."

The Renegade film compares Icke to Martin Luther King Jr. and Mahatma Gandhi. It makes no mention of his conspiracy beliefs or his endorsement of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, a notorious antisemitic hoax. Icke's co-executive producer on the film is a wealthy British businessman who fought COVID-19 lockdown mandates in the United Kingdom.

There is no reason to believe that the Peeks adhere to Icke's worldview, but in a statement to NPR, the Southern Poverty Law Center cautioned that "it's hard to trust any journalism that isn't honest about Icke."

Icke himself denies accusations of antisemitism.

Asked about the 2019 film, Stephen Peek says, "I feel very good about what that movie became," before adding, "It's not a project I would do today."

"I have to make sure that I can watch a film that I've been involved with and be proud of that film, you know? And for me, having spent a decent amount of time with [Icke] over the course of a year, we never had any conversations — I never heard any antisemitic anything ever come out of this mouth," says Peek, adding that Renegade is an accurate depiction of his time with Icke.

The film's executive producer says she thoroughly researched the filmmakers

The Peeks were selected to make the Sextortion film by Executive Producer Opal Singleton, the head of a nonprofit in Southern California that aims to educate the public about child exploitation. Singleton is a retired marketing executive whose passion for the cause was sparked by her time working with a faith-based anti-human-trafficking nonprofit in Cambodia, where her church had a mission.

Singleton works closely with local law enforcement and estimates she has trained more than 500,000 government employees and civic leaders about "labor trafficking, child sex trafficking, sextortion, child pornography, social media exploitation and money laundering," according to her biography at the University of Southern California, where she is an instructor.

Executive Producer Opal Singleton attends the world premiere of <em>Sextortion: The Hidden Pandemic</em> during the 2022 Santa Barbara International Film Festival.
/ Ruby Wallau/Getty Images
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Ruby Wallau/Getty Images
Executive Producer Opal Singleton attends the world premiere of Sextortion: The Hidden Pandemic during the 2022 Santa Barbara International Film Festival.

She hosts a podcast called Exploited: Crimes and Technology. In one episode, she describes how children with "character" won't be sexually groomed, do drugs or send nude pictures.

"If you go to a school, you have cheeks hanging out of shorts, you have girls wearing these tight little things where everything is exposed — and I can't imagine how a kid, a male is even concentrating. And all the time you're finding out that they've sent these naked photos," says Singleton. "That is a girl who does not value her own self."

Singleton says she did thorough research on the Peeks before selecting them for the project and was impressed with a film they made about competitive dance. She says she was unaware of their work with Icke, although the filmmakers' page on the Internet Movie Database lists that film.

"I don't know anything about [the Icke film]. I didn't see that movie. If I'd seen a movie like that, I probably maybe wouldn't have picked Stephen and Maria. But, you know, quite frankly, they have such a passion for helping us save kids that I'm not sorry I did. I felt like they made a quality movie," says Singleton.

In a phone interview, she expressed frustration that NPR's reporting on the film would highlight anything other than crimes against children. "I think the story you're trying to tell is really sad," said Singleton.

Singleton says she wants the film to be translated into other languages and hopes to show it in every school in America. It's continuing to get attention. An upcoming screening for Sextortion: The Hidden Pandemic in North Carolina next month is listed on the film's website.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Corrected: March 13, 2023 at 10:00 PM MDT
An earlier version of this story did not include the findings of David Finkelhor's research about the prevalence of sextortion. In an earlier version of this story, the filmmakers claimed that that a statistic they cited (that "the world of online grooming and sextortion" is "a present-day reality for one in seven children online") came from a survey conducted by Thorn, an anti-sex trafficking nonprofit. After this story was published, Thorn told NPR that this statistic does not come from its survey. This story has been updated to reflect that the Department of Justice seal is no longer displayed on the film's website as a "partner."
Lisa Hagen
Lisa Hagen is a reporter at NPR, covering conspiracism and the mainstreaming of extreme or unconventional beliefs. She's interested in how people form and maintain deeply held worldviews, and decide who to trust.