Grant – Assuming identities online – tracking and tracing the multiple linguistic identities of online paedophiles

The FORGE is delighted to announce our next external guest speaker: Tim Grant. Tim is a Professor in Forensic Linguistics at Aston University whose research interests include forensic authorship analysis and the linguistic analysis of police interviews. Details of his talk are below:

Assuming identities online – tracking and tracing the multiple linguistic identities of online paedophiles

NB This talk will involve the outline description of sexual offences committed against children and adults and short extracts of online sexual abuse conversations will be discussed.

It has been widely noted that online identities have ‘an ultimate linguistic nature’ (Tardini and Cantoni, 2005: 374) owing to the comparative scarcity of other semiotic resources as compared to face to face interaction. Computer Mediated Discourse Analysis (CMDA) research on group identity has variously identified discourse styles associated with participant age, gender, ethnicity and race (see Herring, 2004), but there has been little attempt to bring these facets of identity together, nor to explore the notion of idiolect – ‘the individual’s unconscious and unique combination of linguistic knowledge, cognitive associations and extra-linguistic influences’ (McMenamin, 2002: 53). Furthermore, it has been noted that existing approaches to identity in computer-mediated interaction are still limited by their ‘mechanistic view of identity management’ (Lamerichs and te Molder, 2003) rather than taking a view that acknowledges identities are actively constructed for particular occasions.

This talk examines two aspects of online identity assumption and identity play in criminal contexts.

In the first instance investigative forensic linguistics has tended to focus on analysis, either in terms of comparative authorship analysis – to determine likely writers of a text, or in terms of sociolinguistic profiling – to determine characteristics of a writer (Grant, 2008). In the talk I’ll describe forensic linguistic case work which can help link two identities as being written by the same individual and describe how such work can have a practical impact in the police investigation.  Further to the practical impact I’ll discuss what stays the same and what changes when individuals consciously adopt alternative online identities, and so throw some light on the academic exploration of linguistic identity performance.

In the second aspect of work on online identity disguise I’ll detail a new ESRC research project, started this August, called Assuming Identities Online.  This project addresses the growing need, identified in the recent HM Inspectors of Constabulary report, for the further professionalisation of online undercover policing.  Drawing on a corpus of Internet Relay Chat (IRC) logs and e-mails provided by a UK police force, we examine the discursive processes of identity construction, negotiation and manipulation in interactions between suspects and undercover officers in cases of grooming, child abuse and the trafficking of children and adults for sex. I’ll describe how using this evidence base we are moving from work in authorship analysis to authorship synthesis as we develop a  training  package in the assumption of online identities for undercover police officers.

Finally I hope to indicate just some of the ethical issues which need to be acknowledged and addressed to work in this field and the wider need to develop ethical frameworks for forensic linguistic research and practice.

Professor Tim Grant is the Director of the Centre for Forensic Linguistics at Aston University. Tim is on the Ethics and Professional Practice Committee of the International Association of Forensic Linguists and is a member of the Scientific Committee for the International Investigative Interviewing Research Group (iIIRG). Tim has extensive experience of providing linguistic evidence in a variety of cases including successful investigations into sexual assault, stalking, murder, and terrorism. Tim is particularly interested in forensic authorship analysis focusing on short messages such as text messages and Twitter posts, and he is also interested in how linguists can advise and train police officers to conduct better interviews. Tim’s work has appeared in featured newspaper articles and on BBC radio programmes. Furthermore, after providing a profile of a writer of roughly 60 racially and sexually abusive letters, Tim appeared as part of a media appeal on the BBC Crimewatch programme. This media appeal was successful in finding the offender, who matched the profile proposed by Tim.

1500-1600, Tue 17th Feb 2015, Cavendish Lecture Theatre

Lancaster University staff members and students are welcome to attend.