Back from her school, Afrah quickly changes into her home clothes and checks her mobile. The notifications are exciting, this is her first Instagram account, and people are commenting.
The 14-year-old ninth-grader is a typical teenager. Her profile mentions her birth date, her hobbies, and age. Her friends think the photos are very cool. Life is good.
But within hours of her getting online, she receives a text in her inbox.
The man is an adult and wants to talk to her.
Her bio on Instagram says she is “14 years old” but the man insists that he wants to talk to her.
Afrah avoids replying, but the man is persistent. And there are others.
In just three days, the number of messages in her inbox rises to 82.
The men try to start conversations with Afrah, exchanging greetings and soon asking her to be friends with them.
One of the men who looks like he is in his 30s texts her at midnight. He wants Afrah to share her phone number.
He clarifies that he just wants to be a “good friend” and talk to her daily to ‘check on her’.
In the days that follow, various Kashmiri men, all strangers to her, start texting Afrah telling her that they have fallen in love and want to marry her.
But there is a catch. Afrah is not real.
A young team of Kashmiris made Afrah as a fictitious character and a social experiment.
The results were devastating.
The team says that the experiment established how deep-rooted paedophilia in Kashmir’s society is. The sole aim of Afrah’s presence on social media was to build evidence and document that paedophilia exists and to present facts that show how vulnerable these platforms are for youngsters.
For this, the team used digital manipulation techniques to alter photos of a friend and make her look like a 14-year-old.
They added a persona, how a teenager talks, posts, and Afrah was ready.
As the reach of the profile grew, Afrah on average started getting dozens of messages every hour. Most of these being from profiles of Kashmiri men who soon after sweet-talking started asking for pictures and sexual favours from her, insisting that she share intimate pictures.
Disguised as Afrah, Muhammad Furqan, and Adnan Mir from the team start conversing with these men. In their reply to the messages, they, from Afras’s account, deny these advances and express disgust over the repeated requests.
What then follows from other side is gaslighting, where many profiles try to clear the “misunderstanding” saying they mean no harm and that they did not know Afrah is 14.
But it didn’t stop at asking for photos alone, many of these men then slid into a 14-year-old’s messages with their nude photographs, insisting that Afrah should talk to them over video calls and send voice notes.
To gain more trust, Mir Hashim, one of the team members working on the investigative project recorded his own voice, altering the pitch and frequency with a voice modulation software to sound like a girl’s.
He then sent it across to these men so that they don’t get suspicious of the profile’s authenticity.
When she turns down their requests to call, they try to intimidate her by sending her pornographic content. They ask the 14-year-old questions like, “Do you watch porn?” and “Have you slept with someone?”
With time, the vulgarity of the messages keeps stooping lower.
Some men insist that Afrah should meet them in person and say they have no issues with her being only 14 years old.
Talking about the idea that pushed the team to work on this investigative project, Hisham, the voice behind Afrah’s profile, says he learned about his thirteen-year-old cousin facing similar kind of harassment online.
Hisham says he was very distressed by this and that he wanted to take this man to the task but then, “it’s not a one-off issue, this is a larger problem.”
That is when the four friends came together and decided to initiate the project.
“All of us have watched Chris Hansen’s show To Catch A Predator. So we decided to proceed in the same manner,” Zayd says. Taking inspiration from America’s reality TV series, they created a profile and waited for the engagements to grow.
“Within 10 minutes of making the account live, we received a text,” says Adnan. “Then nine men in ten hours and eighty-two in three days,” says Hashim.
“Most of them were downright obscene. Some sent no text messages, it was simply a picture of male genitals. While others initiated normal conversations and eventually progressed towards the sexually explicit subjects,” Zayd added.
Just in three days, they had compiled enough evidence that only slide-showing the screenshots would create a 30-minute long video.
“Soon after, we recorded the video. It was decided that we blur the usernames and profile pictures of the predators because we didn’t want anyone to come after us. Some of these men bragged about knowing powerful people and having connections with powerful individuals. Most of them were trying to intimidate who they thought was a child,” says Zayd.
Dealing with the abusive language and vulgar imagery was not easy to manage for this team. Their mental health took a hit.
“I could not sleep. I had trouble praying,” says Furqan, who mostly handled the inbox of the fake account.
The social media engagements of this fictional character reveal a lot of disturbing realities that exist in our society.
These profiles belong to real men, who not only exist in the virtual sphere of social media but might as well be crossing paths with us, study, sit and eat with us in our workplaces, homes, schools and everywhere else.
The team says this investigative project is an eye-opener for every parent and establishes that the accounts of young teens do need parent-monitoring.
“Our motive was to bring this issue into the mainstream discourse and start a conversation around this subject, that it is real and happening. When you accept this is happening, parents can take better decisions regarding their children’s online activities too,” says Hashim.
And in this, the team was successful.
Within an hour of upload, the video was widely shared on social media and many viewers requested the team to come up with Urdu and Kashmiri translations of the script so that they can share it with a wider audience.
You can watch the full video here:
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