Violent online groups are pressuring youth into harming themselves, authorities warn

WARNING: This article contains graphic content and may affect those who have experienced​ ​​​sexual violence or know someone affected by it. 

When a father in British Columbia demanded to look at his teenage daughter’s cellphone after she tried to kill herself, he was horrified by what he found.

There were several disturbing photos, including one with “764” carved on her chest, and several exchanges with someone who appeared to be goading her to harm herself.

“His messaging to her was extremely crude and offensive,” he said. “Are you going to cut for me again, bitch? And a lot of worse stuff. I started to suspect that my daughter had been brainwashed.”

The CBC is not naming the father in order to protect his 15-year-old daughter’s identity. He said his daughter had struggled with her mental health in the past but in the months leading to her suicide attempt, the self-harm escalated dramatically.

When he confronted her about what he found on her phone, he said his daughter admitted she was manipulated by a self-proclaimed member of an online cult called 764.

WATCH | A father makes a troubling discovery on his daugher’s phone:

A parent’s troubling discovery

A B.C. father says his daughter was manipulated online.

Authorities in Canada and the U.S are warning the public about 764 and other violent online groups that deliberately target vulnerable minors and pressure them into recording or livestreaming self-harm and producing child sexual abuse material.

‘It is a dangerous situation’

As online child exploitation continues to increase overall, authorities say these emerging groups are particularly heinous. In a rare advisory, the FBI says the groups’ end goal is “forcing minors to kill themselves on livestreams for their own entertainment or their own sense of fame.”  

Police say the groups go after children between eight and 17 years old, especially 2SLGBTQ+ youth, racial minorities and those who struggle with mental health issues.

The RCMP is encouraging any victims to come forward. 

“Because of the populations it’s targeting, for me it is a dangerous situation,” said Brad Galloway, co-ordinator of Ontario Tech University’s Centre on Hate, Bias and Extremism. 

WATCH | How young people are targeted:

Targeting vulnerable populations

Violent online groups deliberately target minors, says Brad Galloway of Ontario Tech University’s Centre on Hate, Bias and Extremism.

The RCMP is investigating suspected cases connected to the groups in Canada after the FBI issued a public service announcement last September naming the groups that “use many names, including, 676, 764, CVLT, Court, Kaskar, Harm Nation, Leak Society and H3II.” 

In an emailed response to The Fifth Estate‘s request for an interview, the RCMP said it is “aware of the online group referred to as 764 (also known under other aliases), as well as the targeting of minor victims internationally and its connectivity to ideologically motivated violent extremist (IMVE) groups.”

Galloway said 764 and other groups named by police are offshoots of O9A, the Order of Nine Angles, a satanic anarchist movement dating back to the 1970s that is intent on destroying society from within through acts of violence and terror.

The O9A has influenced several neo-Nazi groups that have also migrated and mushroomed online, Galloway added.

The B.C. father interviewed by The Fifth Estate said he discovered images of self-harm and disturbing messages between his daughter and a self-proclaimed member of 764 on Discord, a popular platform among teens and minors.

A platform for predators, experts say

Discord isn’t the only tech platform dealing with online child exploitation, but experts say its young user base and private chat rooms have made it a preferred platform for predators.

“The app is easy to download. It doesn’t take much to create an account,” said Stephen Sauer, director of cybertip.ca, the Canadian Centre for Child Protection’s national tip line for reporting the online sexual exploitation of children.

WATCH | Experts say the Discord app offers predators easy access to youth: 

A preferred platform for predators, experts say

Cybertip.ca director Stephen Sauer says Discord allows predators easy access to minors.

Sauer said cybertip.ca received more than 500 reports of minors exploited on Discord last year, a 250 per cent increase from the year before.

“We believe that’s probably only the tip of the iceberg because we know there are lots of situations out there that are not being reported.”

The RCMP recently met with Sauer about the Discord cases. 

In its statement to The Fifth Estate, the RCMP said it has “observed more youth involvement in ideologically motivated violent extremist (IMVE) groups as both active participants and producers of propaganda,” and said “this is particularly the case in the white nationalist, Order of Nine Angles, 764-related and anti-LGBTQ+ spaces online.”

Predators grooming children

It’s not clear if the exploitation cases on Discord that have been reported to cybertip.ca are linked to the same hate groups identified by police, but the details sound chillingly familiar.

Sauer said “the crux of what we’re seeing on Discord is less about financial extortion and more about the content or the control of that victim,” whereby predators will “love bomb” minors to groom children into believing they are in a relationship.
 
“Individuals will ask them to self-harm,” said Sauer. “They will ask them to engage in sexual acts that are extreme in some ways. And it will be a gradual progression in terms of the egregious nature of those types of requests.”

Allie Broadaway was 12 when she was abducted in February 2021 from her home in Virginia by 21-year-old Kaleb Christopher Merritt. Police say Merritt was a member of CVLT, one of the violent online groups named by the FBI. 

Allie Broadaway was 12 when she was abducted in February 2021 from her home in Virginia.
Allie Broadaway was 12 when she was abducted in February 2021 from her home in Virginia. (Ousama Farag/CBC)

Broadaway said the relationship began on Instagram before Merritt invited her to a private CVLT chat room on Discord. Broadaway said Merritt pressured her to carve his name on her leg and to keep cutting, as well as share sexually explicit images of herself as proof of her devotion.

The relationship was twisted and Allie said she became emotionally entangled in it.

‘I just wanted someone to care’

“At the time, I felt like he loved me, or I thought he did,” she said. “It’s more of a ‘You give me love, you give me attention, I’ll be yours. Just don’t hurt me.’ And well, he did but I didn’t care at that point. I just wanted someone to care.”

WATCH | How self-harm became a habit:

‘It took me years to break that cycle’

Allie Broadaway says self-harm became a painful habit.

In February 2021, Merritt drove more than 20 hours from Texas to Virginia to camp in the woods behind Broadaway’s home, where she said he raped her multiple times.

She said that a few days after arriving in Virginia, he demanded she leave with him. Police issued an Amber Alert and Broadaway was found in Henderson, N.C., a day later. Merritt was arrested and later convicted of several charges, including child pornography.

Henry County Sheriff Wayne Davis said that when they found Allie, it became immediately apparent Merritt had used “highly manipulative tactics on a 12-year-old child for his own personal gain” to convince her that they were going to build a life together. 

Henry County Sheriff Wayne Davis said that when they found Allie, it became immediately apparent Merritt had used “highly manipulative tactics on a 12-year-old child for his own personal gain.”
Lt. Cameron Stone, left, and Sheriff Wayne Davis, right, of Henry County, Va., investigated Broadaway’s abduction in February 2021. (Ousama Farag/CBC)

Broadaway said with the help of intensive therapy she can now see how manipulated she was.

“I was in love,” she said. “I was also brainwashed into thinking that this man cared about me and my safety. But in reality, I was horrified of him.”

Suspicious exchanges flagged

In the case of Broadaway and others, the Discord application alerted authorities after the company flagged suspicious exchanges. 

But there is a growing call for social media platforms to do more.

On Jan. 31, at a U.S. Senate judiciary committee hearing on online child safety, Sen. Lindsey Graham blasted leaders of social media companies, saying “you have blood on your hands” for failing to protect minors on their platforms. 

The committee is pushing to strip tech platforms’ protection from liability — known as Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act — to allow individuals who have faced online child sexual exploitation to sue the platform that distributed the material. 

In Canada, federal legislation promised in 2019 by the Liberals to target online harm has yet to be tabled.

British Columbia says it plans to introduce its own law this spring to hold social media companies responsible for harms caused to the public following the suicide in October 2023 of a 12-year-old boy from Prince George who was sexually victimized online.

Safety measures

At the senate committee in Washington, D.C., Discord CEO Jason Citron acknowledged his company must protect children on its platform from “people who abuse our platforms for immoral and illegal purposes.” 

Citron also outlined safety measures taken at Discord, including a lack of end-to-end encryption for messages.

In response to The Fifth Estate‘s request for an interview, Discord sent a statement attributed to John Redgrave, vice-president of trust and safety. 

It said: “Discord has a zero-tolerance policy for child sexual abuse,” and a dedicated team prioritizes issues “that present the highest real-world harm to our users” such as “child sexual abuse material, grooming and extortion.” 

The company said it also takes down child sexual abuse material, shuts down user accounts and servers as well as engages with authorities when it becomes aware of problems.

In its public service announcement, the FBI urges the public to “exercise caution when posting or direct messaging personal photos, videos and identifying information on social media, dating apps and other online sites” because there’s a risk the material can be exploited for criminal activity. The FBI also recommends looking out for warning signs a minor may be self-harming or has suicidal ideations. 

WATCH | A father struggles with what more he might have done:

‘What we’ve learned out of this’

A B.C. father struggles with what more he could have done to help his daughter.

As for the Canadian father who spoke with The Fifth Estate, police are investigating his daughter’s case but as far as he knows, her predator is still out there. 

He’s struggling with what more he could have done and said he is speaking out to warn other parents to be extra vigilant.

“I can’t help but blame myself,” he said. “I wrestle with how much I’m accountable for my daughter’s self-esteem and not seeing the signs earlier.”


If you or someone you know is struggling, here’s where to get help:

 

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