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Russian Speaking CSAM Users in the Dark Web: Addressing the Knowledge Gap


#ReDirection 2023 Blog Post Series 02

Protect Children’s latest #ReDirection report presents findings on Russian speaking child sexual abuse material (CSAM) users in the dark web based on quantitative and qualitative data gathered from the ReDirection surveys.

The report gives an overview of the societal and legal situation in three countries with the largest populations of Russian speakers: Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus, to acquire an understanding of the scale of the creation, use, and dissemination of CSAM. Although Russian is the second most used language on the internet, not much is known about Russian speaking CSAM offenders. This report begins to address this knowledge gap.

Over 1,600 Russian Speakers Responded to the ReDirection Surveys

Since 2020, we have collected responses from nearly 22,000 anonymous individuals in 21 languages searching for CSAM on the dark web to the ReDirection surveys, including over 1,600 responses in Russian. Russian language responses constituted the third largest language group of respondents (after English and Spanish), making up 7.5% of the total responses. This information offers unprecedented insights into the thoughts, feelings, and behaviours of current anonymous CSAM offenders.

The ReDirection Project

The ReDirection project is funded by the Safe Online Initiative at End Violence. Safe Online has invested over US $68M in 80 projects around the world to create a safer internet for children. The Safe Online Initiative, in close partnership with grantees and partners, is leading on global efforts to make the internet safe for children by investing for impact in programmes that work and generating evidence to inform advocacy and collective action.

The Russian Language is the 8th Most Spoken Language Globally

The Russian language is the 8th most spoken language globally. It is an official language in four countries; is spoken natively by many in a number of former Soviet countries; and is widely spoken all around the world. There are approximately 3.5 million Russian speakers in the US and 6.4 million in Western Europe. In addition, Russian speaking diasporas are widely represented in many countries beyond European and North American continents.

The Russian language is the second most used language on the internet – 8.5% of all websites on the Internet are in Russian. The Russian speaking internet community, ‘Runet’, comprises over 100 million users globally.

Understanding the Scale of the Issue

Russia has consistently been among the top 5 distributors of CSAM from 2015 to 2021, according to the Internet Watch Foundation. In 2020, Ukraine was reported to be the 10th largest host of CSAM, up from 11th place in 2019. However, has in recent years seen positive developments in tackling the distribution of CSAM. Belarus faces a challenge of a lack of data on the scale of online crimes of sexual violence against children and has not yet established a CSAM reporting portal or hotline.

The domain ‘.ru’ hosts up to 8% of all reported in 2021 websites containing CSAM. (Domain Analysis of Child Sexual Abuse. IWF Annual Report 2021). It also holds the 1st place among top-level domains used for commercial and non-commercial distribution of CSAM.

Despite crimes of sexual violence against children being underreported in these countries, the numbers are still high and continue to rise. In Russia, such crimes increased by 14% from 2019 to 2021, according to the Commissioner for Children's Rights under the President of Russian Federation. 23% of Ukrainians experienced some form of sexual violence, according to 2021 data by the Center for the Dignity of the Child. The number of crimes of sexual violence against children in Belarus increased almost 22 times from 2012 to 2018, according to the Belarussian Helsinki Committee.

Key Findings on Russian Speaking CSAM Users

1. Many Russian Speaking Respondents Were First Exposed to CSAM Under the Age of 18

73% of Russian speaking respondents first saw CSAM under the age of 18, when they were children themselves. Over a half of respondents – 53% reported their exposure to be accidental, meaning that they did not deliberately search for CSAM.

Exposure to CSAM at a young age can be seen as an adverse childhood experience which may impose long-lasting consequences on the child’s development: health, well-being or life opportunities. Being exposed to CSAM at a young age may result in a person searching for CSAM later in life.

2. Many Russian Speaking Respondents Report Escalating to Increasingly Violent Content from Adult Pornography

Analysis of qualitative data revealed that respondents may begin searching for CSAM when they are “bored”, “unexcited” or “tired” of adult pornography. This response appeared to be the most common answer to Question 31 of the survey: If you have tried to stop using and sharing CSAM/illegal violent material, and got back to using it, could you tell us three reasons why you did not succeed? Many respondents indicated that they also watch other violent material, e.g., rape or bestiality.

The link between adult pornography and CSAM use should be researched further to define risk factors and prevent possible escalation. Review of academic literature demonstrated that self-reported pornography escalation may lead to depression, anxiety and poor social functioning. It is often compared to consequences of substance abuse.

3. Most Russian Speaking Respondents Have Not Sought Help to Stop Their Use Of CSAM. Those That Have Sought Help, Did Not Receive Any

Although nearly 45% of respondents to ‘Help us to help you’ survey indicated they would like to stop CSAM use, 61% have shared that they have never sought for help. In addition, only 2% of respondents reported receiving any help at all. The results of both qualitative and quantitative analysis indicated low levels of help-seeking motivations and behaviour.

CSAM Use is an Urgent Public Health Issue That Must be Tackled from Many Angles

Online crimes of sexual violence against children are on the rise in Russia, Belarus, and Ukraine. Based on received results, our report suggests recommendations on how to address CSAM use among Russian speaking users.

Protect Children is in the process of translating the ReDirection Self-Help Program into Russian. The Program offers the first step in changing harmful behaviours and receiving help for mental health issues. It is based on cognitive behavioural theory and guides users to sustainable change of behaviour.


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