Assuming identities online: Description, development and ethical implications

Research Institution / Organisation

Aston University

Principal Researcher

Tim Grant

Level of Research

Professional / Work-based

Project Start Date

August 2014

Research Context

​Funders: ESRC Collaborators: West Midlands Police, Lexegesys (a small text analytics SME), University of Warwick (Security Ethics Group);

Research Questions/work packages:

  1. What are the linguistic sources of individual and group variation in style and what is the relationship between linguistic style and online identity performance? 
  2. What linguistic analysis is necessary and sufficient to describe an online linguistic persona to the extent it could be successfully assumed by another individual, and with what level of accuracy and confidence can individuals detect the substitution of one interlocutor with another? 
  3. Additionally, the research aims to produce a semi-automated system for (i) the analysis of online identities and (ii) to inform training in the area of undercover online investigations. iv. What are the ethical and policy implications for policing and security of complexity in online identity performance in the facilitation and investigation of online criminal behaviour?

Research Methodology

​This project will focus on issues of identity and identity assumption in the context of sexual online interactions between adults and children and the policing response to such interactions. In this domain there is significant identity play and identity disguise.  The way we use words and the stories (true or false) we tell about ourselves are what determine our identities in cyberspace. The project takes a non-mechanistic view of identity and identity management.

The first three research questions have been piloted in a previously funded short project. The Centre for Forensic Linguistics already trains police internet investigators in the assumption of identities online (AIO) and one substantial aim of this project is to address the theory and evidence deficit to enable better understanding and better training. Work package (iii) will use the linguistic work to provide a computational system for the analysis of online interactions to assist investigators and the the objective of the ethics and policy package is to situate the identity assumption task in the wider context of policing, policy and ethics with particular reference to Special Investigation Techniques.

Interim reports and publications

  • ​MacLeod, N & Grant, TD 2017, '“go on cam but dnt be dirty”: linguistic levels of identity assumption in undercover online operations against child sex abusers' Language and Law/Linguagem e Direito.
  • Chiang, E & Grant, TD In press , 'Deceptive identity performance: Offender moves and multiple personas in online child abuse conversations' Applied Linguistics.
  • MacLeod, N & Grant, T 2016, '"You have ruined this entire experiment…shall we stop talking now?" Orientations to the experimental setting as an interactional resource' Discourse, Context & Media, vol. 14, pp. 63-70. DOI:10.1016/j.dcm.2016.10.001
  • Carmody, E & Grant, TD 2016, 'Online grooming: moves and strategies'Language and Law / Linguagem e Direito, vol. Accepted.
  • Grant, T & Macleod, N 2016, 'Assuming identities online: experimental linguistics applied to the policing of online paedophile activity' Applied Linguistics, vol. 37, no. 1, pp. 50-70. DOI:10.1093/applin/amv079

Date due for completion

September 2020
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