It seems that phones are the de facto way to do anything these days — dating, included. One study found that around 40 percent of people in new, heterosexual relationships met online; another reported that as of 2018, at least 5 million Americans had used dating apps, and around 30 percent of those users were between the ages of 18 and 29. And while most people feel positively about using apps to meet other people, there’s little data about any actual risk involved in putting yourself out there in the quest to find true love, a cuddle buddy, or anything in between.
A new investigative report from ProPublica, BuzzFeed, and Columbia Journalism Investigations (CJI) published Tuesday (December 2) underscores that risk. Reporters talked to several women who allege that dating apps and sites like Tinder, Plenty of Fish, and Match had connected them with users who would ultimately prove to be predatory. Some men (and they were almost all men) had been accused and sometimes convicted of sexual assault; several of those cases concerned registered sex offenders, whose records ostensibly would have been surfaced in a background check.
The report asserts that because dating apps are either unable, or unwilling to vet users who may have criminal pasts, “the lack of a uniform policy...leaves users vulnerable to sexual assault.”
And while Plenty of Fish’s terms of service makes users promise they are not “required to register as a sex offender with any state, federal or local sex offender registry” and have not committed “a felony or indictable offense (or crime of similar severity), a sex crime, or any crime involving violence,” the company “does not conduct criminal background or identity verification checks on its users or otherwise inquire into the background of its users.” Tinder does not conduct background checks, either, though it similarly makes users promise they “have never been convicted of or pled no contest to a felony, a sex crime, or any crime involving violence, and that [the user is] not required to register as a sex offender with any state, federal or local sex offender registry” prior to signing up.
Both companies are owned by the Match Group, an umbrella group that owns a total of 45 dating platforms, including Match, OkCupid, and Hinge. Of those dozens of companies, only Match purports to conduct background checks on users with any regularity; most of the companies that provide free services, and are ostensibly the most accessible to users, do not.
According to the report, CJI “analyzed more than 150 incidents of sexual assault involving dating apps,” which have primarily occurred “in the past five years and during the app users’ first in-person meeting, in parking lots, apartments and dorm rooms. Most victims, almost all women, met their male attackers through Tinder, OkCupid, Plenty of Fish or Match.”
The report also found that “in 10% of the incidents, dating platforms matched their users with someone who had been accused or convicted of sexual assault at least once,” though “only a fraction of these cases involved a registered sex offender. Yet the analysis suggests that Match’s screening policy has helped to prevent the problem: Almost all of these cases implicated Match Group’s free apps; the only service that scours sex offender registries, Match, had none.”
Several women told CJI that they had reported abusers to the platforms on which they had met them, either shortly after the assailant had attacked them, or after they found the same or a new profile featuring that assailant’s information.
In a statement provided to MTV News, a Match spokesperson said the company “[does] not tolerate sex offenders on our site and the implication that we know about such offenders on our site and don't fight to keep them off is as outrageous as it is false. We use a network of industry-leading tools, systems and processes and spend millions of dollars annually to prevent, monitor and remove bad actors – including registered sex offenders – from our apps.” A separate statement provided to CJI alleged that the 157 reports the group had studied was “a relatively small amount of the tens of millions of people using one of our dating services,” though they conceded that “any incident of misconduct or criminal behavior is one too many.”
“As technology evolves, we will continue to aggressively deploy new tools to eradicate bad actors, including users of our free products like Tinder, Plenty of Fish and OkCupid where we are not able to obtain sufficient and reliable information to make meaningful background checks possible,” the spokesperson told MTV News. “A positive and safe user experience is our top priority, and we are committed to realizing that goal every day.”
Tinder currently provides a user’s safety guide for both on-app and in-person interactions, which focuses largely on how people can protect their own safety; a paragraph about the ongoing and enthusiastic nature of consent outsources to RAINN’s guidelines. The company also makes users promise that they will not “bully, ‘stalk,’ intimidate, assault, harass, mistreat or defame any person,” and stipulates that it “reserves the right to investigate and/or terminate [an] account without a refund of any purchases if [a user] violated this Agreement, misused the Service or behaved in a way that Tinder regards as inappropriate or unlawful, including actions or communications that occur on or off the Service.”
But as ProPublica points out, it’s notoriously difficult to monitor whether users violate those rules or break those promises unless survivors of harassment or assault self-report — and if a perpetrator unmatches with you before you do that, you typically lose access to messages that might bolster your claims. Moreover, fewer than one in four incidents of sexual assault are ever reported to police, and survivors have a host of valid reasons as to why they may choose not to formally report.
Neither Tinder nor its parent group Match responded to MTV News’s request for comment as to whether the companies are currently taking steps to more actively inform its users about consent; laws regarding sexual assault vary from state to state, which can make it hard to regulate dating apps that provide their services nationally or internationally. Most dating apps contain language in their TOS that absolves them of culpability should someone act in bad faith against another user.
That much fine print does little to assuage many users’ valid concerns about safety. In an MTV Insights study released in October, 84 percent of female respondents who use dating apps said they are concerned about matching with and meeting a person who turns out to be predatory; 60 percent of male respondents noted the same concern. “Meeting somebody that you have no idea who they are, no idea what they’re capable of… it’s scary,” one 25-year-old said. Even so, 62 percent of people still believe dating apps are a better alternative to blind dates.