New 'sextortion' documentary includes disputed and overhyped claims Law enforcement organizations are promoting a new film about children being exploited into sharing sexual images and videos. But many of the film's key claims lack context.

How law enforcement is promoting a troubling documentary about 'sextortion'

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There's a documentary making the rounds at screenings around the country that raises serious questions about the safety of millions of children in America. It's a film in the style of a public service announcement called "Sextortion: The Hidden Pandemic." But as we're about to hear, NPR has found the documentary could leave viewers with an exaggerated sense of the risk. And experts on child sex abuse and human trafficking fear this first impression could lead to misconceptions about these very serious crimes.

Before we continue, a quick note of warning - this next story is about the subject of child abuse, but it does not contain descriptions of abuse or explicit language. Now, what this documentary called "Sextortion" suggests is that strangers on the internet are targeting potentially millions of minors into sharing sexually revealing pictures and videos and often extorting them for money.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: And in 2020, that number jumped up to 21.7 million cyber tip line reports received.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: In the past seven years that I've been working here, the increase that we've seen and the trends that we've seen is definitely sextortion.

SHAPIRO: That's a clip from the film. It was made in cooperation with several law enforcement agencies. Here's Erin Burke, an agent with Homeland Security investigations who is featured in the film. She's speaking at last year's Santa Barbara International Film Festival.


ERIN BURKE: This is a issue that is happening every single day in every single city across the world, and we're just trying to fight it.

SHAPIRO: It's gotten a lot of play from local TV news as well. Here's a Fox affiliate in San Diego.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: A special screening of "Sextortion: The Hidden Pandemic" is happening this Thursday.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #2: It's hard to even watch that. It's so infuriating.

SHAPIRO: But when NPR's Lisa Hagen started digging into the film, she found some questionable claims and filmmakers who had not gotten much scrutiny from the government agencies who jumped on the bandwagon. Lisa, thanks for joining us.


SHAPIRO: Start by describing what some of the concerns about this documentary are. Like, how common are these crimes actually, and how common does the film make them out to be?

HAGEN: So with any kind of sex crimes, especially involving minors, underreporting is always going to be a problem. And crime researchers will tell you that there's no quality, evidence-based statistics on this stuff. One safety alert from the FBI put the number of minor victims in the U.S. at 3,000 last year, and that's a lot of kids. And a dozen cases of those were linked to suicide. But watching this film, experts I talked to worry people are going to walk away believing child sextortion cases number in the millions, which is exactly what one of the filmmakers told people when she got that question at a screening. Here's Maria Peek.


MARIA PEEK: When you first face this kind of crime, you have a natural aversion to it. But then you realize, oh, my gosh, this could be happening. Well, at first we thought thousands. Now we know it's millions of children. So what is our response as filmmakers? Our responsibility is to investigate it and maybe to say - show it to people in the best kind of way that is not exploitive but educational.

HAGEN: So my reporting found that millions is just not backed up by evidence. The film also contains some highly disputed claims about addiction and autism from one of the featured experts. And it also doesn't include any discussion of something researchers told me was really important. Just over half of the reported instances of sextortion involves someone the victim knows. Stranger danger is what's emphasized in this film. If anyone wants more detailed reporting on this, there's a deep dive on our website,

SHAPIRO: So those are the claims that the film makes. Tell us more about how the film was produced. Who was behind it?

HAGEN: Yeah, so that was my question, especially seeing federal officials promoting it. So I took a quick trip over to Google. I looked up the directors. And what I saw was the last feature film they had made was a collaboration with a very notorious British conspiracy theorist. He has been banned from entering the EU. And all this really got me wondering about the reach this film was having.

SHAPIRO: So let's listen to some of your reporting about that.


OPAL SINGLETON: We want to get this movie all over the world. And we want it in schools. We want it in classrooms. We want it with teachers. We want it in churches. We want it with parents and grandparents. And we want it with young people.

HAGEN: That's the film's executive producer, Opal Singleton, at the premiere at the University of Southern California last fall. The film's creators are a married couple, Stephen and Maria Peek. They both have master's degrees in film and TV from Regent University, a conservative Christian university. And since their "Sextortion" film launched, they say they've gotten more than a hundred requests for local screenings. Here's Stephen at the premiere.


STEPHEN PEEK: This is my fourth feature documentary. And it almost - at the end of each one, I have someone who will come up at an event and say, thank you so much for making this movie because I've been trying to explain this to my friends for years. But now I can just sit them down and say, shut up and watch this for an hour and a half.


S PEEK: Right?

HAGEN: The Peeks say their work is journalism and that they're particular about the stories they tell. Stephen says those stories are often about heroes overcoming obstacles for a greater cause.


HAGEN: The last documentary they directed, edited and produced in 2019 is called "Renegade: The Life Story Of David Icke." It's an admiring look at a man who's popularized theories that alien reptoids control world events through elites like the British royals and wealthy Jewish families. His numerous books describe antisemitic conspiracy theories behind the Holocaust, September 11 attacks, vaccines and more. Here's Icke describing his work in the film.


DAVID ICKE: If you look at the history of the world, it's renegades, by that definition, that are the only people that have ever changed anything. Martin Luther King was a renegade. Gandhi was a renegade.

HAGEN: As Icke continues, images of Nikola Tesla, Marie Curie and Malcolm X flash across the screen. The film itself doesn't make any antisemitic claims, but it also never challenges Icke about any of his well-established beliefs. When I interviewed the filmmakers, Stephen Peek said this.

S PEEK: I feel, you know, very good about what that movie became. And sometimes people will look at him and say, well, some people say this, and some people say that. And I was like, well, have you watched the movie? - because there's nothing controversial in the film itself.

HAGEN: The Peeks spent a year with Icke, who was the film's executive producer. And Steven Peek said they had never heard Icke say anything antisemitic, so they didn't include anything about those beliefs in their movie. He said they wouldn't have made the film if Icke had said anything antisemitic. There's no reason to believe that the Peeks adhere to Icke's worldview. But in a statement to NPR, the Southern Poverty Law Center cautioned against trusting any journalism that isn't honest about Icke. So how did these filmmakers wind up working with federal and local officials to make a film about sex crimes against children? The project has been a longtime dream of Opal Singleton, the executive producer. She heads a nonprofit in Southern California that educates police and the public about child exploitation. Singleton says she chose the Peeks based on in-depth research and another film they'd made about competitive dance. And she says she didn't know anything about their collaboration with David Icke.

SINGLETON: I've not ever seen anything like that. I did, you know, see some of their previous that was, like, "I Dream Of Dance." And it was very healthy and like that. And quite frankly, I'm very pleased with what they've done with this particular subject.

HAGEN: I pressed Singleton about the filmmakers' use of frightening statistics without much context.

SINGLETON: I don't really care about your numbers, OK? What I care about is this is very real. It's happening, and it's happening a lot. And I thought, quite frankly, that Stephen and Maria did a great job at telling this story. But good luck to you. I don't agree with what you're doing.

SHAPIRO: Reporting from NPR's Lisa Hagen, who is still with us. You know, part of your beat is covering conspiracy theories and people who believe in them. And there seem to be certain threads of that running through this story. Draw them out for us. What does this film have to do with conspiracy theories?

HAGEN: So let's set aside David Icke and that film entirely. The violation of children and kidnapping them has always played a really central role in conspiracy theories. You see that in antisemitism from centuries ago, Satanic panic stuff from the 1980s and today in narratives like QAnon. There's a good reason for that. These are human taboos. They're horrible, damaging. But people who work on these issues with survivors and law enforcement say overhyped claims about strangers or child sex rings can lead to people missing far more common forms of child sex abuse because they're looking for the wrong threats. I talked to this lawyer, Erin Albright. She's a consultant who trains human trafficking task forces for the Department of Justice. And she says child sex crimes are very complex problems. They need a super-cautious approach. And she worries about coverage like this lingering with an audience that's learning about a crime for the first time.

ERIN ALBRIGHT: If they're coming to the documentary with maybe a little bit of background on crimes against children and maybe they know that, like, kidnapping tends to happen more at, like - more familial, maybe they can see through it. But the majority of the public isn't. So I do think that it has a lot of power.

SHAPIRO: Lisa, a lot of prominent law enforcement officials and nonprofits are featured in this film. When you've approached them with your reporting, how have they reacted?

HAGEN: Right. The filmmakers list the Department of Justice and Department of Homeland Security as partners and claim the agencies unsealed case files for them. But while one U.S. attorney did give the filmmakers an interview about a case she prosecuted, the Department of Justice told us they did not officially partner with the filmmakers. They also denied the Peeks' characterization that the case files were unsealed for them. The case in this film was never sealed. As for Department of Homeland Security or Immigrations Customs Enforcement (ph), we haven't gotten agency responses. The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children said they will vet their media partners more carefully going forward. One spokesman told us they didn't see why they'd partner with them again. But overall, they feel like none of the issues we flagged outweigh the good that the film could do. They feel like it's good work.

SHAPIRO: That's NPR's Lisa Hagen. Thanks for your reporting.

HAGEN: Thank you.


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