Deonte Fisher, a 26-year-old from the suburbs of Chicago, rose quickly this year to become a VIP streamer on MeetMe, an app that combines dating with livestreaming. Fisher amassed around $50,000 worth of virtual “diamonds,” according to a screen image, which are tokens that streamers can earn from virtual gifts sent by users. By this month, he was the app’s 58th most popular streamer, with around 16,000 fans, and posted photos of himself attending company-sponsored events.
But Fisher’s success on MeetMe, where he was known as “Yogi Bear,” came within weeks of his being released from prison in February after being convicted of a sex offense involving a minor — a felony that should have prevented him from being on the app, according to MeetMe’s website. Fisher appears in the Illinois sex offender database, where it says he molested a 15-year-old when he was 20.
MeetMe says it checks users to ensure they aren’t convicted sex offenders by comparing the names they provide to MeetMe with online databases that list registered sex offenders. The website of MeetMe’s parent company, the Meet Group, claims it’s the industry leader in policing harmful content. The company says it is one of the few dating apps that screens for registered sex offenders.
But the company has been the subject of lawsuits for allegedly enabling sexual predators to target minors. A new lawsuit filed last month claims a 26-year-old man was murdered by a person he encountered on MeetMe who had been charged with violent crimes.
Meet Group spokesman Brandyn Bissinger said Fisher used a different last name in his profile, and that is why he didn’t show up in sex offender registries. Bissinger added that Fisher connected to MeetMe through a Facebook login, where he used a different last name. However, Fisher’s email address that the company used to contact him about his VIP status contained his entire real name.
“Our number one priority is providing a safe environment for our over 15 million monthly users to connect and interact,” said Bissinger. “We are an industry leader in promoting safety standards, and are continuously working to advance our efforts.”
It’s unclear how much Fisher was paid by the Meet Group, but it fell short of the threshold that would have required the company to file an IRS 1099 form documenting the earnings, according to a person familiar with the matter.
The fact that a convicted sex offender could become one of MeetMe’s VIPs and most popular streamers underscores how ineffective current methods of online screening are at stamping out harmful content and behavior. There has been a proliferation of social networking apps, but many have insufficient controls to protect users. While companies say they use new technology, such as artificial intelligence and machine learning, to keep predators at bay, those methods have proven largely ineffective, according to online safety groups — especially as video becomes more popular, which is harder to screen.
Chat apps have become magnets for predators, according to law enforcement officials. Another chat app owned by The Meet Group, Skout, had hundreds of reviews in Apple’s App Store that mentioned unwanted sexual content, according to a Washington Post investigation last month. That analysis did not include the MeetMe app, but the two share some functionality. Live streams on Skout can appear on MeetMe and vice versa.
Live streamers on MeetMe are a cross between YouTube personalities and disc jockeys. They develop followings through antics like playing dress up or discussing Star Wars. But they also interact in real time with viewers, who type questions that anyone viewing the stream can read. Live streams on MeetMe act as digital ice breakers for romantic relationships. Viewers can send virtual gifts, like roses, which translate into real earnings for the broadcasters. Interactions that occur on live streams can transition to private conversations. That, according to child safety experts, is where dangerous situations can spiral out of control. There’s no evidence that Fisher displayed any unwanted sexual behavior on MeetMe.
MeetMe is available on Apple’s App Store, where on Thursday it was ranked the 37th most popular app in social networking. Apple gets a cut of payments that take place on MeetMe, such as the virtual gifts. Under the age rating section, Apple warns users of intense and suggestive themes, mild sexual content and nudity and other adult behavior. There is no warning that the app has been used by predators to target children. Apple requires developers of social networking apps to have some type of content moderation in place.
Following an inquiry from The Post, MeetMe said it will go beyond a person’s username to check for sexual offenses. For instance, it will now check names on banking records when it pays streamers like Fisher and check whether the names in email addresses conflict with the names users provide the company when accounts are created.
Apple promises to remove apps that it says contain “over the line” content, “especially when it puts children at risk,” according to its website. It calls out pornographic material in particular. “It’s our store and we take responsibility for it,” the company site says. Apple spokesman Fred Sainz declined to comment on how Apple ensures that content moderation practices are effective at protecting users, particularly kids.
As a VIP, Fisher was given special promotion by MeetMe and a badge next to his name. He also received a direct line of communication to the company. When another MeetMe streamer outed Fisher’s identity as a registered sex offender, MeetMe removed Fisher’s VIP badge, but allowed him to keep streaming. Days later, after The Post contacted MeetMe about the incident, Fisher’s account was removed. Bissinger said MeetMe was notified of Fisher’s background by a user and that once it confirmed Fisher was a registered sex offender, the company removed him from the system. “There is no place for someone like Fisher on MeetMe,” he said.
After The Post made multiple attempts to reach Fisher on different numbers listed for him, a person identifying as Fisher said by phone that he had been kicked off MeetMe. Over text message, he said, “All this happened too fast & one thing I can say to start this off is i was labeled something I’m not.” Fisher then ended the conversation. He didn’t respond to further requests for comment.
Some of Meet Group’s safety measures came after a 2014 lawsuit brought by San Francisco city attorney Dennis Herrera, who alleged MeetMe had been used by predators to target minors, violating the rights of minors under California law. “Dozens of children nationwide have already been victimized by predators who used MeetMe to coerce minors into meeting,” Herrera wrote in the suit.
Those safety measures didn’t stop 22-year-old Joseph Meili, who pleaded guilty in June to third-degree child molestation of an 11-year-old girl he met on MeetMe. Police charged him with child kidnapping, statutory rape and statutory sodomy, but those charges were dropped. Scott Pierson, an attorney for Meili, has said his client did not know the victim was underage.
Many teens and parents are unaware of the dangers of online apps that promise to help people meet new friends online. Last month, Blanca Vargas, whose 26-year-old son was murdered after going on a date with someone he met on MeetMe, sued the company for wrongful death, false advertising and fraud. Vargas said in the suit, filed in Kern County Superior Court north of Los Angeles, that the company lulled users into a false sense of security by claiming it screens users for sex offender status and monitors the app for dangerous behavior. The alleged murderer had pending charges for assault and child endangerment at the time of the murder. Vargas declined to comment through her attorneys.
“Despite its advertising and claims to the public” the lawsuit reads, The Meet Group “was not sufficiently screening its users, and was knowingly allowing users who posed a danger to the general public.”
“The Meet Group is deeply saddened and disturbed by this horrible incident; however, the allegations with respect to the Company are completely without merit and it intends defend against them vigorously,” Bissinger said, adding that MeetMe does not do criminal background checks on users.
MeetMe was founded by two New Jersey high school students in 2005, at the height of the social media craze, when Myspace was all the rage and a year after Facebook was founded. Built by software engineers in India, it was designed to give students a better way to meet friends.
In 2011, the founders sold the company to Quepasa, an internet conglomerate, for a reported $100 million. (Quepasa has since changed its name to The Meet Group.) An infographic created by the two companies to publicize the deal touted MyYearbook, as it was then known, as being the No. 1 site for teens. MeetMe now says it eschews underage users and the age limit of the app is for users 17 and older. But younger users still find their way onto the app.
Two years ago, MeetMe joined the livestreaming trend, which included YouTube, Facebook Live, Twitch and others. Whereas those services often include people livestreaming a particular event, or playing a video game, MeetMe broadcasts usually involve a person sitting in front of the camera for long periods of time, interacting with the audience and receiving virtual goods.
Virtual gifts give audience members an interactive way to influence what they’re watching. For instance, a streamer might do pushups on camera every time a viewer offers a gift of a certain value. According to one of MeetMe’s recent podcasts, called “Streaming Wars,” its livestreaming feature was inspired by a Chinese app, Tantan, where live streamers, many of them young women, collect donations from adoring fans online.
But live streams create more opportunities for misuse of the app. Because they happen in real time, policing them can be next to impossible, and users can post lewd messages. Monetary rewards can incentivize streamers to provide inappropriate content. It’s one reason The Meet Group says it devotes more than half its staff to content moderation. But even with 350 people working on moderation and safety, it’s impossible to catch everything.
In one testimonial on the Meet Group’s website, Glenn Frankel, president of Family Watchdog, writes “The Meet Group … take[s] the task of identifying registered sexual offenders to keep them off their platforms very seriously. In the “safety measures” section of the site, the company says it screens “new registrants against databases of known sex offenders in the U.S. and regularly [rescreens] active users against these same lists, blocking registrations and activity from known sex offenders.” Frankel did not respond to a request for comment.
MeetMe claims to screen for people under the age of 17 using the apps. But those measures have proved easy to circumvent. In the App Store, minors can download adult apps by clicking a button certifying they are at least 17. Even when underage Apple users list their real ages, it’s still possible to download adult apps without any further verification.
One clue that there is misuse of the social network are the reviews on Apple’s App Store. Last month, The Post used machine learning to analyze more than 100,000 reviews for six popular chat apps and found more than 1,500 reviews containing reports of unwanted sexual content.
The analysis did not include MeetMe, but a review of the comments turned up several that complained of sexual and dangerous activity on the app. “There is no child protection or blockage,” a reviewer wrote in September, who complained children were being exposed to “inappropriate and disgusting things.”