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 live-streaming. Fisher amassed around $50,000 worth of virtual “diamonds,” according to a screen image; they 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 called “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 databases that list registered sex offenders. The website of MeetMe’s parent company, the Meet Group, based in New Hope, 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 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. While companies say they use new technology, such as artificial intelligence and machine learning, to keep predators at bay, those methods have proved largely ineffective, according to online safety groups, especially as video becomes more popular, as it is harder to screen.
Chat apps have become magnets for predators, say 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. 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. 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 user name 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.