Bumble's Americas public policy lead Payton Iheme joins Niki Christoff in the studio to discuss the company campaign to criminalize cyberflashing. More than half of women between 18-24 years old have received an unwanted, unsolicited lewd digital image, but that behavior is only illegal in two states. In-person flashing is a crime in all 50 states and it's time for laws to update to protect the digital world too.
Niki: I’m Niki Christoff and welcome to Tech’ed Up.
My guest today is Payton Iheme who leads America’s Public Policy for dating app Bumble. We’re talking about cyberflashing, something not many people are talking about but many people have to deal with. Indecent exposure is illegal in all 50 states, but sending an unsolicited and unwanted lewd image digitally is not. Thanks to the work Bumble is leading, that’s starting to change.
Niki: Today in the studio our guest is Payton Iheme from Bumble. Welcome.
Payton: Thank you so much for having me.
Niki: Thank you for coming in today. I am really excited for this episode. It's on a topic I'd never thought actually much about or, at all about, until you and I met, which is cyber flashing, which is some work you guys are doing at Bumble that is groundbreaking, which is criminalizing cyber flashing. But before we get to that, let's start with you. [Payton: Great] Your background, you at the age of 17, enlisted in the Army, rose through the ranks to Lieutenant Colonel. Tell me a little bit about your pre-tech career.
Payton: Oh, my you've done your homework.
Niki: I have! [Both: laugh] This is, yeah, this is not a fly by the seat of the pants operation!
Payton: Clearly! Not many people know about that 17, age 17 item. But, absolutely, my mother had to reluctantly sign the paperwork ‘cause I was a minor. So I enlisted when I was 17, our family had just moved back from Jamaica where we were there for about a year or two. I decided that I wanted to go into the military. So I enlisted, much to the disappointment of a lot of family members who were like, “Why would you do that?” I was living in Madison, Wisconsin at the time. It's not something that you see the daughter do, especially a daughter of an immigrant. My father is Nigerian. y’know, from Africa, military has a completely different connotation, in that region than the U.S. But I did, I signed up and I left at 17 and joined the U.S. Army.
I served actually in the military, in different, in different, aspects: as an officer, as an intelligence officer at first, and then as a special operations officer, like I said, I've been, y’know, a multiple combat veteran and, Haiti earthquake and things around the globe, but, that would be the government sector.
And then, I did switch over to the private sector and started working in private industry. But there were a little gap between then- and I served in the Senate. You know, I worked in the Pentagon and I worked in the- Obama's White House. I was a senior advisor in the Office of Science and Technology Policy.
Niki: One of the points of the show is I like to elevate people in D.C. who work in tech because, we’re, there's a stereotype of who works in tech in Silicon Valley. And I find that there's such interesting people doing tech work here in D.C., and you are one of them. So, you are currently working at Bumble, which is a dating app…and has some other features. So, tell me a little bit about Bumble, especially for our listeners who are not dating online. Tell us about the company.
Payton: Yup. Bumble is newer. 2014, it was founded by Whitney Wolfe Herd. she founded it after some pretty negative experiences, you should look those up, about things that she experienced in the business world. Her idea was she wanted to start some network, a tech app that was going to be about networking, and it was going to be about the equality of the sexes.
So, a place where the internet was going to be safer. And, there would be more equity between everyone. So, she founded Bumble. And 2014’s not too long ago. 2020, they went public but part of the work that they were doing, it was like, what can we be doing to make the internet safer? And they were doing some studies at the time and then they found out like, “Oh my goodness, the cyber flashing is a thing. And Bumble, you may not know, so it's got the dating app aspect of it, which is what we're most well-known for. And again, the title is “Women Make the First Move” on Bumble because that way that that relationship will have more equity, you know, be healthier, the approach, you don't have people bombarded by people they're not interested in. But we also have the social, which is the ‘Bumble Friends’ where you moved to a new city, you don't have friends. It's hard to admit you don't have friends. Like D.C., I moved here, I knew no one- you have to make friends somehow.
So, and, they have the Bumble Friends, but then they also have the Bumble Biz. Everything has a, B, [chuckles] a B kind of focus, and that's for entrepreneurs. Same thing- you're in a city, you know, you've got enough girlfriends, you may or may not be in a relationship or don't care, but you might want to meet someone who's a photographer, who's having a flower shop or who's trying to do something in the tech sector, so you can meet other businesspeople.
Niki: So, I will say this about Bumble. You alluded to it, but the founder was also a co-founder of Tinder and, in the range of dating apps that exist-and we won't belabor the point, but Bumble is where women literally have to make the first move to connect with someone which makes it different and, and feels, I think for users, for people on the platform, like they have a little more control over what's coming into their messages on online dating apps. Which leads us to the topic of the day, which is-
[interrupts self] Wait! One more thing about Whitney Herd that I want to say [Payton: laughs] Whitney Wolfe Herd. I don't know if I have to say all three of her names. I remember the IPO, I was watching CNBC [Payton: mm-hmm] and it was mid- the winter of the pandemic [Payton: yep], pre-vaccines, right before actually Valentine's Day. And, she was in a yellow, Bumble yellow, suit with a baby on her hip. [Payton: That’s right!] And I just was like, this is some bad bitch energy and I am here for it, Whitney! [Payton: laughs]
Payton: I remember watching it and I also had a baby on the hip. And I was like, it's about time, right? Because this is really how it is, you know, you either get to choose one or the other, but if you're doing both, that's what it's going to look like. [chuckles]
Niki: Yeah, I just was really rooting for her and rooting for the company. And, y’know, she's still in her early thirties, but compared to many tech founders, she, I mean, she's the youngest woman who had taken a company public like that. And I think- which is also telling because many men do it in their twenties. And I think this is probably baked into the mindset of the company, which now leads us to the topic of the day [chuckles], which is cyberflashing. So, tell us what cyberflashing is.
Payton: All right. Cyberflashing. It has a much more colorful term, but we will use cyberflashing here. It is, flashing on the street is when someone exposes themselves to you. We kind of know this, you know, we think about the, the lurking, you know, gentleman with a trench coat, flashing someone on a New York City avenue. That's illegal. It's illegal in all 50 states. Cyberflashing is the digital form of that. So, people are sending these directly through you to your phone. You've got real estate agents who have their face on their cards or on their billboards and their phone number- they're receiving these. People are sending it on your networking sites. So, you know, LinkedIn and Monster.com, they choose to send it there. People send it of course, on social media, all the world of social media, but they can even just airdrop these things into, on the train and on the Metro. This has been a lived reality for awhile since technology has developed, but what's happened is flashing in real life the laws that mitigate that again, illegal in all 50 states, haven't caught up with the times, digitally. So, there's no laws that actually cover when someone does this to you digitally.
Niki: Right. So, it's not illegal. And I am going to use the language, it's rough language, but whatever, everybody's kids are watching Euphoria. [both chuckle] So, these are “dick pics” that people are sending, [Payton: That’s right, that’s right!] like the idea that you'd get [Payton: and worse, and worse] and worse. [Payton: Yep!] And people get them, not just women, but I think it's statistically, mostly women who get them via airdrop, right? They might be standing on a subway platform and they get it airdropped to their phone. They might get it through their LinkedIn. They might get it through their dating app. And it, as you said, unlike in person, if this happened, it's not a crime in most places although the work you are doing, that Bumble's doing, with advocates in different states, starting with Texas, is to make this a crime.
Payton: That's correct. So, I'm like I said, flashing, the traditional sense is illegal in all states, but cyberflashing is now illegal in two states in the United States. And that was with Bumble.
First, we worked in 2019 and passed a law in Texas, which is our home state, where we're founded. And then, just a matter of weeks ago, we also passed it in Virginia, which is my home state, along with D.C. And we passed that, I'll mention in, in Virginia, it was all women policymakers. It was a diverse group of them ethnically and it was bipartisan. It passed unanimously.
Niki: The incidence of getting an unsolicited pic like this it's very common. Especially for younger women, but this- Do you guys have statistics on this?
Payton: Yes, we did one just on our own app. Again, we were hearing this complaint from our users and we found that one in three of our users were receiving these apps and of that number 96% of them didn't want it.
There was no consent involved in the sending of these pictures. But what we wanted to do, working on this across the United States was like, let's look off of our dating app. So, we did a poll of just internet users and we found, like, that almost 50%, 48% of people have received this. And a higher, even, number have received one in the last year.
So, you know, with COVID and more time online, good things can happen. Entrepreneurship was up, you know, people got into other hobbies online, but then you've also got some bad actors who decided to harass people online. And it does happen predominantly to women but age doesn't seem to always be a factor.
We were speaking with one of our partners, National Women's Political Caucus. If you don't know them, they're famous for Gloria Steinem, Shirley Chisholm, these are the groups that they founded. Their current president, is a, is a, distinguished woman with many years under her belt, she has received these and then also youth have received these.
Our bill is only 18 and up, because as you can imagine, 18 and under you're in for another world of hurt with federal laws, for child harm. But we're covering the space that’s not governed, which is 18 years and up.
Niki: And I think it's probably, my hunch is that although many people receive these images that they don't want. And by the way, if you get an airdropped photo, even if you have to accept or ignore, you still see the image, like when it comes in, you have already had your eyeballs assaulted by having to see this thing you didn't want completely out of nowhere. And on a dating app, you might just be having like a casual conversation texting-wise, and then you get this. And if you're on LinkedIn, it's just like, “You guys!, LinkedIn is not even a dating site. What's happening?” [both laugh] Like, the stuff that, I mean, I don't know. I feel like, I don't know who I have to tell that to, but it seems like a lot of people don't realize it. [Payton: People need a reminder!] People need a reminder! LinkedIn is not a dating site.
And my hunch is, though, that it's a very small number of people who like, wake up and like get off on this behavior. But, but, there's, they're repeat offenders. Like, they're sending these to many, many women who don't want them and many people who don't want them. That's my hunch. We don't know for sure.
Payton: Yeah. It's an interesting hunch. We don't know, maybe you’ve now spurred on our next research that we'll do is to try to get behind, you know, the, the, curtains and see, like, why people are sending these. But from where we’re standing, I think you made a good point about you're already assaulted once you see it.
Like, when you're talking about what do you do about it? Who do you tell? That's secondary and tertiary, right? The fact that without consent- and that's why we focus on consent. Did you ask to send that picture? Did you ask if they wanted to see your, your, private parts? You did not. So, you're violating them and then they have to walk around now and the rest of their life, the rest of their day, you know, you don't know what people have going on and they're already assaulted. They are visually already assaulted.
Niki: Right! And I think that, so I actually- we were talking before we started recording. I was flashed…I sort of don't like the word flash because it makes it seem that what happens is like an instantaneous thing. But I was on the T in Boston, riding the subway when I was in college and this guy exposed himself for minutes. I mean, and you're just trapped, right? It's intended to, it's an act of power over you. Everybody looked at our feet and just waited till we could get off the, the train. And I did nothing about it. ‘Cause like, what am I going to do? I mean, I know what I should've done, probably in hindsight, was file a report.
But what I did was just brush it off, shake it off and just hope it didn't happen again. It has happened again, in my life. So I think, one thing I hope this conversation spurs, is for people listening, like ask, ask people in your life, if this has happened to them. ‘Cause I don't think I go around talking to people about it, but twice in real life with real perverts next to me, I've experienced this and then you add the anonymity of the internet and it just escalates.
Payton: You've brought up at least two points that I want to dive in on. So first I'm just thinking about the, the horrors of public transportation. We currently have an active bill in New York that we're trying to convince the state of New York to pass on cyberflashing and also California. Very large populations there, but just think about the person who's on the train, whether it is that real flashing that you had or digital, you are trapped on a train with that person. They see you. They're looking for your response. They’re looking in your eyes and you just have to almost act like it's not happening. But think also too, if someone is digitally flashing you and sending that to you, you've got to get off that bus or that train at some point. Who did it, right? Y’know, if you know who it is, what if they get off at this stop, same stop as you? If you're not sure of the four or five people on that public transportation with you. And a lot of people get off at the stop with you and you've got to walk home. I mean, what do you do?
So, I don't think people realize that this is not a hahaha thing, right? Like this is that gateway drug, as we say, right to, to other harms.
And the other item I'd like to bring up too on this is: people don't know what to do. And I think that's a natural trauma response. And I think that you keyed in exactly. The fact that you are shocked and you don't know what to do, really belies like why this is harmful behavior. Right? This isn't something where you're like, “Oh, brush it off” and you have no trauma response, you're having a trauma response because it's traumatic.
Niki: It is traumatic. And I'm glad you brought up the hahaha thing because I think we conflate dick pics in relationships with sexting, which is a thing, [Payton: yep] it's a modern, like this is the reality of modern life. [Payton: yep] Which, like, where's Dr. Ruth when you need her? [Payton: Where, is she?!] I don't know. [both chuckle] Like, is there such a thing as a solicited dick pic? I don't know. I was having this conversation with the producer of this podcast [chuckles] I was like, I feel like we need a separate podcast for that. [Payton: Yes!] [chuckles] Sexed Up. [Both: laugh]
Payton: Yes! And there, there is! I mean, it's, again, that's why I bring up consent. If you're in a whatever type of relationship, whether it's only been one hour [chuckles] or it's been, you know, 20 days. You're having the conversation, you know, “Let me see what you're working with? I'll show you mine.” We're not passing judgment, right? That is also not my expertise. [chuckles] Right?! I'm a national security expert, [both: laugh] but I've spent my time in skiffs and working on terrorism abroad. But, for those, that's your business, but for this bucket of folks who don't want this, didn't ask for it, and don't want the harassment like that is a harm.
Niki: It is absolutely a harm and we should not minimize it. And certainly we shouldn't minimize it because it creates a lifetime, and, y’know, I'm over 40, a lifetime of minimizing things that are really not okay at all. And I love the idea that we're making it illegal. So, do you have a federal strategy? Are you going to go state by state?.
Payton: Right now we want to prove the point. You know, this is work that people aren't aware of. People actually don't know this is happening as often as it's happening to people. So, our big thing now is first it's just a campaign on education. It's twofold. One, is we hope that it helps to scare off and prohibit some of the people who are doing this cyberflashing to stop. That's the main goal. Second, it's to empower the people who are on the receiving end of these to realize it is a thing. It does have a name, multiple names as you've pointed out. And there is work that can be done about it.
The internet is the economic driver of our generation and it will be going forward. Why should a large percentage of the human population have one experience on it and the others have another? Why do we have to hide on the internet? Like, you're saying, right?
I was watching, and of course I picked up on this, CNN reporter, established reporter, was covering something on white supremacy and terrorism. The victim accidentally came into one of these groups and wasn't aware of it. But the point was, of course being a good reporter, she contacted the, the leader of this white supremacy group and that person sent her a lewd image. [Niki: Wow]. He knows who she is. She knows who he is. That shows you the level of, of the lack of fear that he had [Niki: There’s no consequences!] Exactly! to do it. It's also an act of violence, right? He was silencing her and telling her exactly what he thought about the work that she was doing.
That's the big thing. The second big thing is, that wasn't the story. She continued, and she just mentioned “Oh, he did. Did this. Ha.Ha.Ha” as she talked to her colleagues, and then she continued with the story. So, this is the second thing that you're picking up, right? Is we now think this is the cost of doing business on the internet, right?
And what are we injecting into, into our ourselves and internalizing that's not gonna, that's gonna hurt us from getting into other situations that are worse: sexual harassment, et cetera, down the line. So, our big part of the work is why we're working state to state is to start these conversations, have these conversations, y’know, this is like a branch conversation between girls or like, you might tell like one girlfriend, like, “Hey, this happened”. We all keep it in secret. But it's, you have to shed light on these things. So, right now we're working state to state, versus trying to do a full on federal play.
Niki: I'm so glad about this. I'd literally never heard the term cyberflashing. I was well aware that this happens [both laugh ruefully], but I didn't even know that it was called that and it makes sense as with many things, things that are obviously, and evidently, illegal in real life should also be illegal online. And we're just getting the laws to match up. And I think the fact that it was a unanimous vote and totally bipartisan, as you said, in Virginia, is a good sign actually. This is maybe something people actually can get done because it’s not okay. And if you ask, you know, especially young people, we don't want them to acclimate. Well, we don't want anyone to feel acclimated to this, that it's the cost of doing business. Like, it's just not okay.
Payton: I think that's right. And, you know, If we have to be the face of this and make a stand for other people, we're willing to do that. You know, laws are, can be pretty antiquated. When I first bought my first property in D.C., it was a row house that had not been turned over. Hadn't had a new owner in generations, the covenant on it still said that Jews and black people couldn't own the property. Right? That was the law. No one felt the shame of actually putting it in the covenant of that piece of area in D.C. and on that property. My point in bringing that up. That was a law and that was accepted. It's outdated. It needs to change. And that's how we feel about this just because it was like a norm or people didn't know about it, or it was just how things used to happen. That's not how things have to be going forward.
So, I would encourage people to challenge the norms, right? That's what we're proving here in Virginia, you know, we're putting the pressure on New York and California who have active bills that are going to be decided in a matter of weeks and months in the summer. So, we want to put pressure on them. And then also too, where's D.C.? D.C. needs to have that, we'd love D.C. [Niki: Where is D.C.?] to have that conversation and, and start that. The White House, the administration is aware of this work, local city councils. So, it's been really interesting, once people are aware, You know, they're like, “No, not under our watch”, but it's the awareness part that's lacking.
Niki: Yeah. So, you're raising awareness and I want to talk for a minute about tech. We earlier were talking about, public transportation. I, people who listen to this podcast know that, I am an apologist for Uber, I'm never going to stop. Can't stop. Won't stop. [Payton: laughs] But I will say this about Uber, we would do these safety reports and people would talk about assaults that happened on the platform between drivers and riders. And, we would always try to explain that actually the riskiest place to be sexually assaulted when it comes to transportation is a subway, by far. The numbers are much, much higher, but it's hard to track what's happened. You don't have the ability to report it in the app right after it happened. You don't have the identity of the person who committed this act against you, necessarily, on a subway. It's it's a more complicated crime solving opportunity.
And this is where I want to talk about the tech itself. So, Uber, we would, we would try to explain, (and once you're trying to explain, you're losing the narrative) [Payton: chuckles] that in fact people reported at higher rates, and then we could solve the crimes because we had literally receipts of what had happened and who was where.
One of the things that Bumble's doing is building in-app protection. So, until the law catches up, you're creating, using AI, some protections for users now. Could you talk about that a little bit?
Payton: Yeah, absolutely. Like you said, with artificial intelligence, we've created some thing, that's called the ‘private detector’. So, what it does is, it automatically, will blur what they feel may be an intimate image. And then, the user on Bumble apps gets the decision to say yes or no, if they want to see it or not. Again, we're passing no judgment. You can click yes. You can click no. But that's protecting our users. And that's the reason why, this is not just about Bumble users is why we're going towards the internet.
So, just because our users might be more safe or have a way to report people or block them. And also similar, Bumble, you know, who sent it to you on Bumble because they're registered as a user. But we want the internet to be a safer place and to honestly do better.
Niki: Needs to do better. I mean, this is, so basically the image is blurred. You then make a decision actively. Do I want to see this or not see this? I see no reason that that tool could not be built into every major social media platform. [Payton: That's true] Period! I mean, It, and it makes so much sense because then it gives you a moment to make a decision.
Payton: And then you're not walking around with that image in your head or that trauma in your head. Right? And then the people who are the aggressors, you know, you take away their win. Right? Whatever, the reason that they're doing this. You know, now they're going to have to go do something else because that's not going to be in their toolkit anymore.
Niki: And I think that's right. I mean, again, we haven't done our polling of people who send unsolicited lewd images to people, but when we poll them my hunches that they are, that it's about power. It's about getting a reaction, it's about being seen in some way. It might be about silencing. [Payton: mm-hmm] None of it's good. [Payton: yeah]
And I think if you do sort of, [pause] neuter, sorry [Payton: chuckles], that ability for them to cause a reaction and, and empower people, not to have to see it. It’s a good tool while we get the laws on the books to catch up with what's, the behavior that's actually happening.
Payton: [interrupts] I think that's right. There's tech solutions. There's legal prohibitions that help, but also we're talking about behavior change and I think it's really important.
You mentioned, y’know, not everyone's on dating apps. We know that. You know, we’re of a certain age, Bumble didn't exist when we were, y’know, a bit younger. And when we were even younger than that, y’know, there really weren't as many dating apps and not to mention our parents, et cetera. And the younger generations that are coming up now, who knows what their world will look like.
What we're trying to do is also change behavior. Right? Y’know, you throw rocks at someone's window, that you're probably going to get arrested. You know that there's going to be implications there. You know that you do other harassing activities to people you're going to get in trouble. This is one of those gray areas where, I also want to protect boys.I have a young son, I have a toddler son, right?! You know, I also want him to grow up in a world where he knows this is that this is a uh-uh, this is a no. And so he doesn't do that and put himself in harm's way or, um, harm someone else by doing this behavior.
Niki: Totally! . I do think there's probably a cluelessness among a certain percentage of people too. And if it's like, the, again, all of my references to teens in America is based on Euphoria [both: laugh]. It's like, literally, like, I don't know!
I'm like, wow, this is, this is like a horror film, but they do talk about it in that, you know, the prevalence of the way teens interact with each other. And obviously you mentioned that under 18 is a whole different sort of can of worms-
Payton: [interrupts] And our legislation does not touch that at all. And you've got other, you know, very large advocacy groups and the federal government that manage, you know, anything that's happened to youth under 18.
Niki: Yeah. But there, but there are, we do obviously have norms that change. Like, I went to college during a time when date rape was a thing, like, that was a concept that we had in the nineties. [Payton: right] And, of course, that doesn't exist as a concept anymore. [Payton: chuckles] I mean, but, but that mentality was part of just, that was the world we were living in. And that was sort of how we explained what was happening.
And so I think, you're right. That's one of the important things and why I do hope people do talk to their kids about this, which is like the norms that we decide about how we interact with each other. Like, set aside the people who are criminally doing this, you know, [Payton: right] There are, there is also the broader sort of norms [Payton: That’s right] of what do people want? [Payton: That’s right] Do they want this from me? [Payton: That’s right] Think twice. [chuckles]
Payton: That's right. Just like there's a lot of social norming behavior that you learn as you grow up there should be, now, again, we've got to advance and they should just be one of those that we're also, arming our youth to, to understand, like, you know, don't do this, here's the causes y’know for the people receiving it, here’s what you can do about it, et cetera. I think you bring up a good point. Date rape, like, you couldn't even say that word nowadays, but that was textbook when we were growing up. You think about even like our, our parents, you know, rape in a marriage wasn't a thing: you're married to that person.
And so I just, again, pointing to these things that, just because they a norm or a law before it doesn't mean that we got it right the first time. You know, we need to advance it and update a lot of this.
Niki: Yeah. And the last thing I'm going to say, and you sort of alluded to this, that, you know, it's people's decision if they want to engage in sexting and whatever. Like sex positive, I actually think there's for sure a role for sexting to play in romantic relationships, that can be quite positive for a lot of people and it can be healthy and it can be- what is it from the Big Lebowski [Payton:chuckles], like a zesty enterprise.
Like, I think it can be fine and fun [Payton: yeah] if it's between people who are consenting and, and in a relationship and want it. And it is very, very different when it is unsolicited, unwanted, and then leaves you with a mark on your eyeballs that you are carrying around for awhile. And that is not okay. So, there's like a huge difference between the two and having the conversation, which, maybe is, like, awkward to have on a podcast about tech, [both chuckle] but I think we need to be having it. So, thank you for doing this.
Payton: No, you're welcome. And like you said, Dr. Ruth can take part two of that discussion [Niki: yes!] Not our expertise, but yeah, it's about consent, right? It's about consent. And are you getting permission to do whatever activity is that you're about to thrust onto somebody.
Niki: Yeah, absolutely. Payton, thank you so much for coming on today. I really appreciate it. And you guys are doing great work. I'm going to post a couple of links in the show notes in case people want to see, sort of the bills that you've passed and some of the work that you're doing in the next few states you're looking at.
Payton: That’s great. Thanks so much for having me.
Niki: My next conversation is with agri-tech venture capitalist, Connie Bowen, who talks about a phenomenon she calls “Tech bros fixing farms.” Just a reminder that Tech’ed Up is shifting to an every-other-week schedule, so be sure to follow us so you don’t miss an episode.