It was late on a school night, so Jennifer’s kids were already asleep when she got a phone call from a friend of her 15-year-old daughter, Jasmine
“Jasmine is on a Web page and she’s naked.” Jennifer woke Jasmine, and throughout the night, the two of them kept getting texts from Jasmine’s friends with screenshots of the Instagram account. It looked like a porn site-shot after shot of naked girls-only these were real teens, not grown women in pigtails. Jennifer recognized some of them from Jasmine’s high school. And there, in the first row, was her daughter, “just standing there, with her arms down by her sides,” Jennifer told me. “There were all these girls with their butts cocked, making pouty lips, pushing their boobs up, doing porny shots, and you’re thinking, Where did they pick this up? And then there was Jasmine in a fuzzy picture looking awkward.” (The names of all the kids and parents in this story have been changed to protect their privacy.) You couldn’t easily identify her, because the picture was pretty dark, but the connection had been made anyway. “OMG no f?ing way that’s Jasmine,” someone had commented under her picture. “Down lo ho,” someone else answered, meaning one who flies under the radar, because Jasmine was a straight?A student who played sports and worked and volunteered and was generally a “goody-goody two shoes,” her mom said. She had long, silky hair and doe eyes and a sweet face that seemed destined for a Girl Scouts pamphlet, not an Instagram account where girls were called out as hos or thots (thot stands for “that ho over there”).
They came from “all across the board,” Lowe says
That night, in March of this year, Jennifer tried to report the account to Instagram’s privacy-and-safety center, hoping it would get taken down. She asked several friends to fill out the “report violations” page too, but after a few hours, the account was still up. (Instagram’s help center recommends contacting local authorities in cases of serious abuse.) She considered calling 911, but this didn’t seem like that kind of emergency. So she waited until first thing the next morning and called a local deputy sheriff who serves as the school resource officer, and he passed the message on to his superior, Major Donald Lowe. Over the years, Lowe had gotten calls from irate parents whose daughters’ naked pictures had popped up on cellphones, usually sent around by an angry boyfriend after a breakup. But he immediately realized that this was a problem of a different order. Investigation into the Instagram account quickly revealed two other, similar accounts with slightly different names. Between them, the accounts included about 100 pictures, many of girls from the local high school, Louisa County High, in central Virginia. Some shots he later described to me as merely “inappropriate,” meaning girls “scantily clad in a bra and panties, maybe in a suggestive pose.” But some “really got us”-high-school girls masturbating, and then one picture showing a girl having sex with three boys at once.
Lowe has lived in Louisa County, or pretty close to it, for most of his life. The county is spread out and rural, but it is by no means small-town innocent. People there deal drugs and get caught up with gangs, and plenty of high-school girls end up pregnant. Usually Lowe can more or less classify types in his head-which kids from which families might end up in trouble after a drunken fight in the McDonald’s parking lot. But this time the cast of characters was baffling. He knew many of the girls in the photos, knew their parents. A few were 14, from the local middle school. “Every race, religion, social, and financial status in the town. Rich, poor, everyone. That’s what was most glaring and blaring about the situation. If she was a teenager with a phone, she was on there.” He knew some of the boys who had followed the Instagram accounts, too. Among them were kids with a lot to lose, including star athletes with scholarships to first-rate colleges.