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    So a Paedophile Hoax Sent Your Kids' App to the Top of the App Store

    Written by

    Victoria Turk

    Editor, UK

    Image: YouTube

    Amid the Flappy Bird copycats currently at the top of the App Store’s charts is a free entertainment app featuring a loquacious cartoon cat. Called Talking Angela, the seemingly innocuous app has become the victim of a persistent social media hoax that claims the game is dangerous for kids, with the worst rumours alleging the app’s cartoon cat character is some sort of elaborate front for a paedophile ring.

    Made by global company Outfit7, Talking Angela comes from the family of Talking Tom and Friends, a popular group of apps that have had over 1.5 billion downloads between them. Angela is differentiated from her digital pals in that she contains a chat bot; the fashion-loving girl-cat can have a conversation with you via text or voice recognition, in a similar way to Apple's Siri.

    Currently the third most popular app in the App Store after Flying Cyrus and Splashy Fish, Talking Angela has risen to fame thanks to a rather strange series of rumors that have snowballed into internet (read: totally false) fact.

    In one hoax reminiscent of Brass Eye’s satirical “Paedogeddon” episode, a post suggested that an evil hacker-paedophile mastermind could somehow watch users through Angela’s oversized feline eyes (despite the fact that they’re made of pixels on a screen). Other scares included suggestions that Angela would ask children for information like what school they went to or where they lived (she doesn't). 

    Bogus privacy scare chain letters concerning the app first made the rounds a full year ago, but in the past couple of weeks the concern has been reignited and spread like wildfire, even crossing the language barrier from English to French. I asked Samo Login, CEO of Outfit7, how he thought it happened. “I think that it happened the same way as every viral activity; you can’t predict it,” said Login. “I don’t think we could really affect it in a great way. If we could, I’m sure we would have a lot of viral activities.”

    “If we could bottle it and sell it, I think we’d be making a lot of money: How to make things viral,” added Senior Brand Director Randeep Sidhu. In some ways, he said, the improved quality of the app might have exacerbated the rumours. As the app has become more advanced and “intelligent” over the past year, the idea that a human must be behind Angela’s interactions got more traction.

    “If you say for example, ‘What do you think of One Direction?’ Angela would respond, ‘I like Justin Bieber; I’m a Belieber,’” Sidhu said. “And so people were convinced that kind of level of intelligence must be a person behind the chat bot. They couldn’t believe that those kind of responses would be generated automatically.”

    When I played with the app (the developers insist it’s not just for kids), Angela talked about her passion for accessories and hat design. “I love to design and accessorise my outfits,” she said in the kind of disjointed robo-voice you get from digital scripts. “I customize them with some neat tricks like tying decorative knots.”

    She initiated a conversation on fascinators, but seemed to forget what they were when I asked her more about them. When I stroked her ears, she called me a cutie, and that’s about as intimate as we got. Even when I annoyed her by poking her off her chair, she didn’t reveal herself to be anything more malevolent than a mildly disgruntled cartoon character.

    Beyond sending out an official statement and directing queries to their FAQ page, the developers admitted there was little they could do to combat the rumours. Once something’s viral, it’s hard to rein it in. Login said he was pleased to talk to journalists, “so people will understand why Angela feels so real and understand why Angela is safe. Because everything that Angela discusses, everything that she answers, comes from the script.”

    From a technical point of view, he emphasised, there was no way Angela could be “taken over” by a person. “Everything that Angela discusses, everything that she answers, comes from the script, and the script is actually running inside the app on the mobile device.”

    Sidhu said the apps’ fans had also taken to rebuffing some of the more preposterous claims on social media. “I mean, some of the statements in the hoax bend the laws of physics,” he said. “There’s some people talking about how you can see someone in her eye—you can see someone watching through her eyeball. Despite the fact that this is a screen; it’s not a window, or a camera.”

    In their statement, they mentioned the app's child mode feature. This disables the chat bot function completely and only lets you interact with Angela in the same way as their earlier Talking Tom app; you can (platonically) stroke and poke her, and she repeats what you say but doesn’t bring anything new to the conversation.

    Login explained they developed child mode because the chat bot functionality was too difficult for younger kids to use than for any inappropriate content, and added that even if you were over 18, Angela wouldn’t touch on any particularly adult subjects. “We would never want to have something like that in our apps," he said.

    The child mode has come under criticism for being too easy to turn off, but the Outfit7 team said they’re looking into strengthening it.

    As for personal information, Angela asks two things: your name—“so that she can address you”—and your age. This, Login said, was so she could target conversation topics to your level; i.e. to discover if you’re more into squealing over Justin Bieber or discussing the finer details of millinery.

    “The information never leaves; personal information never leaves the app,” said Sidhu. “As a second safeguard, we also scrub any proper nouns and numbers.”

    While the app’s momentary infamy might have propelled it to the dizzy heights of the app store top five, he admitted it's not the kind of viral success they might have hoped for. “It’s upsetting for us as a company; we’re a family company," he said.

    But he suggested that the success of the app in the first place probably helped the hoax propagate. After all, people would be unlikely to share a chain letter about an app they’d never heard of. “People already had it on their phones, people were already playing with it,” he said. “And then suddenly they see this thing and think, Hang on a minute, I have this on my phone, my daughter has this, my friend has this. And because everyone knows someone who has Talking Angela they feel the need to repeat it, because they recognise it as a brand.”

    Indeed, before this recent media attention, Talking Angela and friends were probably one of the most popular entertainment phenomena you’d never heard of. On top of the popular apps, they have their own Disney-partnered Youtube series Talking Friends, the first episode of which has nearly 20 million views and about as many terrible jokes (granted, I’m probably a couple of decades over the age of its target demographic). Outfit7 is now making a 52-episode series that will be broadcast around the world. 

    As for the Talking Angela app, the Twitter scare notes are increasingly being diluted by jokes on the same theme, and there’s little the developers can do but continue to weather the storm of misinformation and remind users that, however clever she seems, her intelligence is entirely artificial.

    “But we are also working on, as always, improvements on the Talking Angela app,” Login finished. “The brain, the script of Talking Angela, gets updated regularly with new topics that are relevant to our users. We always want to understand better what’s interesting to our users, what type of content they prefer, and that’s how we make her more engaging.”

    Some topics, however, will remain off the table.

    Correction: This article initially stated that Outfit7 was based in London. It is in fact based in Cyprus, with offices around the world.

    Topics: hoaxes, apps, Talking Angela, culture, artificial intelligence

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