The rise of anti-paedophile vigilantism has been driven by a belief that the participants are filling a gap left by police ineffectiveness which allows predatory paedophiles to run free in society.
Vigilantes certainly succeed in generating confrontations with the men they have targeted, but they also raise worrying questions about how their approach can incite wrongdoing and affect the work of the authorities.
Groups with self-styled names such as Letzgo Hunting, Paedophile Hunter, Daemon Hunter and Dark Justice have a common strategy. They will pose as a vulnerable child in a chatroom (usually an underage girl), wait for an individual to instigate a sexualised conversation and then encourage a meeting in order to publicly expose them; often uploading a video of the confrontation on the internet.
It is uncertain as yet, whether such vigilantism is supported by the public or whether activities are simply inflated by the oxygen of publicity via the media. What is evident is that the UK is not alone in experiencing this emerging trend. Similar examples appear in the US (Perverted Justice) and also in Russia (Duri.Net).
The tactics employed by these groups raise serious ethical and moral questions about whether or not they are consistent with an acceptable concept of justice. If so, do we have to rethink our current understanding of policing and public engagement? Alternatively, are they simply self-empowered sensation seeking bullies who disregard law in a quest for tabloid titillation? The answer is probably a combination of both.
The vigilantes justify their actions by exposing offenders and passing the information they collect on to the police. They also cite the fact that their actions have been pivotal in convicting a number of offenders that otherwise would not have been brought to justice. But the admissibility of the evidence obtained by these groups in a court of law can be questionable. It often lacks the necessary continuity and conclusive proof of wrongdoing required to secure a successful conviction. Of course, this fact further frustrates the vigilantes and justifies their approach in their own minds.
UK law enforcement agencies and courts have, in principle, deliberately tried to avoid entrapment, so they are understandably concerned about vigilantism. The police maintain that they are the only group equipped and empowered to “police” the online environment and that the public should simply pass any intelligence they have about suspected offenders to them. They argue that the unauthorised actions of vigilantes can unwittingly interfere with covert police operations into which long-term effort and resources have been invested.
There is the question as to who is responsible when things go wrong. There have been recent examples of entrapped individuals committing suicide. Which raises a further question as to whether the vigilantes are going after the right people, or whether they are simply trapping the more vulnerable individuals.
It would appear, from the ages of the avatars that vigilantes use to entice their quarry, that many of the individuals entrapped may not actually be paedophiles with a sexual interested in prepubescent children. Rather, they seem more likely to be ephebophiles who have an interest in post-pubescent youths, or hebephiles who are interested in pubescent children. While we should be in no doubt that they all have a sexual interest in the under-aged, each has a different psychological and behavioural profile and when their thoughts do turn in to criminal actions, all require some form of legal intervention. Some need help, others need prison because of the severity of their crimes and the need to protect the public from them.
This observation leads us to the idea of rehabilitation for these offenders. For the majority, this will be an opportunity to participate in a recognised Sex Offender Treatment Programme. But why such programmes are referred to as “treatment” is unclear. The term implies that having a sexual interest in children is a curable illness of some kind, when it is in fact pathological and similar to any other life-long addiction. As such, it can only ever be managed.
In fact, the focus of the Sex Offender Treatment Programme is to offer offenders an insight into their own offending behaviour and the methods used simply aim to help them control and manage their sexual thoughts and feelings towards children.
Thought and action
Perhaps the real question we should be asking is whether or not the entrapped individuals would have turned their thoughts into actions without the intervention of the online vigilante groups. One school of thought is that by their actions, such individuals clearly have a sexual interest in children and given time and opportunity they will inevitably commit a contact sexual offence. Another is that they are simply sharing a fantasy that few will ever act upon.
This dilemma between thoughts and actions continues to be central to the debate about the suitable punishment and effective risk assessment of child sex offenders. It is a nuance that has no room in the approach taken by the online vigilantes.
We are not quite at the point where online public involvement in policing starts to mission-creep into a police-spy system where everybody ends up reporting each other’s behaviour. We must however resolve the questions raised by online anti-paedophile vigilantism before it reaches the point where due process and the concept of justice become largely irrelevant.