• Anna Nemus

Creep Catching Online: 'Digilanteism' in the 21st century

“Hey, why are you here to meet a 14 year old girl?”

Video sharing sites have many themes, and one which rapidly grew around 2016 onwards was that of 'Creep Catchers' – vigilante members of the public who pretended to be underage children on internet dating sites, arranged to meet with the men and women who talked to them, and then videoed their encounters. These were typically streamed live on sites like Facebook, and then uploaded later to Youtube.

'Creep catching' takes place across the world, but Canada is very well represented – there are videos posted claiming to represent 'Chapters' from almost every Province, and many different cities within those. There is a regular stream of submissions from a group focused on Surrey BC, and Vice News have done an hour long documentary profiling Toronto-based self-proclaimed 'Paedophile Hunter' Justin Payne[1].

The 'catchers' typically justify their behaviour based on the section 172.1(1) of the Criminal Code: 'Luring a child'. It is a criminal offence to communicate by telecommunications with a child the perpetrator believes is under 18, 16, or 14 depending on the acts they intended to perform.

Most people would likely agree that protecting children is a worthy goal. But is this really a good way to go about it? The 'catchers' or 'hunters' typically have no training in law or law enforcement, nor psychology to consider the reactions of the people they meet. Their actions may be well-meaning, but they open themselves up to substantial consequences, with little actual benefit.

Vigilantism is generally condemned by society, although many people applaud the actions of the 'Catchers' – they believe that each person interacted with is someone the police should have caught, and absent police action, citizens have a responsibility to act to protect children. But for all the videos posted, there seems very little result – searching publicly available court results, there is not a single instance of 'Creep catchers' work leading to a person being charged and convicted. There is one instance of the BC Information Privacy Commissioner finding that the stings were an unlawful use of private information, and ordering that the videos, and copies of chat logs be taken down from their public postings [2].

For all the lack of outcome, what sorts of negative consequences do the 'catchers' risk? There would seem to be problems for them personally, for the person they encounter, and for society at large. Most of these all come back to the same problem: by attempting to perform law enforcement activities without any training, these groups are increasing risk and failing to provide a benefit.

For the catchers, they are deliberately entering a highly unstable situation – approaching a person with cameras drawn, and demanding that they explain their paedophilia. They have no idea how the person they target is going to react – everything from sitting quietly and talking to running away to violently assaulting them is possible. A common refrain on videos is “We have to keep filming for your safety and ours”. The need to have video proof of any assault against the 'catchers' would however not exist if they didn't set up the meeting in the first place. Aside from the physical danger they risk, they are opening themselves up to civil suits and criminal charges of defamation. The 'catches' are often streamed live, and even those which aren't are uploaded; people commonly deny any knowledge and insist they've got the wrong person. The camera doesn't stop. Yet if there were a case of mistaken identity, an innocent person's life could be ruined [3]. Even if they successfully talk to the person they have correctly identified, their actions can be easily misunderstood; in a 2016 sting which apparently caught a RCMP officer in Vancouver, another officer with a similar name found himself under public condemnation for acts he had nothing to do with.

The inability to predict how a person will respond has further consequences. For the person themselves, if they have done something wrong, they suddenly find themselves confronted with the worst aspects of their life, and (for them) its worst possible consequences, all streamed live on the internet for their family, friends, neighbours, employers, and strangers to see. This must come at an enormous psychological cost. Although the 'catchers' would likely say that they aren't particularly concerned with the mental health of someone they consider a predator, if they are not immediately arrested they will go home, and have to face this alone. People who intended or attempted to commit sex crimes against children are widely considered to be the most socially condemned of criminals, and there are many examples of people committing suicide either before beginning a jail term or upon the accusation being made. Even if a person has done nothing wrong, the accusation has been made in a similarly public way.

There are wider risks to society which come from both of these; there are immediate concerns about the actions of the supposed-predator – oftentimes these people have driven to the meetings. There are videos which include people driving off at high speed, placing everyone in the vicinity in danger. In one video, the alleged 'creep' was a truck driver, with two long trailers attached to their vehicle. Within seconds of the tape starting, the driver had been accused of wanting to meet a child, had run to his vehicle, and high-tailed it for the highway. Any resulting crash would not have happened but for the actions of the vigilantes, who had placed the driver in an extremely heightened emotional state. The consequences of their actions are unknowable, and yet they recklessly continue to provide a shock confrontation.

For the people who are not arrested but know they have been identified, there is a further risk that they will drive their activities underground – rather than seeking help or therapy, there is always a risk they will seek an outlet through for example child pornography, the demand for which furthers the commission of child sex abuse elsewhere.

It is hard to explicitly fault the motives of the people engaging in this form of activity, but it is equally hard to condone their actions. According to RCMP as of September 2016, no successful charge had come from the actions of vigilante groups online [4] , and their actions come with risks. Potentially worst of all, there is always the risk of interrupting a police operation, and preventing them from launching a valid catch, by trained professionals, which might actually stand up in a court of law and prevent children from harm.

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Endnotes

[1]Vice News Canada, “Canada's Original Vigilante Pedophile Hunter” January 13 2017 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rJU_LvwL-Kc

[2] BCIP Order P17-03; Surrey Creep Catcher (Re), [2017] BCIPCD No 38

[3] CTV News, “Surrey Creep Catchers apologizes for sharing innocent man's photo”, October 3rd 2016 https://bc.ctvnews.ca/surrey-creep-catchers-apologizes-for-sharing-innocent-man-s-photo-1.3100018

[4] CBC News,”'RCMP does not condone this activity,' say police to creep catchers” Sept 3 2016 , at http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/british-columbia/surrey-rcmp-reaction-to-surrey-creep-catcher-1.3747822.

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