With the ease of sharing information over social media, we have seen the formation of self-proclaimed paedophile hunters. Almost everyone re-posts and shares information on known paedophiles in the area and most think they are doing an excellent service. I have heard police officers privately say that they think they are good as the police are understaffed and overstretched.

Vigilante groups such as these are not illegal, however, care must be taken to ensure they stay within the law and avoid arrest themselves. I remember the first time I saw one of these groups hunting paedophiles and posting the videos on a popular platform. I thought to my self ‘but that man could be anyone, I haven’t seen the evidence they say that they have. What if they just held a grudge towards this person?’

A vigilante is defined as an individual or group acting as a form of law enforcement without authority. Of course, there are more vigilante groups than paedophile hunters, but these are the ones that get the most public attention. These groups are taking the job of enforcing the law into their own hands. Often, they only work under their moral guidelines and have no formal training or knowledge of the law.  These groups most commonly work on social media and messaging apps to snare potential child groomers. They will masquerade as a child and chat online with suspected paedophiles. Decoys record the targets attempts to get the ‘child’ to perform sexual acts on web cameras or meet for sex. They keep a record of their interactions and often film their interaction when they meet and confront the paedophile.

Top police officers have warned in the past that vigilante paedophile hunters should stop because they risk tampering with probes into child grooming. Humberside police write on their website:

Whilst we share the concerns of online vigilante groups and individuals who want to expose potential child sex offenders – or so-called ‘paedophile hunters’ – we need to make it clear again that their actions can be extremely problematic and can create more problems than they solve. It remains that we do not condone the methods these groups employ which have already divided public opinion. We encourage those involved with these groups to contact us and pass on any evidence they may have and not to post or stream videos online which itself carries its own risks. We also dissuade the public from sharing such videos through social media channels. https://www.humberside.police.uk/online-vigilante-groups

When vigilante groups record and post their videos online, it can create a range of problems. During the actual ‘sting’ if passers-by know of the group and people, they may attack the paedophile causing more offences to be committed and a further stretch on police resources. The dangers posed by vigilantes also extend beyond the actual confrontations. When the interactions are shared online, there are going to be people who recognise or know the person being confronted. This may cause local people to target family or loved ones of the target. Also, if the target person leaves, they then have time to potentially destroy important evidence.

However, it can be hard to argue against these groups. As a mother, I want to protect my family and would want those willing to harm them off the streets. Supporters of the groups see the vigilantes as a valuable resource that could be harnessed by the police to become an even more effective crime-fighting tool. These groups have led to the discovery and successful prosecution of many offenders.

As work has continued, many of these vigilante groups work within the law and the information they gather can be used as evidence. The BBC reports several cases that have been successfully prosecuted:

Recent high profile scalps claimed by vigilante groups include Mark McKenna, 38, who sent explicit photos, a video and many messages to someone he believed was an 11-year-old girl, Paul Platten, 38, who sent naked pictures of himself to a vigilante posing as a 13-year-old girl, and Andrew Sealey, 39, who was caught in a sting operation in a theme park after telling one fake teenager: “It’s OK you being a virgin and 15, I don’t mind.” All were convicted in court with evidence from the vigilantes forming part of the prosecution. https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-37708233

The success of vigilante groups is hard to argue against. However, these groups are not required to follow any kind of a protocol and may gather evidence which falls well below official law enforcement standards. These groups post the content to social media before any convictions are gained. This jeopardises any jury decision making and puts the offender and their families at risk.

The infamous case of Michael Duff was followed by the BBC; he took his own life two days after a video of him being confronted by a self-styled paedophile hunter was uploaded to Facebook. His daughter spoke out against the group and claimed that he may not have committed any crime at all.

In our society, we agree to the norms and laws that are set. It is a rule book that we agree to abide with. Therefore, groups or individuals who take it upon themselves to act as law enforcers can be problematic. They are only governed by their own moral standards, not the law. An accusation does not automatically mean they are guilty. Allegations of rape and paedophilia can be very harmful and can permanently damage the reputation of the induvial even if they are found not guilty.

I believe the way forward is for these motivated vigilantes to work closely alongside police. This will mean they are fully aware of the legal parameters and framework.