By Jack Farrell
The last ten years of austerity politics in the UK has seen a dramatic reduction in the provision of funding for police and probation services. Funding for police services dropped by 25% between 2010 and 2016 (Millie and Bullock, 2013) resulting in the loss of approximately 34,400 general police personnel and 20,000 police officers (ibid). High-ranking officials such as met commissioner Cressida Dick along with London mayor Sadiq Khan have both recently argued that austerity cuts are directly responsible for the rise in violent knife crime over the last few years. Similarly, Superintendent Darius Hemmatpour recently claimed that this reduction has fuelled an increase in violent crime across the UK: “If you take 20,000 police officers off the streets of England and Wales, because of austerity, that creates a void”. Of course, the “void” referred to by Hemmatpour here is not just one relating to the absence of police officers but of a much broader draw-back of state services including – among other cuts – the continual dwindling of the National Health Service and a vindictive welfare system which has led academic Taylor-Gooby to conclude that the UK public sector is now the smallest among the major economies (2012).
Although it is becoming more and more evident that austerity cuts have had a devastating impact across the UK, the question arises as to how communities most ravaged by years of austerity cuts have responded to the void left by the retreating state. One trend is the emergence of citizen-led groups – without sanction from the state – that attempt to fill in the space left behind by a depleted law enforcement. In particular, this note focuses on one collective of groups that center around targeting the perpetrators of perhaps the most provocative crime in contemporary society – the sexual abuse of children. Known as paedophile hunting, this phenomenon consists of groups of citizens who pose online across dating websites (and social media sites more generally) as fake children (“decoys”). The decoys attempt to lure individuals that engage sexually with them into a meeting spot, at which point they begin live-streaming the encounter to Facebook and interrogate the individual before the police arrive when they then hand the target over to the police. From March to September of 2018 I conducted fieldwork into paedophile hunter groups across the UK as part of my MA thesis using a combination of traditional ethnographic methods including interviews and netnographic methods such as observing the live-streaming of stings as they happened across social media (Kozinets, 2015).
Numerous questions arose from my research regarding hunting groups including their lack of accountability, effectiveness at actually reducing the occurrence of child sexual offences, and the possibility of manipulation involved in luring in their target. However, this note intends to focus on two different aspects. First, I want to argue that the emergence of paedophile hunting can primarily be understood as an attempt to fill in the vacuum left by years of austerity cuts to probation and police departments across the UK. Secondly, that paedophile hunting, occurring as it does across social media, produces a violent spectacle which generates a perverse sense of community, but one that, trapped as it is within the confines of communicative capitalism, fails to reduce the harms they seek to overcome and in fact reproduces the violence of the system which created them.
Filling a Void: Austerity and the Emergence of Paedophile Hunters
“I’m not scared of you calling me a vigilante because a vigilante is someone who acts when the system has failed. And the system has failed” (Scottish Television News, 10th September, 2018)
There are few crimes which demand such a call to action like child sexual abuse. Indeed, the idea that ‘something needs to be done’ is more immanent in this discussion than almost any other crime. The sense of urgency has only heightened in recent years as the number of registered sexual offenders in the UK has increased while the amount of state resources towards managing sexual offenders has decreased (N. Mann et al, 2017: 3). While austerity generally has produced a growing tide of state discontent across working class communities in the UK, the issue of child sexual abuse (1) has been a central means through which these communities have expressed a sentiment that the continual draw-back of state protection has necessitated the direct action of citizens. Paedophile hunting in this sense is one manifestation of a broader sense of abandonment felt amongst the working class.
Throughout my research in areas such as Manchester, Rotherham, Wilmslow and Leeds, there were few places or people I encountered that had not been touched in some way by the increasing deficiencies, if not complete disappearance of social programmes resulting from austerity measures since 2010. Of particular relevance to the issue of child abuse are the cuts to probation and police resources directly linked with the management of sex offenders. Multiple members of the police force have themselves expressed frusration with the depletion of resources which meant that they have been unable to maintain the scheduled visits to registered sex offenders who had been released:
“We were on the visits, and we never carried them over. Maybe one or two per month, but we were on the visits. And very quickly it became apparent that this was unmanageable, with the workload we were doing…the problem is the resources. We get a new offender each week. It has grown by 50% in the last two years” (N.Mann et al, 2017: 5)
Hunters were well aware of the problem of lack of police resources. One group’s Facebook “About” page explained that they formed because of “the simple truth… that the police are undermanned, thanks to consistent and persistent funding cuts by successive governments” (Facebook status, anonymous hunter: 6th July, 2018). Raz, the head of one hunter group, National Child Protectors (NCP) told me she got involved in hunting because she believed the police could no longer adequately protect children: “it’s in civilians hands unfortunately. The normal bodies aren’t and can’t be doing enough because they’re not financed enough, they don’t have the manpower and they don’t have the hours to legislate effectively” (I.7, Raz).
The perception that the state was not able to prevent the sexual abuse of children was the most common reason found for the formation of paedophile hunting groups. This was not an abstract concern but one that had directly impacted the lives of individuals who formed paedophile hunter groups. Nine out of the ten hunters I interviewed had either suffered some history of abuse themselves or shared a close family tie to someone who had been. It is hardly surprising then that individuals who have suffered from abuse earlier in their life would perceive cuts which hinder the ability of the state to adequately manage sex offenders as an abandonment. “I mean I come from the town where the CSE [Child Sex Exploitation] scandal broke. Where they let children down. If I save one child from years of heartache, then I’ve done my job” (Rotherham, 9th June: 2018)
What is important to note is that the fact of abuse alone is not usually sufficient to become involved in paedophile hunter groups. Rather, individuals become involved in paedophile hunting through a combination of personal interest and a perception of broader societal necessity. Hunter’s dissatisfaction with the state manifested itself in criticisms of the judicial system for lenient sentences towards sexual offedners, under-resourced and understaffed police forces that are unable to deal with the extent of online child abuse, and a state that is either unwilling or incapable of getting their hands dirty with the apparent extent of child abuse happening in the UK. Expressions that “the government have shut their eyes to how big the problem is” as noted by Raz above, are widespread amongst Hunters. The UK Wolf Pack Hunters group give their reason for forming on their Facebook page as follows: “This group is a community response to the epidemic of grooming in Great Britain. We are told there are measures in place to protect our children from sexual predators… [but] predators that go through court get lenient punishments and are allowed to move straight back to the community where no one is informed that someone with an attraction to children is living right beside them” (UK Wolf Pack Hunters Facebook page, April 9th 2018).
While it might be tempting to dismiss the emergence of paedophile hunting as a fleeting oddity, the resentment and de-centralised organisation of these groups makes them representative of a growing number of groups across the UK who are disaffected and disenfranchised by years of austerity cuts to essential social services. Over the six months I spent speaking with paedophile hunters the main thing I learned was that the people who join these groups are hurt and angry. Often, they had very good reasons to be. Most had either suffered sexual and physical abuse or been consistently failed by state organs throughout their life; or more common still, endured both. In this sense, dismissing paedophile hunting is a dismissal of the anger felt by working class communities towards how the state organises itself with regard to their concerns around child abuse. But just as much as it is important to not dismiss the emergence of paedophile hunting as a passing curiosity, it is also crucial to understand the potential for immense social harm which paedophile hunting can cause.
The Violent Spectacle of Paedophile Hunting
The central fulcrum of paedophile hunting is the “sting”. But beyond the actual act of setting up and meeting with their targets, paedophile hunting’s potency is based on the visual capture of the target’s image. The most virulent example of this is the live-streaming of stings on hunter groups’ Facebook pages to regular audiences of thousands, usually accompanied with details of the target’s name, age and occasionally address.
Image published by hunter group Keeping Kids Safe, 15th October: 2018 (original not blurred)
Although paedophile hunting may occasionally lead to physical violence (such as a physical attack on an alleged paedophile in Sheffield or the brawl at Kent Bluewater shopping centre) the primary tactic is “a form of cultural violence that simultaneously renders targets visible and legitimates accompanying forms of violence, including the structural foreclosure of life chances” (Trottier, 2016: 59). Hunters are adamant that their actions are legitimate as they do not engage in physical violence (2). However, even a brief consideration of the spectacle of hunting reveals the harm immanent in the public dissemination of an image believed to be a sexual abuser of children. Daniel Trottier (2017) has described this as “weaponised visibility”: “Weaponised visibility is a naming and shaming type of visibility [which] involves sharing the targeted individual’s personal details by publishing them on a public site, including sensitive details such as the target’s home address, work details as well as financial and medical information” (Trottier, 2017: 56). Weaponised visibility is unwanted, intense and enduring (Trottier, 2017).
This expansion of the definition of force then includes the wider non-embodied violence that paedophile hunting utilises in their operations. So, while this force may not be physical “it is difficult to deny the potential for very real harms as a result of online responses to a social infraction” (Powell et al, 2018: 143). The concept of weaponised visibility allows us to reconceptualise shame as an intensely damaging form of violence.The lasting severity of the accusation that someone is sexually attracted to children stands outside any other insult in contemporary society. In addition, the permanence of the digital image serves to amplify shaming practices. Similar to how prisoners once “begged for any chastisement rather than the pillory” (Beattie, 1986: 469), contemporary subjects of mediated shaming know that there is no punishment “as severe or intimidating as the ostracism, job loss, death threats, and physical attacks that can accompany shaming in the digital era” (Ingraham & Reeves, 2016: 461). Public shaming in a digitalised world, in which images, accusations (true or not) and stigma permanently fester, magnifies the intensity of the accusation and distorts it from a kind of justice into a strange spectacle of entertainment – but a spectacle of entertainment which feeds on pain and hurt without reintegration, a spectacle of morally sanctioned humiliation. One hunter raised and answered her own question by stating: “you’ve got to question why a lot of people are watching the videos in the first place. A lot of people see it as an alternative to watching Eastenders or bloody Corrie” (Personal Interview, 13th June: 2018).
Comment on Justice For the Kids sting, 9th October 2018
Comments from Internet Interceptors Sting, 13th June 2018
With news that more than eight people that have been captured by paedophile hunting committed suicide before they could face trial, it is no exaggeration to say that this accusation is the power over life or death. The severity of this accusation, combined with the lack of accountability of paedophile hunters means that in cases where they get it wrong, the consequences can be devastating. One example is the case of hunter group Southampton Trap accusing Paul Farhad of “grooming teenagers’ and being a “massive danger to society” (Wood, 2018). Following the post, seen by over 111,000 people, Farhad was fired, had his window smashed with a brick and had paint sprayed on his door. However, after being brought to court for this allegation, Stephen Dure, the head of TRAP admitted to falsely accusing Paul Farhad. Despite Farhad in this instance being able to clear his name officially in court, the accusation reverberates still in digital space and may always follow him around in unspoken whispers, prolonged looks and rejected job applications. Succinctly, Farhad’s defence lawyer told the courtroom “In the digital age, nothing is ever completely deleted. It will remain accessible forever” (Wood, 2018: paragraph six)
In a broader sense, paedophile hunting is an example of how participative media deceive users as to the political impact of digital participation. Jodi Dean’s concept of communicative capitalism (2009) assists to explain the phenomenon in which we, as digital subjects, are both constantly bombarded with information about new and ongoing crises and also offered the promise of solving these problems through the very same communicative platforms. This leads to a belief that our “public missives, tweets, posts, our networked communication generally, gives us a role in mitigating the moral faults of our world” (Ingraham & Reeves, 2013: 464). In other words,
The integral role of digital technologies in communicative capitalism, which transforms our communication power into mere “contributions,” has fostered a general sense of disenfranchisement that is often expressed in melodramatic outbursts of shaming, blaming, and other digital forms of moral outrage (Ingraham & Reeves, 464)
This sense of generalised moral panic is particularly apt when it comes to the issue of child sexual abuse. Fears and unease surrounding the collective ability of citizens to protect children accelerate with stories of horrific sexual abuse of children proliferating daily, resulting in the spectre of the predatory paedophile exerting a larger and larger presence in contemporary worries. Indeed, merely existing in the social network of hunter groups becomes an “unending witnessing” (Powell et al, 2018: 179) of the horrors of child sexual abuse.This has led to a sense of helplessness when it comes to protecting children from a potential attack. One hunter told me:
“Years ago when I was a child it was men crowding about in bushes jumping out and lure you with cookies and stuff, these days the internet is like a shopping center for paedophiles. Everybody’s got to protect their kids as young as five or six. And there is a way into every single child and the police – even they don’t realise how bad it is”.
The quote speaks to a sense of overwhelming powerlessness in the face of potential abuse. Paedophile hunting then can be perceived as offering “the semblance of an escape from our powerlessness” (Ingraham & Reeves, 2016: 462). Engaging in paedophile hunting is a way to “‘do something’ that might mitigate, however momentarily, the vague sense of powerlessness that characterizes life in late liberalism”. More specifically than “late liberalism” as Ingraham & Reeves put it, engaging in paedophile hunting is a way to overcome a sense of powerlessness involved in attempting to fight the threat of the predatory paedophile while embroiled in the drawback of the state under austerity.
Between the nexus of austerity and the spectacle provided by social media, paedophile hunting is an example of how legitimate anger born from persistent state abandonment becomes sublimated into violent acts against scapegoats to reclaim a sense of control. The point of using a term like scapegoat here is not to reduce the crimes of child sex offenders but to highlight how resentment directed towards them obfuscate the fact that their crimes occur in a context caused by persistent state neglect. It is an example, in other words, of a process whereby “hate is produced in a context where the blame for an economic crisis is placed on its victims, and in the process, generates further victims of hate.” (Burnett, 2017 ibid). The effect of paedophile hunting is “to reduce their subjects to objects of ridicule and contempt, turning human struggles into a sneering form of entertainment” (Burnett, 2017). There is a central connecting factor between the violence engendered by austerity in conjunction with the vacuum left behind by cuts to probation and policing services that has led to the emergence of Paedophile Hunters. Paedophile hunters are in other words, “technologically empowered but politically precarious digital citizens” (Ingraham & Reeves).
Emerging from the context of austerity but trapped in the confines of communicative capitalism, paedophile hunting is symptomatic of the indignation brewing across working class communities in the UK that attempt to improve their basic conditions but end up reproducing systems of violence that do little to reduce harm and instead become consumed by spectacles of resentment.
Understanding the emergence of paedophile hunting requires us to take seriously both the grievances these groups have and the extent of the potential social harm they cause. Paedophile hunters are important not necessarily due to any potential impact they have on preventing child sexual abuse, but because they represent a virulent anger which is breaking out from the cracks of working class Britain in ways which current political understandings are incapable of explaining or withstanding for much longer. Paedophile hunting as a specific phenomenon may or may not fade away. But the most significant take away from these groups is a worrying insight into what could emerge from the working class communities left behind by decades of state abandonment. Paedophile hunting should be viewed as a glimpse into what justice-seeking could end up looking like under a post-austerity Britain.
(2) Generally speaking, Paedophile Hunter groups do restrain from physical violence. Although, as these groups have no means of accountability and the unlikeliness of a target of such a group reporting their crime to the police it is difficult to say with accuracy how often or not hunter groups end up physically assaulting suspects.
Beattie, J. M. (1986). Crime and the Courts in England. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Burnett, J. (2017). Austerity and the Production of Hate. In Violence of Austerity (eds) Cooper, V. & Whyte, D. Pluto Press.
Dean, J. (2009). Democracy and other neoliberal fantasies. Durham: Duke University Press.
Ingraham, C. & Reeves, J. (2016). New media, new panics, Critical Studies in Media Communication, 33:5, 455-467.
Kozinets, R. (2015). Netnography: Redefined. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications Ltd.
Millie, A. & Bullock, K. (2013) Policing in a time of contraction and constraint: Re-imagining the role and function of contemporary policing. Criminology & Criminal Justice 13(2) 133-142
Mann, N. et al (2018) Policing in a Time of Austerity: Understanding the Public Protection Paradox through Qualitative Interviews with Police Monitoring Officers. Policing. 1-13
Powell, A., Stratton, G., & Cameron, R. (2018). Digital Criminology: Crime and Justice in Digital Society. New York and London: Routledge.
Taylor-Gooby, P. (2012) Resisting welfare state restructuring in the UK. J. Poverty Soc. Justice. 20:119–132
Trottier, D. (2017). Digital Vigilantism as Weaponisation of Visibility, Philosophical Technology, Vol. 33: 55-72.
Wood, J. (2018, September 4). Paedophile hunter Stephen Dure jailed for 15 weeks after false claim. Mail Online. Retrieved from https://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-6129827/Paedophile-hunter-34-jailed-15-weeks-FALSELY-claiming-innocent-man-groomed-teenagers.html
Jack Farrell completed his LL.B from Trinity College Dublin in 2017, publishing his dissertation thesis “Vixens, Sirens and Whores: The Persistence of Stereotypes in Irish Sexual Offence Law” in the Trinity College Law Review. He then obtained his MA in Global Criminology at Utrecht University with a thesis exploring the emergence of Paedophile Hunters in the UK. Jack is currently living in Vancouver, British Columbia