The videos were as crude as they were amusing: Clad in flimsy superhero costumes and speaking in gravelly voices, a group of Fraser Valley teenagers arranged meetings with men seeking underage girls for sex, then shamed and berated them in public.
The three teenagers behind the stunt – two 17 and one 18 – modelled their amateur series, To Troll a Predator, after Dateline NBC’s To Catch a Predator television show. The young men lured their targets posing as a 15-year-old girl online and posted footage of the ambushes on YouTube and Facebook.
While the RCMP recently announced child luring charges have been approved against three men brought to light by the teen “superheroes” in November, it reiterated a stern warning against such vigilantism.
“Although this investigation did result in charges against three men, we’re not encouraging anyone to do these kinds of things, or in any way encouraging vigilante justice,” said Corporal Tammy Hollingsworth of the RCMP’s Upper Fraser Valley regional detachment.
“We’re lucky in this case nothing did happen, but obviously our main concern from the beginning was safety. These guys were posing a risk to themselves and they were putting others at risk.”
Robert Gordon, a professor of criminology at Simon Fraser University, says the stunt is representative of an “emergence of e-justice.”
“Citizen surveillance is becoming a more important and more potent form of surveillance than anything the criminal justice system could pull out of a hat,” he said.
“Not only is it exposing people, it’s also condemning people on the basis of footage, and it’s a condemnation that is going to last an enormous amount of time because it will be on the Internet for an enormous amount of time.”
A prime example is Ryan Dickinson, a 20-year-old Coquitlam man who was photographed and videotaped throwing a newspaper box on to a police car during last year’s Stanley Cup riot. Mr. Dickinson was slammed in the court of public opinion for his actions, with members of the public uploading images of him to a Facebook page calling for his arrest. He was quickly identified and has pleaded guilty. He is now serving a 17-month jail term.
But while such crowd-sourced information can serve as a valuable tool of justice, it can also come with severe consequences, Mr. Gordon notes.
Teen water polo player Nathan Kotylak, 17, was the target of Internet vigilantism last year after he was photographed apparently attempting to light a police car on fire during the riot. After his address was posted online, Mr. Kotylak and his family began receiving threats and were forced to leave their Maple Ridge home briefly.
In the United States, a Florida couple in their 70s, began receiving threats after their address was erroneously posted online as the residence of George Zimmerman, the neighbourhood watch volunteer charged in the fatal February shooting of unarmed teenager Trayvon Martin. A tweet containing the misinformation was sent to director Spike Lee, who retweeted it to his 240,000-plus followers. He later apologized, telling his followers to leave the couple “in peace.”
“You can’t reverse that kind of error,” Mr. Gordon said. “That could have devastating consequences for innocent parties.”
He noted there can also be severe implications for those spreading the misinformation.
“If they willfully transmit something that is incorrect, what they are effectively doing is defaming the person, and if the consequence is some kind of physical hurt, then there is going to be civil actions against those people,” he said.
“If there’s a message to people who take pictures of other people purportedly doing things, they’re going to have to be very careful about the consequences, because they’re not going to be able to hide behind any kind of anonymity for very long.”