Paedophilia: Is social media and networking both a tool and a solution?

Paedophilia has been a problem from before the digital age, however, it has been argued that since the internet and social networking sites surfaced, paedophilia has become more accessible and achievable. Another argument suggests that the internet and social media has provided a solution to this problem, with police, agencies and even everyday people using the cyber world as a way to catch paedophiles. In this report I will be discussing whether it is a tool, a solution, or both and to what effect.  

Social media and network sites are a tool

Before the internet, paedophiles would have to go to places such as parks and zoo’s – places where children would be, in order to fulfil their desires. Physically being there is a risk, as there is a higher chance of being easy to identify and getting caught. In contrast, the cyber world makes it alarmingly simple, with the abundance of social media, networking sites, forums and chat rooms, it is easy for paedophiles to be anonymous and disguise themselves as teenagers in order to make contact with young people.

There are in estimation 750,000 global paedophiles online at any given time

These predators mainly prey within chat rooms, forums and social media networks such as Facebook and MySpace.

In 2010, Facebook was put under scrutiny when ‘NAMBLA’ (North American Man/Boy Love Association), the world’s largest pro-paedophilia advocacy group, used Facebook to connect with its members around the world. The group would contribute and exchange indecent images of children and information to help identify, target and reel in child victims.

When questioned by a FoxNews investigator, a spokesman for Facebook stated “We take safety very seriously and have a strict policy against the posting of child exploitive content or content that supports child exploitive groups. Facebook is highly self-regulating, and users can and do report content that they find questionable or offensive. Our team of investigations professionals reviews these reports, removes content that violates our policies, and escalates to law enforcement as necessary.”

Although Facebook have these regulations in place, policing them has been lenient – with the investigation finding 87 different groups (with the exception that some had been created as a joke or protest) when searching ‘NAMBLA’. This is just one of the ways in which paedophilia is being openly perpetuated and encouraged, and the shocking aspect is just how public and accessible it is. Millions of people, of a variety of ages (even though Facebook states you must be aged 13 or older to use the site) use Facebook, and groups like ‘NAMBLA’ are just a quick search away, and within minutes you can find images and information to assist paedophilic desires.

Another way that social networking sites such as Facebook, MySpace, Twitter and Instagram are used as a tool is through the information that young people share online, which is easy to find for those who know what they’re looking for.

According to the Journal of Adolescent Health, in 82% of online sex crimes against minors, the offender used the victim’s social networking site to gain information about the victim’s likes and dislikes, 65% gained home and school information, and 26% gained victim’s whereabouts at a specific time.

With location services being a standard addition to most (if not all) current smart phones, children can easily not realise that this is switched on and can allow anyone on their social network to see where they are whenever they are active on the site.

Social media and network sites are a solution

The increase of online predators is mainly dealt with through undercover investigations on social media and network sites. This usually consists of officers impersonating young girls and/or boys, and then convicting those who contacted them for sexual purposes.

Terre des Hommes, an international organisation working for the rights of children, developed a virtual girl named ‘Sweetie’, age 10 from the Philippines, in 2013. ‘Sweetie’ was created to denounce the rapidly growing threat of Webcam Child Sex Tourism and expose paedophiles.

‘Sweetie’ is controlled by human operators, who would make conversation with predators in chat rooms. Once a transaction is established (often money transferred online) the predator would provide their information and then appear in a video chat, allowing the operators to obtain footage of the predator. These details and footage are then passed on to INTERPOL and other police agencies. 

The project has been successful, with the first conviction in October 2014. An Australian man was sentenced to one year in prison for initiating and maintaining indecent conversations with ‘Sweetie’. As well as this, the team working under the guise of ‘Sweetie’ were able to identify a further 1,000 people from 72 countries, and transfer the information to police authorities. Hans Guijt (Terre des Hommes Netherlands project leader of the ‘Sweetie’ campaign) stated, “This is a major breakthrough in the fight against this form of child exploitation.

Stinson Hunter and associates (The Paedophile Hunter).

Terre des Hommes aren’t the only ones using this technique. Similar to the American television series, ‘To Catch A Predator’, Stinson Hunter and his associates (online vigilantes, ‘The Paedophile Hunter’) also posed as children on social networking sites to expose men with paedophilic predilections in the UK. They would then film the meetings arranged by the predators, and post the footage online to their website and Facebook page as a ‘name and shame’. Their interactions with the predator and the footage from the meeting are then sent to local police authorities for further legal action to be taken.

Operation Ore is another project that acts similarly, set up by police in the UK after FBI agents passed on card details of people suspected of using a Texas-based web portal to access child abuse sites. Out of 7,250 people traced back to the UK, British police have arrested 3,500 and charged nearly 2,000. 

Statistics from the Home Office found that 2,234 people were cautioned or charged with such offences in England and Wales in 2003, compared with 549 in 2001. This demonstrates that the use of social media and network sites are also a solution to the problem with paedophiles.

Ethics and effectiveness

The solution to the increase of online predators is one that can be deemed controversial. In some cases, particularly those by non-professional vigilante paedophile hunters, innocent people are being entrapped, wrongly accused and punished.

Peter, who was targeted by the Daemon Hunter vigilante (similar to Stinson Hunter) experienced death threats, damage to his house and ended up moving to the other side of the country, after being accused of trying to meet a 15-year-old for sex. Peter stated that he was told the girl was 18, but received a text message as he was waiting to meet her saying that she was 15, to which he said he immediately got up and left, but was confronted by Daemon Hunter. Police concluded that there was no case for prosecution, but the damage was done, as the meeting was filmed and put online and over 5,000 people had already seen it.

Peter’s case highlights the ineffectiveness of non-professionals who post details online before thorough investigation is undertaken by police. Ethically speaking, it unjustly ruins not only the lives of those accused, but also those related to them.

In one case, a man who had been accused of child grooming a 12-year-old committed suicide after Stinson Hunter confronted him and posted the footage of it online. The 46-year-old man had a young child, who is now without a father, and whose life has been tainted by Stinson Hunter’s ‘name and shame’ video.

Ethics aside, one of the significant problems for police is the tactic of posting videos and information online before police have time to properly investigate the case. In many instances, evidence is destroyed and the case can often end up being dropped. One police source commented on this, “We are spending lots of time and effort with these cases and finding lots of deleted material that we can’t access or even a computer-shaped hole in the suspect’s bedroom.” This in turn means that many potential paedophiles are walking free. 

So the question remains: is social media both a tool and a solution?

As far as research suggests, both sides have a strong argument, with the arrests of internet paedophiles quadrupling over two years in 2005, but the internet providing the platform for these paedophiles to turn to for their illegal desires in the first place. The conclusion would be that they go hand in hand – without the internet and the social media and network sites, these predators would likely still be there, just undiscovered until they chose to physically act upon it.