We’re seeing an online justice revolution. That’s good. Isn’t it?
Jennifer O’Connell: From vigilantism to the #MeToo movement, online justice is here to stay
It is alleged Kieran Creaven, a television producer in the RTÉ Sports department, flew from Ireland to meet up in Leeds with someone he believed to be a 13-year-old girl.
The video starts with a camera phone pointed at the ground. White runners are pounding on a dark pavement. A woman’s voice calls out a name and her hand leans into the open window of a silver car. “I’m taking your keys, okay?” she says. Her tone is confident as she introduces herself.
“Yes,” says the man she is addressing.
“I’m from Silent Justice. Can I have you out of the car please?”
Obediently, the man gets out. “I’m going to detain you under Section 4 of the Criminal Justice Act until the police come,” she says. “You’ve been grooming a 14-year-old child online.”
The women – it becomes apparent that there are two of them – proceed to list the man’s alleged crimes. She says he has been sending lewd pictures and a video to a girl of 14. “I’ve nothing to say so,” says the man. “Apart from sorry.”
“Sorry?” the women say. “Sorry you’ve been caught.”
The screen of the Facebook Live video, posted online last month, lights up in a frenzy of comments. Eventually, there will be 10,000 in all, along with more than 11,000 shares.
“About time they started doing this in Ireland. More name and shame please,” writes one man.
“Well done girls dirty animal may he rot in hell,” comments a woman.
“Cut him cut him cut him cut him up stop f**kin about doing him in,” says another viewer.
This is the world of online paedophile hunters or – as they prefer – child protection enforcers. They are organised groups operating mostly online, setting up stings and using “decoys” masquerading as young girls to trap men they have identified as paedophiles.
The teams communicate with the men and eventually perform a “catch” – they confront him, tell him they are holding him in a citizen’s arrest, and call the police.
It was in one such sting, by rival group Leeds Alert, that an RTÉ employee was confronted in Leeds last weekend. The Leeds Alert group broadcast its encounter with the man live on Facebook on Saturday, right up to the moment the police arrived.
By the following evening, Sunday, RTÉ News made a statement about the arrest of an unnamed employee on the Nine O’Clock News. By Monday, the man had appeared in court, charged with two offences in relation to attempting to engage in sexual activity with a 13-year-old girl. He now had a name: Kieran Creaven, a 54-year-old senior television producer in the RTÉ Sports department.
It is hard to escape the sense that we are witnessing a revolution in our concept of equality and justice.
At one end of the spectrum is digital vigilantism, fuelled by individuals who, frustrated by what they see as the glacial pace of the established forms of justice, set up online stings designed to deliver paedophiles into the hands of law enforcers, as virtual audiences cheer them on.
I don’t think people have lost faith in the police, but I would say people have lost faith in the justice system
“Hunting down paedophiles is something I believe is a very noble thing to do,” says a man from the Leeds Alert group identifying himself as “Tubby”, who was involved in the sting against Kieran Creaven.
“I don’t think people have lost faith in the police, but I would say people have lost faith in the justice system. The police do a brilliant job considering their numbers have been reduced drastically. The internet allows groups like ours to spread awareness, it gives us a platform to send out a clear message. We will expose those who wish harm upon our women, children and other vulnerable people.”
At the other end of the spectrum is the #MeToo phenomenon, a generally supportive and cathartic global social movement in which those who have experienced sexual harassment post their experiences online.
In many respects, this movement has little in common with digital vigilantism, other than that both are playing out online, and both are driven by some of the same frustrations, and a sense that we need better ways of dealing with sexual misconduct in all its forms.
And then there are the kinds of online accusations that have led to Al Porter leaving Today FM and the Olympia Panto, and accounts of inappropriate behaviour by Michael Colgan at the Gate Theatre.
The #MeToo movement encompasses traditional journalism (it was old-fashioned investigative work by the New York Times and Ronan Farrow which first broke the Weinstein allegations) with a spontaneous chorus of voices, both online and in the real world, expressing frustration, anger and resentment pent up over decades.
It is important to point out here that the actions of Harvey Weinstein are in a completely different category from, for example, allegations of bullying behaviour in the Irish arts world, and that there is no comparison between the kind of harassment Al Porter is alleged to have practised, and the grooming of children online.
All the same, the accusations of misconduct against public figures have served as a lightning rod for a wider conversation about gender relations, equality and entitlement.
Much good will undoubtedly come from this: a heightened awareness of inequality; catharsis and support for victims; less tolerance of misogyny and sexism.
Dr Bianca Fileborn, a lecturer in criminology at the University of New South Wales, who has carried out an academic study in Melbourne on the use by victims of sexual harassment of “social media and online activism as sites of informal justice”, says this movement can be very empowering for victims.
“Having a sense of voice, or the ability to share your experience in your own words and in a way that is meaningful to you, is really important to many victims and survivors. Being believed and having your experiences validated by other people is often highly valued.” This is not always available through traditional justice systems, she says.
“The relatively democratic nature of online spaces has made activism much more visible than it perhaps was in the past. Our responses to high-profile incidents of sexual harassment and violence are much more immediate or swift.”
But though the desire for a kind of online catharsis is understandable, it is not without risk. The progress of established forms of justice might seem slow by comparison with the instantaneous nature of the online world, but there are good reasons for this, points out Prof Colin Sumner, head of the School of Sociology, Philosophy, Criminology, Government and Politics at University College Cork.
Digital vigilantism is “a double-edged sword”, he believes. “On the one hand, the new technologies enable people to have a much more public voice than before. In that sense, there is a democratisation happening in the expression of public opinion.”
On the other hand, he says, “there is little accountability, no need to prove a point, no need to submit to the judgment of peers, or even to the law in some cases”.
Online, he says, we can rush to judgment “without worrying too much about jurisprudence, the right penalties, the right crime categories. We can just punish because the publicity alone might achieve the punishment without having to go through that tiresome legal procedure called justice, with its slowness, expensive lawyers and obstructive concern with principles, balance and perspective.”
Desire for retribution
There is a concern, too, that the desire for retribution online could interfere with the judicial process, says Dara Robinson, a Dublin-based solicitor. He has misgivings about “substituting, in an uncontrolled public forum, the role of the court. This really risks prejudicing a fair trial. It’s reputationally very damaging. There may be arguments to be made that a fair trial can’t take place because of the untrammelled adverse publicity. Evidential issues might arise; so too might potential arguments about entrapment.
“You cannot,” he says, “square social media with the traditional form of justice, where there is a jury to determine guilt or innocence. I’m much more sympathetic to the #Metoo movement – but a lot of the same considerations apply. It’s trial by media. And trial by media is just not fair.”
In the judicial system, everyone has certain rights – they have the right to be heard, and the right to be regarded as innocent until proven guilty. But one of the obvious shortcomings of the the online world is that no such rights apply, as David Murray discovered earlier this year.
Murray, a civil servant, was shopping in Supervalu in Monasterevin on an otherwise unremarkable afternoon in May, when he noticed a flurry of activity around him. “It was Friday evening, so I thought it was just busy. And then people started coming close to me and making vague allegations which I didn’t understand,” he says.
Three couples had pulled up in a car alongside him. Murray realised they “believed I was some kind of sexual criminal. I told them, ‘You’ve made a mistake here and you need to call the guards.’ I was happy to remain there until we sorted it out, but they weren’t prepared to do that.”
Murray would later piece together what had happened. A convicted paedophile called Anthony Luckwill had recently been released from prison and was believed – wrongly, it turned out – to be in the area. “Someone in Monastervein who was concerned about Anthony Luckwill had taken my photo and put it up on Facebook, and that then led to various people in the town driving around trying to locate me.”
It “all happened within seven minutes”, he said. “They were standing a bit off but it’s getting louder and there are more and more people in the immediate vicinity.” Eventually he took refuge in a pub, called the guards, and waited. By the time they arrived, a crowd of around 30 people had gathered outside.
The issue of defamation is not always to the forefront of the minds of those who identify alleged perpetrators online
Murray – who has not, for now, sought legal redress over the wrongful identification – says he understands the fear that leads to people trying to hunt down those they believe might threaten their children. “I’m not dismissing that. The problem I had was that they were not prepared to get the guards involved. They wanted to run Anthony Luckwill out of the town.”
Tubby, the man from the Leeds Alert group, says his group has procedures in place to ensure they never identify the wrong person. But, as Murray’s experience shows, mistakes can happen.
The issue of defamation is not always to the forefront of the minds of those who identify alleged perpetrators online – but it ought to be, says a partner at William Fry Solicitors, Fiona Barry. “Even if [a writer online does not] name an individual they need to be careful, as their posts or blogs can be read in conjunction with other posts, leading to identification. People should also be aware that their own motivation may be called into question.”
Anonymity is not guaranteed, says Barry, as courts can grant a “Norwich Pharmacal Order” to reveal the identity of an anonymous poster or blogger.
Cyberpsychologist Dr Mary Aiken says that “ochlocracy, or mob rule” – has a history of oppressive, tyrannical and in many cases unjust outcomes. “The rule of law is designed to protect the rights of individuals and minorities. Yes, connectedness online can deliver tremendous support for victims and can highlight important issues and injustices, but using the internet to facilitate moral panics, mass hysteria and targeted witch-hunts is a regressive step for technology, and for society.”
Joanna Fortune, a psychotherapist based in Sandyford, Co Dublin, who recently gave a TedX talk on the subject of shame, says that the flip side of what Bianca Fileborn describes as the “informal justice” offered by the online world is that it allows little room for dissenting voices or other views.
“You are all talking to each other and amplifying each other – but there’s no opening for learning, no possibility for people to learn to say, ‘Yes, I never thought of it that way, I’m wrong, I regret my decision’. Is it OK to join in and harass the harasser? And by doing so, are we not part of the problem rather than part of the solution?”
Informal justice? Mob rule? Regardless of what you call it, and regardless of the legal and social concerns of experts, the desire for justice online is unlikely to simply disperse, now that it has found a voice – and a powerful one at that. Hoping that people become more measured in their comments, that they resist the urge to join in online shaming, or that they take a course in defamation law before posting on Facebook or Twitter, is like wishing the tide to stay out.
Those empowering personal testimonies will continue, online accusation will not end, and vigilante groups will not go away.
Online justice is here to stay.