- Margherita Capacci and Vincent van Haaster
All over the Netherlands, groups of vigilantes are tracking down and exposing alleged child abusers. The actions of these so-called ‘pedohunters’, who criticize the police for not doing enough, often result in physical abuse and public condemnation before trial, but rarely to the arrest of child abusers.
‘Pedohunters’ present themselves as minors in online chatrooms and attempt to trick alleged abusers into meeting up with them for a date. When it comes to a meet-up, the hunters ambush their unsuspecting target for a citizen arrest or they assault and expose them on social media.
Since the summer of 2020, The Netherlands have seen a vast increase in the number of citizen initiatives against child abuse, resulting in over 250 incidents with pedohunters until November last year, with the fatal beating of Jan Kruitwagen (73) as the absolute low point. These events were the reason for Dutch Minister of Justice and Security Ferd Grapperhaus to urge people to stop hunting and let the police do their job.
“We can perform a citizen arrest to deliver them to the police. But when the police arrive they tell us that this person has done nothing wrong” a statement from the facebook group Pedohunterznl reads. “We are not taken seriously,” they write on the page. “As long as pedophiles can keep committing crimes when it concerns grooming, our defamation and slander will continue as well. That’s only fair, don’t you think?” it reads provocatively.
The Law enforcement
But if the hunters think they are doing society a service, they are wrong, the police write in an article. Going on ‘pedo hunts’ can be damaging for police investigations into child abuses, report the Dutch Police and the Openbaar Ministerie (OM) in two open articles. The provoking messages that hunters often send to alleged child abusers to track them down can make things escalate quickly and lead to violence. Some examples are the numerous cases of vandalism, assault, and intimidation, which have required the police to take action. The extra time and work devoted to investigating these ‘pedo hunts’ could be better spent tackling child abuse, writes the police.
Police research is based on factual evidence that takes time to be collected, Police and OM write in the articles. Citizen vigilantism and intervention in the case can compromise the success of investigations. It can become especially problematic when hunters have no real proof at hand, writes police officer Jurrien in a police chat. For this reason, police urge everyone who has serious suspicion and proof of sexual offense, to report them immediately to the institutions so that they can check them and take action.
But there are also other reasons that make the phenomenon of ‘pedohunting’ problematic, Minne De Boeck, Ellen Janssen, Maaike Blok, Kasia Uzieblo, David Prescott, and Kieran McCartan write in a joint blogpost on ‘Sexual Abuse’. According to the researchers, these actions can push predators into darker corners of the internet, further away from society’s eye. Instead of solving the problem, there is the risk of exacerbating it, by increasing the feelings of isolation and social exclusion that can more easily lead to crime, the researchers write.
“We give you one chance, if you meet-up one more time, you’re dead. I know your face, I’m gonna kill you”, says a hooded man with a modulated voice in a video that circulates in the Telegram group Pedohunterskb. His terrified victim has a bloody face but is fully recognizable. He can only nod his head and prey to be left alone.
This shocking video is only one of many going around on the various ‘pedo hunter’ groups on social media platforms like Facebook, Telegram and YouTube. In some cases, the luring of an alleged child abuser leads to a citizen arrest and extradition to the police, but all too often a confrontation leads to abuse or extortion.
The map below shows the most controversial incidents with ‘pedo hunters’ in the past years. Although ‘pedo hunters’ have been active in The Netherlands for the past ten years, the second half of 2020 saw an exponential rise in ‘pedo hunt’-related incidents.
(Open the link in a new tab for a map of pedohunting incidents in the Netherlands)
In the telegram group Pedohunterskb, people discuss the best ways to lure alleged abusers to a meet-up, and how to deal with them when they show up. When a group member asks for help to deal with someone allegedly grooming a mentally challenged underage girl, another member points to the necessity to build a case before taking actions: “come with fucking proof you retard”.
“This fucking dirtbag got handled in Goes” another group member says in referral to a few screenshots. The screenshots show a sexually oriented chat conversation between hunters posing as a minor and the supposed victim of an assault in Zeeland, November last year (see map).
Despite the brutality of their methods and the disapproval of law enforcement, the hunters can also count on support from a part of society. In a poll by NH Nieuws from November nineteenth last year, 37% of voters indicated that they felt that ‘pedo hunters’ shouldn’t stop their activities. Comment sections under videos of confrontations between hunters and their victims are generally full of praise for the hunters.
Online presence in the Netherlands
In the Netherlands pedohunters are present across many social media platforms. Beside the older groups and YouTube channels, smaller Facebook groups and Instagram profiles under the names of ‘pedohunt’ or ‘pedojager’ proliferated over September and October 2020. The graph shows this upsurge.
During the investigation, 12 major groups were identified on Facebook alone. Some are based in one specific area while others have a more national scope. A network of people active in different groups was identified and some elements of the social media groups also made clear that there are connections among them.
First of all, some of the videos recorded by pedohuters are shared on multiple Facebook groups, YouTube channels and Instagram Profiles. These videos generally show men running after and assaulting individuals on the streets. While most of the ‘hunters’ wear hoodies and have their face partially covered, the people filming normally make sure that the alleged child abusers faces are clearly visible.
A so-called ‘database’ of hunted people is also compiled on an open Instagram profile. The close and clear shots of over 40 alleged child abusers come from the different groups, which are sometimes tagged.
This idea of working together can be seen also on another level. A sense of solidarity was seen whenever the police tried to downsize their violent actions. A public event created by one of the Facebook groups calls its members to support the hunters this March, when they have to appear before the judge in Flevoland. The event was then re-shared in another page, while a common rhetoric can be seen in the comments about this event. The group members generally accuse authorities of protecting pedophiles, while preventing their operation, that they consider for the public good.
But to fund these supposedly beneficial operations, the pedohunters groups need money. Many, especially on Instagram, have official sponsors, like clothing brands and other businesses.
However, cooperation among groups was found here at its strongest. A fundraising campaign organized by ‘Pedo Hunterz’ has been boosted across groups and platforms. On Instagram alone, four of the main pedohunters profiles, reaching all together around 55861 people, common members included, added it to their bios. The stated aim is to professionalize and the money will be used for “attorney fees, travel / gas / telephone rental and equipment costs,” writes Pedo Hunterz in the campaign description. Created at the end of December 2020, the campaign counts today 244 donors for a total of 2.921 euros.
But not all the pedohunters’ activities are so out in the open. Many Instagram profiles and Facebook groups are private, some have a link to private Whatsapp chats, while many Facebook groups and profiles hint towards a deeper level of conversation happening on other platforms. For example, ‘Pedohunters Nederland’ last post stating “do you want advice or do you urgently need help? Then register now via a pb” dates back to July 2016 but the most recent response to the post was from December 2020, more than four years later.
The Lens Press contacted 9 of the Facebook groups and profiles researched but none of them have replied so far.
Reactions to ‘pedohunting’
Online crime journalist Sven van der Meulen, from the platform Vrije Vogels Media (Free Birds media) is horrified by the practices of these citizen crime fighters. “It makes no sense, it has nothing to do with making a case and is all based on suspicion and fear,” he says.
“People are provoked in such a way that you should wonder who is actually in the wrong in those situations,” adds Van der Meulen, who notices that the hunters are often framing their victims. “I saw cases where people resolutely refused to meet-up, but where the hunters just kept pushing… than you’re catching someone who initially said no.”
While ‘hunters’ often try to justify their actions by claiming they are in it for the safety of the children, van der Meulen has his doubts about the good intentions of the hunters. “I spoke to a few hunters behind the scenes, and you often see that they are just people who like to riot, people that think ‘let’s just beat someone up’ because they have nothing to do, in search of sensation.”
The journalist thinks the sudden emergence of citizen groups of ‘pedo hunters’ is part of a broader societal development. “There is this culture of being fed up and distrusting the government,” he says, “reinforced by corona-boredom and conspiracy theories, this leads people to start acting by their own rules.”
To curb these anti-authoritarion sentiments, Van der Meulen thinks there is a lot to gain for the government with openness and education: “these people feel as if someone who abuses a child, walks out of jail the same day. This is obviously not true, but somehow this misconception exists.”
The participants of a chat session on pedofilie.nl, a platform where pedophiles have the opportunity to anonymously share their thoughts with each other, also see that there is a lot of ignorance in society. A problem that is in no small part created by misrepresentation in the media.
“The problem is that because the term pedo is used improperly in the media, we are being lumped together with child abusers and adults who go on dates with 15 year old girls. We are neither”, says participant Geert84.
“Pedophiles are people that are attracted to mostly children below 13”, chat participant and writer of the blog Pedofilietweets Ben Kirssen adds. This attraction towards children, however, does not entail at all that someone also has sexual interaction with minors. The vast majority of pedophiles does not act on their feelings towards children, while about 80 percent of child abusers do not feel sexually attracted towards children.
The participants in the chat sessions are therefore not necessarily afraid to fall victim to ‘pedo hunters’, but nevertheless they feel threatened by the crusade against pedophilia that seems to be going on in society. As user Noah Kloek puts it: “I am not afraid of pedo hunters because they don’t even really hunt for pedophiles. I am afraid of the demonstrations though. That really keeps me awake at night.”
Pedohunting goes far beyond the Dutch borders and far back in time, as Hanna Kozlowska writes for Quartz. Already in the early 2000’s, the US television show To Catch a Predator created the blueprint that modern vigilantes groups still follow: engage in online chats with suspected pedophiles and convince them to meet in real life and expose them. However, the end result could not have been more different. While in the show the alleged predators were then put in the hand of the police, the many groups of vigilantes that since then have organized themselves online often choose a more violent approach.
In recent years, there has been a “troubling trend of antipedophile vigilantism on social media platforms that can be observed worldwide”, write the researchers in the blog ‘Sexual Abuse’. With social media making it easy to organize in large communities, online groups have spread across the US, the UK, France, Switzerland and many other countries.
With a wide social media presence the focus of pedohutners groups has often shifted towards engaging and entertaining the followers, according to Hanna Kozlowska. De Boeck and colleagues agree: “Creating followers on social media, addressing boredom, connecting with peers, the search for an identity, and gaining social status” are among the hidden reasons for entering pedohunter communities, according to the researchers.