The question that kept replaying in my mind as I investigated vigilante "pedophile hunting" in Canada is "Why would anyone do this?"
Why would a civilian spend every waking hour posing as a child on the internet, engaging with adults in sexually explicit conversations, and then meet those alleged perverts in public places, scream at them, and film the whole encounter for the world to see?
Read VICE Canada's series on vigilante pedophile hunting
As bizarre as it sounds, that's what the so-called Creep Catchers do. Some of them, including Ryan Laforge, president of the Surrey chapter, have quit their jobs to pursue pedophile hunting full-time. Their rabid audiences eat it up. Each video, posted on Facebook and YouTube, receives thousands (and sometimes hundreds of thousands) of views, likes, and shares.
Most of these vigilantes will tell you they're doing this to protect children and raise awareness about the perverts that live amongst us. But research into the phenomenon of public shaming suggests there could be something more sinister at play.
Erin Buckels, a PhD student at the University of British Columbia, studies the "dark tetrad" of personality traits: sadism, psychopathy, narcissism, and machiavellianism.
She believes the popularity of pedophile hunting could be linked to sadism and psychopathy.
"There's direct sadism where people enjoy hurting others and vicarious sadism where people enjoy watching others get hurt," Buckels told VICE.
"It's similar to the thrill people get from watching violent sports, mixed martial arts, there's like this bloodlust almost."
While everyone has a little bit of these traits, Buckels said vigilantes exhibit higher levels of them, making them manipulative and lacking in empathy.
She said psychopathy is linked to a recklessness in behaviour—Justin Payne, a Brampton, Ontario pedophile hunter has swung off the side of a moving car while attempting to catch an alleged predator. He told VICE it's easy to judge what he does as reckless, but that the risks he takes are calculated.
"Given the things I've heard and seen in the chats or on the phone or on a webcam, I'd say I'm more in control rather than reckless. I don't escalate anything further than a conversation and maybe a little bit of verbal assaulting."
Buckels also noted that psychopathy can lead to people being more deceptive, which would "really come in handy with luring pedophiles, pretending to be a child."
"It's almost as if they're using their psychopathic tendencies for good but at the same time, it's coming from a dark place."
She said the positive reinforcement from outsiders reinforces the behaviour.
Surrey's Laforge has offered to live stream busts in exchange for 500 or 1,000 likes on Facebook, and his followers have obliged, posting comments like "popcorn is ready." Payne is regularly called a hero; one of his fans even got his name tattooed on her left shoulder.
"Without such followers, they probably wouldn't be doing this," said Buckels.
Public shaming is nothing new, but instead of a public stoning, the modern incarnation typically takes place online. Though many Creep Catchers and other vigilantes don't get along with each other, they generally have certain things in common: they tend to be white men in their 30s, with blue collar jobs in construction, if they have jobs at at all. Laforge has a criminal history, and has admitted to spending years as a drug dealer.
"I think if you're unemployed and… the perception is there publicly that you're helping capture people who are preying on children, it's something to be applauded. That you're doing society a service," Brandon University sociology professor Christopher Schneider told VICE.
Nicole Legate, an Assistant Professor of Psychology at the Illinois Institute of Technology, researches the impact of "excluding others" online—similar to shaming or trolling—on the person doing the excluding.
She's found that the people who are doing the bullying tend to feel just as distressed, shameful, and guilty, as those who are targeted by it. But that doesn't stop their behaviour, it just fuels a cycle.
Legate works with the "self-determination theory" which looks at how autonomy, relatedness, and competency motivates people's behaviour.
"Someone that may not have a lot of great relationships, who may not have a job that they really care about… those are circumstances that are going to thwart someone's needs. And people engage in all sorts of behaviours, sometimes really misguided, as a way to fulfill those needs."
Payne told VICE pedophile hunting is a job he's committed to keep doing.
"I lose my shit based on what I've read and heard and seen. In the beginning there was a small rush, now it's just work to me."
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