The video begins with an accidental, amateurish lens flare against the window of a car, before the teen’s phone camera settles on a supposedly 35-year-old man who has clearly been caught off guard. His face is clearly visible.
“What you doing, bro?” the cameraman asks, leading a group of at least five other teens. “You here to meet a 16-year-old?”
The man rolls up the window, panicked, and shifts the car into reverse. The boys jeer as his car pulls out of the parking lot, holding out their phones as they chase him. In the background, you can hear Freddie Dredd’s “Opaul” playing softly, overdubbed by TikTok.
This is what a “pedo hunting” sting looks like. This particular video came from an account called @pedohuntinginc, which was later taken down by TikTok for violating community guidelines. But it’s part of a larger and more troubling trend of anti-pedophile vigilantism on platforms like TikTok and YouTube. At first glance, the videos come across as earnest efforts to protect children, a DIY version of To Catch a Predator. But there are troubling similarities to homophobic violence campaigns across the world — particularly Russia’s Occupy Pedophilia movement and the ongoing attacks on Grindr users in North Africa, both of which often present themselves as concerned with child abuse. Most alarming, many of these stings have gone viral, with @pedohuntinginc’s video racking up more than 2 million likes before it was removed. It has all the makings of a viral sensation — an unusually dangerous one.
Platforms have been slow in responding to the issue, but they tend to take down the accounts once they become sufficiently high profile. TikTok seems to view the videos as inherently unsafe, and treats them as violating community guidelines as a result. “Promoting a safe and positive app environment is our top priority at TikTok,” a spokesperson for the company told The Verge, when asked about predator sting videos. “As we make clear in our Community Guidelines, we do not allow content that encourages, promotes, or glorifies risky behavior. We also do not permit users to encourage others to take part in dangerous activities, and we remove reported content or behavior that violates our guidelines.” The Guardian reported that TikTok recently removed an Australian pedophile hunting account like @pedohuntinginc for similar reasons.
At the same time, the audience doesn’t seem to mind — and the users making these videos see them as a likely path to viral success. “TikTok is full of viral videos and we figured it could be popular among the people on TikTok,” Zane, one of the teenagers affiliated with @pedohuntinginc, said via Instagram message prior to TikTok removing the account. “We were very excited to see that it went viral.”
These kinds of sting operations have also found a significant audience on YouTube. Take Predator Poachers, which is run by soon-to-be 20-year-old Alex and boasts over 160 thousand subscribers. The channel has dozens of videos in which Alex confronts men in Walmart for seeking out sexual contact with a minor. All of Predator Poacher’s videos (save one recent upload) are currently unavailable to the public on YouTube; the channel received its second strike from YouTube on a video titled “LGBT couple confronts predator” on grounds of harassment and bullying, and Alex stated in a live stream on the Predator Poachers side account, PP Pranks, that he had set all of the channel’s videos to private to lay low.
According to YouTube, the platform has no policy specifically regarding predator hunting content, but such content may run up against YouTube’s community guidelines. As part of a December 2019 harassment policy update, YouTube no longer allows “content that maliciously insults someone based on protected attributes such as their race, gender expression, or sexual orientation.” That being said, many predator hunting videos are allowed on the platform.
Sometimes, online stings can lead to actual court cases. The vigilante channel Hive vs Predator ultimately led to the arrest of a local choir teacher, as well as a 23-year-old who was charged with electronic solicitation of a minor.
Most channels employ the same basic playbook: create an account on a dating or hookup app (most frequently Grindr, but sometimes other apps like Skout) using photos of an underage acquaintance. They wait for older men to message them, then immediately disclose that they are underage. When the other man requests a meetup, they show up and confront them with a camera, and usually post the result.
This sort of sting is much older than TikTok or even YouTube. The trend dates back at least as far as Dateline’s controversial To Catch A Predator series, canceled after the suicide of one of its targets in 2006. It was followed by Facebook-rooted vigilantes of the 2010s like POP Squad, a group featured in a January 2019 NBC investigation. A 2013 report from The Guardian tied the growing phenomenon in the UK to the “ever increasing speed and reach of online social networks.”
Newer vigilantes like @pedohuntinginc and Predator Poachers have targeted gay men almost exclusively. Both of the men exposed by @pedohuntinginc were seeking contact with male minors, and Predator Poachers’ videos show almost no men seeking out contact with young girls, but plenty of scrolling Grindr conversations. Grindr is a part of the channel’s brand as well — its YouTube header features a graphic of an iPhone displaying a Grindr conversation.
Still, Alex of Predator Poachers told The Verge that he doesn’t specifically target gay men. As he sees it, it’s a matter of circumstance. “The reason why we use Grindr as number one is because when I was getting bored at home one night the first time doing this, obviously I didn’t have pictures of underage girls on my phone,” Alex said over the phone. “I do have a little brother though, and I did have pictures of him on my phone.”
Zane echoed the statement, stating that his group had tried to use other apps, but Grindr was the simplest choice because it’s easy to sign up for and use.
There’s also homophobic and racist messaging cutting through the content itself. One of the hallmarks of Predator Poachers’ content is Alex continuously lobbing racist epithets at the men he meets. And in one currently private video titled “I use a sassy voice to catch a predator,” he adopts a lilting tone clearly intended to mock gay men.
On Instagram, Alex called for his followers to help cancel a drag queen story hour at an Idaho library. “I don’t think that shit needs to be around kids, because kids are kids. They can’t decide what their preferences are at that young age,” he said when asked about the Instagram post. In a video reuploaded on a fan’s channel that was later removed for violating YouTube’s policy on harassment and bullying, Alex physically restrains a target after he attempts to elbow the camera.
Dr. Jennifer Klein, a professor of criminal justice at the University of Texas at Tyler who has researched media responses to sex crimes, said that predator hunting content tends to reinforce previously held beliefs about individuals who are interested in sexual activity with minors. “If YouTube or TikTok allows for ‘predator hunting’ to occur and does not stop the promotion of those types of behaviors, then that sends a message to others that this is acceptable behavior,” she said over email. “We learn from what we see.”
The stings can be lucrative as well. The Predator Poachers website features Patreon-esque membership tiers and merchandise, over 320 members who subscribe at tiers ranging from $3 to $100. (Member benefits range from exclusive video content to promotion on the main channel.) The membership system is necessary because Predator Poachers is blocked from making money on YouTube or Patreon. Alex wasn’t sure why his channel was demonetized (he suspects that it was due to the fact that he was the owner of a previous channel that YouTube had banned), but said he was banned from Patreon because the platform felt that it was not equipped to deal with child safety.
Still, experts like Klein worry there’s no safe way to do what Predator Poachers is doing. “I can understand that people might not feel as though law enforcement is reacting quickly enough, but individuals cannot be acting as vigilantes and taking this into their own hands,” she said. “Lay people are not trained properly, can put themselves or others at risk, and should not be trying to ambush anyone.”