“Pedophiles loose in Edmonton!” read the tweets and retweets of your alarmed friends last week.
A couple of videos made by the activist group Anonymous, accusing two Edmonton men of soliciting sex from teenage girls, flooded social- media feeds. These were accompanied by calls to action and self-righteous condemnation by the videos’ viewers. But these videos accomplished only one of two things: either they irreparably tarnished the reputations of two potentially innocent men, or they ensured that two would-be child molesters will not be prosecuted because any incriminating evidence that might exist on their end is now almost certainly destroyed.
Anonymous has done good and bad things, but the group’s biggest strength is also its biggest weakness. A decentralized, identity-less “organization” such as this can accomplish certain things that would be much harder to do publicly. But because of that anonymity, unless they’re re- leasing hard evidence, nobody should be taking a word they say as trustworthy.
With Anonymous, we don’t know what we’re getting. Some members band together to put on sophisticated protests against Scientology, while others spend their days making lives hell for teenage girls half the world away. Some of them do both, depending on how they’re feeling.
From an evidence-based standpoint, these videos are indistinguishable from the false accusations of a jaded teenager just wanting to see how much of a panic he or she can whip up with a grittily edited video and a cliché-robot voice.
To their credit, the owners of the YouTube account have indicated that they won’t be releasing any more names in order to increase the chances that those they’ve found are brought to justice. The names were released by Anonymous because Edmonton Police Service did not show that they were doing anything by the imposed deadline. The justice system can be slow, but that is often a result of working to protect those people who are wrongly accused and to ensure the best chance of proving criminals guilty. The changed stance on YouTube does indicate positive intentions on the channel owners’ behalf, but it doesn’t excuse the behaviour that followed the video’s release.
As horrific a crime as child molestation is, we can’t allow ourselves to be puppeted into a rage on the authority of people whose reliability is unknown. All they present in the video is a screen grab and an inset video of a man without a shirt, accompanied by two stories about how the men allegedly solicited sex from fictional teenage girls. They might have chat-logs, IP ad-dresses, more damningly incriminating pictures or evidence that might actually stand up in court, but if so, it didn’t see release.
All we have are their words, and we owe it to every person who was ever wrongly accused of a crime to demand a little more than anonymous allegations before lighting the witch-hunt torches. For you, it’s a three-second retweet. For somebody who might be wrongly accused of child molestation, it’s their whole life.