Catch a Child Predator: YouTube’s latest morally dubious trend

Unqualified YouTubers are setting up stings on potential child predators online, creating a whole new grey area for the video-hosting platform. 

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From November 2004 to December 2007, America was enthralled by a particularly sinister reality television phenomenon, To Catch a Predator. By pretending to be kids aged 12-15, the hidden camera show aimed to catch predators luring children online and entice them to houses under the pretence of sex. Then, before the predator was able to attack, series host Chris Hansen would appear from another room, read printouts of the graphic messages the predator had sent to who they thought was a child, and then let them leave the house to a barrage of police officers waiting to arrest them outside. Despite its popularity, the show was cancelled amid heat over potential violations of entrapment laws and general moral criticism after one of the targets committed suicide. The show is still noted to this day for its seediness and the problematic nature of the sting operations.

While cult fans of the show have yearned for the high drama series to return, it has in one way risen again in possibly the worst format possible – as YouTube prank channel predator setups. Prankster YouTubers are now taking on social justice as a cause of their own, following in the steps of Chris Hansen himself by going after child predators with zero police involvement or any legal qualifications.

This trend really began to creep in a few years ago. YouTubers such as Joey Salads (2.2 million subscribers) and Coby Persin (4.8 million  subscribers), who ran pretty average prank channels featuring videos of tricking people at the beach, faking disasters, and punking unsuspecting teens, began to pivot to “social experiments”. A departure from light-hearted pranks, these videos had a social justice angle, from outing child predators to teaching kids not to talk to strangers to warning the public of the dangers of Craigslist. Rather than a video actually trying to further the cause of social justice or spreading awareness, these videos pursued the final “gotcha” moment at the end.

Ultimately, though, this style of video was derided all across YouTube, to the point where some were largely shamed out of existence. Most reverted to the standard, goofy content that was popular before. 

But now, in what YouTuber Drew Gooden has called the “Chris Hansen Renaissance”, social justice prank videos are back, in a new and even more morally dubious iteration. Rather than mere “social experiments”, in which the danger of the situation is entirely controlled, teaching someone a lesson about life (eg teaching a kid about not talking to strangers, and the stranger is just the YouTuber who ultimately reveals that it was a setup), YouTubers are claiming to draw in actual child predators, who they film trying to sexually assault someone who the predator thinks is a teenager. Unlike earlier social experiment videos, this new spate of social justice-tinged videos are carrying out the justice themselves – throwing in a rogue element of a real-life child predator into the mix that is entirely uncontrolled. 

The channel spearheading this effort is LuxuryPranks, a self-described prank channel boasting over one million subscribers. In the past year, LuxuryPranks has produced 31 of these videos, entitled “Catch A Child Predator”, of which over half were uploaded in the last three months. It initially dubbed the series a “social experiment”, a call back to its forebearers a few years ago, yet the videos have progressed to become a full-on catching child predators series over the last year. Most videos have viewing figures in the millions, with the most popular currently standing at 8.1 million views and the lowest viewed still racking up over 620K. The videos, allegedly showing child predators nearly assaulting teens, have become popular enough that they’re even being sponsored by surprisingly benign companies, from survey apps to online tutoring websites.

Integral to this trend, and something that’s been hypothesised in the YouTube community, is that these videos are seemingly fake. This was something that plagued the previous iteration of social experiment pranks to the point where their legitimacy was so brutally debunked that some perpetrators, such as the Bradberry Brothers, temporarily or permanently quit YouTube (only, at best, making tepid returns months later). In the case of LuxuryPranks, all of its videos seem staged – reliably chock-full of bad acting, stilted voices, and unnatural behaviour and dialogue.

Also bolstering the theory that the videos are fake is that the predators are never dealt with by the police (which is an enormous problem in and of itself). The videos typically follow the same format: lure the predator in online (now done on Instagram and Snapchat, versus the To Catch a Predator method of through chatrooms), set up a sting, let the predator(s) get close to actual assault before the YouTuber reveals themselves. And then, at least in all of the LuxuryPranks videos the predator is just left to go on his merry way. The implication is that the sting itself and the YouTubers’ awkward, poorly delivered scolding will be enough to deter this potential sexual assaulter from preying on children ever again.

The YouTubers creating these videos come out badly regardless of the legitimacy of the videos. If the videos are, indeed, entirely staged, then we have a problem of YouTubers lying to their audiences whilst simultaneously self-aggrandising their own actions – painting themselves as white knights when, in reality, they're just paying actors to make them look like heroes. But if the whole thing is in fact actually real, the YouTubers are literally letting child predators head off after almost committing a violent crime – managing to both find a child predator and equally letting them get away without any legal consequences.

This puts YouTube, as a platform, in murky water. Whether or not these videos are faked, YouTubers are viewing themselves as enforcers of justice, qualified and knowledgeable enough to deal with serious, violent crime. It’s an issue that’s difficult to police. And whether or not they’re faked, these videos are lucrative; again, pulling in huge viewing numbers and brand sponsorships. Beyond moral reasons, there is very little incentive for YouTube to regulate, or even ban, this type of content.

Much like their predecessors, the LuxuryPranks videos have been roundly ridiculed by other YouTubers, inspiring hundreds of reaction videos mocking the stilted nature of the seemingly staged stings.  However, the popularity of these videos in spite of the mockery is where they are different to the social experiment videos that came before them – enough that they may be plaguing YouTube for months, if not years, to come.

Sarah Manavis is the New Statesman's tech and digital culture writer.