Experts, Police, and Vigilantes Face Off Over Pedophiles on Twitter
In all my years as a digital rights activist, one constant has remained: that whenever a new measure to censor the Internet is proposed, it will be justified as being targeted at the online activities of either terrorists, or pedophiles. This justification is used so often, because it’s so effective. Nobody wants to be heard speaking up for the rights of either of these hated and feared groups.
Indeed, in order to stave off the threat of broader censorship, free speech activists are sometimes first in line to argue for the censorship of extremist material. It says a lot that the new Chair of the Internet Watch Foundation, which facilitates ISP-level blocking of child abuse imagery online, is the former head of free speech group Article 19.
So it was that Twitter’s suspension of the accounts of non-offending pedophiles last month flew under the radar for most Internet activists and free speech advocates. Although non-offending pedophiles strongly oppose child abuse imagery and adult-child sex, activists were no more inclined to defend them against Twitter’s actions than they were to defend the Nazis and alt-right hate groups whose accounts Twitter also purged.
But there’s one group that does stand against Twitter’s suspension of the accounts of these prominent online pedophiles —and it’s not who you might expect. It’s child protection workers, who together with more than twenty international clinical and forensic psychologists, sexologists, sociologists and other experts, this week sent an open letter to Twitter stating:
In our professional opinions, terminating the accounts of non-offending, anti-contact MAPs [Minor-Attracted Persons] is likely to result in the opposite effect of that which Twitter may expect or intend. Rather than reducing the incidence of child sexual abuse, if anything it increases the risk that some pedophiles will be unable to obtain the peer or professional support that they may need in order to avoid offending behaviour. It is also likely to increase the stigma and isolation associated with pedophilia and thereby increase the likelihood of some MAPs acting on their sexual feelings.
Sloppy Journalism and Sloppier Policing
At the same time as these experts are standing up for the right of non-offending pedophiles to maintain accounts on social media, anti-pedophile vigilantes have been stepping up their own crusade against the most prominent of the suspended Twitter account holders, the pseudonomous Ender Wiggin.
On December 21, 2017, about a week after Ender’s suspension from Twitter, alt-right journalist Ian Miles Cheong posted an article on Milo Yiannopoulos’ DANGEROUS.com falsely identifying Ender as a sex offender who had been arrested in Canada in August. Basic fact checking would have revealed that the real Ender (a European, not a Canadian), had been freely travelling overseas and posting online following his supposed arrest. However, Cheong has not posted any correction or retraction of his claims.
About a month before Cheong’s report came out, another online vigilante had reported Ender to the Greater Manchester Police over the following text, which he alleged Ender had posted on Twitter:
I recently went to an event and volunteered to help out with their children’s activity room. I did not plan it that way, but I was in put in charge of the room. And I had no helpers.
I am an anti-contact paedophile. I have aesthetic and romantic attractions to young children, mostly girls. I have not acted on those attractions, and I will not. I am in control of my actions.
On the basis of this allegation, on December 29 the police sent a notice to Twitter under the UK’s repressive Investigatory Powers Act (IPA), obliging Twitter to disclose Ender’s name, his IP address at the date of registration, and his IP address when the Twitter thread complained of was posted. Twitter in turn sent a notification to Ender Wiggin informing him of the police notice on 9 January 2018, and providing him with a copy of it, which is embedded below.
Amongst the many problems with this chain of events, the biggest is that Ender never wrote that text. The text is taken from a blog post by another non-offending pedophile, who goes by the name of Robert West. West himself openly admitted this during the Twitter exchange that led to the report against Ender.
There were parents around, and it was an open area. I have known I am a paedophile for over 30 years and have never done anything inappropriate with children. I care about children, am not a danger to them, and was glad to do something helpful.
— Robert West (@RobertWest5) November 23, 2017
It is difficult to understand how the complainant, let alone the Greater Manchester Police, could have overlooked the blindingly obvious fact that Ender Wiggin (or “Ender Higgins” as the IPA notice puts it) was not the author of the text complained of.
Yet notices issued under the Investigatory Powers Act do not require the demonstration of probable cause, such as would be required in order to obtain a warrant against Twitter in the United States. All that is required is that the investigating authority “believes that it is necessary” to obtain information from an online platform “for the purpose of preventing or detecting crime or of preventing disorder” (or for various other reasons not presently relevant).
Censoring Pedophile Speech Won’t Save Children
Even if Ender had been the author of the text, which he plainly wasn’t, does it indeed bear out a “concern that this Twitter account holder may have or intends [sic] to commit sexual offences against children”, as the IPA notice recites? What part of “I have not acted on [my] attractions, and I will not. I am in control of my actions,” evinces such an intention?
Further, what are the “numerous message [sic] of a disturbing nature around their sexual beliefs and minors,” to which the IPA notice refers? Since Ender has strongly and consistently spoken out against sexual contact between minors and adults, as well as the use of child abuse imagery, there is nothing illegal in the “sexual beliefs” that he has expressed on Twitter, or anywhere else.
His messages might still be “disturbing” to some; I can readily agree that the existence of an attraction to minors in human sexuality is a disturbing and thoroughly unfortunate fact of life; almost incomprehensible, were it not for the scientific evidence that those affected by it do not choose and cannot be cured of their attraction. But Ender’s central message—that someone can possess such an attraction and yet successfully resist it—is not disturbing at all, or it shouldn’t be.
On the contrary, as the experts who signed this week’s letter to Twitter have attested, this is a message of hope. Acknowledging the existence of non-offending, anti-contact pedophiles, and allowing them to form safe, supportive communities in which they can work with peers, family, and professionals to avoid offending, will only have positive outcomes for child safety.
“As the experts who signed today’s letter to Twitter have attested, this is a message of hope.”
As one of the primary social networks through which people from all walks of life connect to discuss such controversial and important issues, Twitter has a role in facilitating a partnership between pedophiles, child protection workers, the psychological profession, and the broader public, to save children from sexual abuse.
Will Twitter accept that role, or will it allow online vigilantes and their tabloid-fed moral panic around pedophilia to sweep discussion of this topic off the open web, and into its darkest corners where censors and police cannot reach?