Do not share child porn to catch a predator—it’s a crime

Committing a crime to catch a criminal does not exonerate the original crime.

This is an important lesson to note for the thousands of Facebook Messenger users who, in recent days, received a link to child pornography in their inboxes and, rather than alerting the authorities, passed it on. According to BuzzFeed News, these armchair detectives sought to unmask the man in the video, which depicts an adult forcing a young girl into fellatio. Unfortunately, anyone who forwarded the content may now find themselves inadvertently implicated in smut distribution.

“Someone who puts a link containing child pornography online, emails that link or sends that link in any fashion, electronically or otherwise, can be charged with the distribution of child pornography,” Michael Bachner, a former prosecutor and current white-collar criminal defense lawyer at New York City firm Bachner & Associates, tells the Daily Dot. “Anyone who opens that link, knowing that it contains images of child pornography, would be guilty of possession of that child pornography.”

It’s not immediately clear how the video wound up online to begin with, but according to AL.com, Alabama authorities have arrested its creator, Germaine Moore, 44, who turned himself in on Monday after the video went viral and generated a barrage of media attention. Between 2011 and 2017, Moore reportedly targeted his three nieces while their mother was at work. He is now charged with sexual assault of a child, distribution of child pornography, and first-degree criminal sexual conduct in Alabama, where he lives; as well as eight felony charges in Michigan, where his mother resides and where some of the abuse took place. Alabama law enforcement have also charged Moore’s fiancée, Tonya Hardy, with hindering the prosecution.

Also arrested: 42-year-old Jerrell Washington by the U.S. Marshals Fugitive Task Force; he faces charges for the possession and dissemination of child pornography. The report doesn’t say whether or not Washington was the first to post the video, but it does say that police anticipate more distribution-related charges will follow.

Authorities have a long trail to trace. ClickOrlando reports that the video surfaced months ago, in August 2017. But just last week, a sergeant with the Orlando Police Department’s Special Victims Unit told the station that dozens of locals reported receiving the content in recent days. “It’s picked up viral status on social media and people are blindly sharing it in the interest of trying to identify the suspect and the child,” Sgt. Tami Edwards said.

Facebook does an infamously spotty job removing problem content—see this 2017 ProPublica report spotlighting the platform’s inconsistent policing of hate speech—which might help explain why so many people felt compelled to share child pornography across their social networks, inside and outside the United States, and why it went on for so long. (The video showed up in France.) But even if all these thousands of people had ostensibly admirable intentions in mind when they hit send, an attempt to uncover the perpetrator’s identity by plastering his face all over the internet ultimately backfired on the victim. Now her image is all over the internet, too.

“If somebody receives a video of child pornography, or an image of child pornography or of child sexual abuse-related material, they should not share it with anyone,” Lindsey Olson, executive director of the Exploited Children Division at the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC), tells the Daily Dot. Sites like Facebook and Twitter can report material that suggests child sexual abuse to NCMEC, and NCMEC makes that information available to the appropriate authorities. According to Olson, the organization’s cyber tip line fielded over 10.2 million reports of children’s sexual exploitation in 2017, most of which concerned child pornography.

“We don’t want to contribute to the spread of this content, we don’t want to continue to victimize the child,” who, Olson added, “is being revictimized every time that content is shared.”

On top of continually re-implicating the victim, whose photo is now crisscrossing the web without her consent, wittingly sharing child pornography is always illegal. And in this particular case, where dissemination occurred on the internet, breaching both state and international borders, its prosecution would likely fall under federal jurisdiction. That, in turn, means anyone who knowingly produces, possesses, receives, or shares child pornography could face prison time. A person who knowingly forwards such content might be looking at a minimum of five years behind bars, with time tacked on for various sex acts depicted in the images and for any prior sex crime convictions the sender might have on their record.

While it might seem unlikely that every person who clicked and shared the link will be prosecuted, Bachner says he would “not rule out at least a law enforcement inquiry” if a person knowingly shared its contents. “Certainly, a person who shares it multiple times increases the chances of prosecution. Given the attention this matter has now received, a person who shares it post disclosure becomes a more likely target of law enforcement,” he added.

Though wide dissemination does seem to have landed Moore at his local police station and helped the police identify the victim, the ends, ultimately, don’t absolve criminal means.

“You can’t commit a crime to catch a criminal,” Bachner says. “You can’t commit a crime with the defense being, ‘I was really trying to get [Facebook] to do a better job.’”

Facebook, Bachner says, would likely escape culpability because it took action to address and halt the video’s spread. The site did not respond to the Daily Dot’s request for comment but said in a statement to Louisiana CBS affiliate WBRC that it removes sexually exploitative images of children as they crop up and reports them to NCMEC. Its software also scans and flags this kind of content, barring future uploads.

We do not allow the sharing of child exploitative images on Facebook or Messenger—even to express outrage,” the statement said. “Regardless of intention, sharing such imagery is harmful and illegal… We urge people never to share such content and to report it to local authorities immediately.”

That’s what Olson urges, too: Notify NCMEC, notify the platform on which you received the illicit material, and notify law enforcement. Don’t open the content, and definitely don’t rage post about it on Facebook. That only makes you part of the problem.

If you encounter content online that sexually exploits children, notify the Cyber Tip Line here.

Claire Lampen

Claire Lampen

Claire Lampen is a lifestyle reporter who covers sex, gender, and reproductive rights. Formerly a Fulbright fellow, she has published work with Vogue, Gizmodo, Refinery29, Teen Vogue, the BBC, Vice, Marie Claire, and more.