YouTubers claim to be acting in the public interest by apprehending criminals and uploading the footage to the internet. But are they causing more harm than they claim?
Omar Marjan’s life as a crime-fighting vigilante began as many origin stories do: with an attack. Just under a year ago, the 22-year-old Londoner was set upon by knife-wielding thieves in Hammersmith. Filled with adrenaline and determined to protect himself and the Honda NSS300 Forza he was riding, Marjan was stabbed through the hand in the scuffle – but instead of running away, he fought the thieves and gave chase.
As a courier who spends 50 hours on the road a week, Marjan says “something’s bound to happen” to him every day. The thieves who stabbed his hand got away, but after the incident Marjan equipped himself with a GoPro for added protection. In January, he realised the footage had another use.
“I saw how entertaining it was. London streets are crazy,” he says. With a pair of thermal handlebar gloves as his trademark look, he created a YouTube account and became the ‘handmuffwarrior’. He now broadcasts vigilante videos to 16,000 subscribers. “My channel is so polarising. You either love or hate me depending on the video I put up.”
Most of Marjan’s videos show him giving chase to two-wheeled thieves through the streets of South Kensington or calling out motorists for traffic violations. In his second most popular video, Moped Thieves pull Machete on me LONDON, Marjan stumbles upon two bike thieves and scares them away.
“People get scared of cameras, and when the attacker got close and saw the red light flashing I really do think that was the reason he turned back,” says Marjan of the incident – though the fact Marjan brandished a metal pipe at the thieves may also have had an effect.
“People say you’re not making a difference but I’m on the road so much that I think I am,” Marjan says. In videos he has thwarted thefts and confronted apparent drink drivers. “I just try to do it as safely as possible,” he says, “not put anyone in danger, get a thrill out of it… and try not to be a dick.”
As Marjan’s channel grows in popularity, people have complained about being featured in his videos. “They have no power to force me to take it down,” he says, but being the star of a handmuffwarrier video can have real-life consequences. One commenter recently gloated that he was able to get a van driver sacked after he was shown acting threateningly in a video. “I don’t want anyone to lose their jobs,” Marjan says. “I hope nothing happens there… but then again he should be following the rules… I can’t go round censoring videos because someone’s done something they shouldn’t have.” At the time of writing, it is unclear whether the van driver did lose his job.
Life as a vigilante is also risky for Marjan. After being confronted by the machete-wielding thief in the video described above, he now wears a stab proof vest when driving. On YouTube, injuries and deaths in the pursuit of clicks are increasing. In March, 20-year-old Monalisa Perez was charged with manslaughter after fatally shooting her partner in a botched stunt in the hopes of going viral, and in early July, three prominent YouTubers from the extreme travel channel High On Life died after falling 30 metres from a waterfall.
Marjan seems unperturbed by the risks, claiming his only fear is being outnumbered by attackers. “Everything’s a win-win when you have a camera,” he boasts. “If the worst case scenario does happen as long as I don’t die, I’ve got a video out of it – and if I ever got that on camera it would be one of my biggest videos.”
Although Marjan believes he is making a difference with his videos, the police are less certain. When contacted by ShortList, the Metropolitan Police stated that they “encourage anyone who is a victim of a crime or who witnesses a crime to report the matter to police and support the subsequent police investigation with any information and evidence that they can provide” but that they “won’t comment on specific alleged vigilante actions.” In July, Marjan was summoned by the police, but he will not disclose what was said.
Although handmuffwarrior is a solo venture, Marjan is part of what he describes as a wider “vigilante group” named Biker Biker. The group conduct frequent patrols of areas in London known for high rates of bike and moped theft. On YouTube, there are hundreds of similar vigilante channels.
“It’s not a case of revenge,” says club doorman Said Muhammad, who describes himself as a ‘citizen journalist’. His first channel, Raw Footage Action, saw him filming everything from far-right groups to flocks of swans. Now, at 56, he hosts HJ Investigations, a ‘public interest channel’ with over 18,000 subscribers where he publishes a behind-the-scenes look at life as a bouncer.
HJ Investigations often shows UK nightlife at its worst, documenting the racism and violence that Muhammad has to endure each week. “Most videos show bouncers being thugs, but they don’t see the good we do,” he says, and his videos have gained real-life results. Muhammad’s bodycam has helped secure at least one arrest, while the camera is useful for both protection and accountability. “As long as we do our job properly it can give evidence to actually get a person prosecuted,” Muhammad says.
Other videos, however, are insensitive and arguably exploitative, often showing people in distress and described with derogatory titles. One video shows two women ask to use the restroom, attached to the title ‘Automatic Refusal Beggars and Whores’. “I’m old school and I say they are beggars and whores,” Muhammad remarks when this is raised.
Another video shows a woman’s face blurred, a rarity when others aren’t afforded that luxury. This is because the person in the video has a history of mental illness, says Muhammad, and “to show her face would be monstrous.”
But should the public be featured at all, I ask? “Yes,” Muhammad replies bluntly. “It makes people aware of what we’re dealing with. The government are turning a blind eye to the long-term damage of binge drinking as youngsters and it has to be exposed.”
While Muhammad claims his channel is in the ‘public interest’, he often sources its content at the expense of others, and – much like Marjan – he has received complaints. “I’ve had people who love me because they’re on my videos, but I’ve had people who are offended,” he says. “But I’m not responsible for people’s actions, I’m exposing our society for what it truly is on a Friday and Saturday night.”
Candid videos of weekend exploits or road rage incidents are nothing new. In the past, prime time TV slots have been reserved for shows such as Brit Cops and Bouncers. The American TV show To Catch A Predator has inspired dozens of self-proclaimed ‘paedophile hunters’ across the UK, earning channels such as Dark Justice and Predator Exposure large online followings. In January, the police actively condemned these groups after their investigations caused a spate of violence and suicides, stating that these groups have “little or no consideration” for the safeguarding of abuse victims and that the quality of information passed to police is “frequently low”.
“A newspaper will have lawyers and experienced journalists who would think very carefully about what the implications are before putting something into the public domain,” says Peter Wright, Managing Director at the legal firm DigitalLawUK. “Social media allows everyone to become an ‘investigative journalist’ but public education on the implications of that remains very poor. People think it’s OK to put video up on YouTube but you can be subject to a criminal or civil offence.”
At present, YouTube channels are not regulated like the traditional media. “There’s an awful lot of regulation that broadcasters like the BBC have to follow, whereas with platforms like YouTube and iTunes you’re only bound by their own conditions,” explains Wright.
When directed toward vigilante channels, a YouTube spokesperson stated that “none of the videos/channels flagged by Shortlist are in violation of our Community Guidelines.” However, “individuals who appear in the videos may have recourse under our Privacy Guidelines or via our legal reporting tool should their image or other personally identifiable information appear in the video.”
In many cases, vigilante actions can distress abuse victims and can hinder police investigations, echoed in the high-profile imprisonment of the far-right figure Tommy Robinson who was charged with contempt of court after filming defendants in a criminal trial and posting the footage online.
“It almost illustrates the lack of public legal education over what people’s rights really are,” says Wright on the ongoing Tommy Robinson case. “We have to sit down and say ‘How can we ensure that people are aware we live in a society where the rule of law operates and how natural justice should be applied?’”
Troublingly, vigilante actions have also lead to numerous cases of mistaken identity. One video that remains on YouTube shows a falsely-accused man apprehended by a group of self-described paedophile hunters, stating his name and address on camera. Initially streamed through Facebook Live, this video has now gained over 100,000 views.
“A person could fear for their safety on the basis of an allegation that isn’t true,” Wright says, “If someone can be identified when carrying out something that can be construed as an offence then some form of consent should have been obtained [to film them]. That might not appear fair in your world, but that’s how the rule of law applies.”
As both Marjan and Muhammad’s channels grow by the day, neither are planning to quit anytime soon. Alongside actual criminals, both film people who they believe are simply in the wrong. “I’m not filming innocent victims,” Marjan says. “Just because something’s legal doesn’t mean it’s moral.”
Moralistic motives are one thing, and though Marjan claims he’s not motivated by money, he still makes it regardless. He currently doesn’t have permission from YouTube to earn through adverts, but instead earns revenue by licensing his videos to larger channels (this, he says, earns him almost as much as his full-time courier wage). He also says he has a merchandise range coming soon.
Marjan denies causing or forcing conflict for YouTube views, but does he ever feel he’s crossed the line? One video with 40,000 views shows an aggressive exchange with a London bus driver that was later criticised on American television. In the clip, Marjan repeatedly bangs on the safety glass separating the driver from the passengers. Sheepishly, he now admits fault. “I’m not proud of that to be honest,” he says. The video has nearly 1,000 likes.
“Dude that was awesome i laughed so hard,” reads one of the top comments.