Digital Vigilantism

/ˈdɪʤɪtl ˈvɪʤɪləntɪz(ə)m/

A process where citizens are collectively offended by other citizen activity and respond through coordinated retaliation on digital media, including mobile devices and social media platforms (Daniel Trottier, 2017). 

Following the storming of the US Capitol on January 6, 2021, Washington’s Metropolitan Police Department (MPD) released an open call for help identifying rioters. The attack was heavily documented through live stream footage and photos posted to social media; thousands of citizens mobilized to parse through this media to identify and prosecute perpetrators. For example, researchers at the University of Toronto’s Citizen Lab presented photo and video evidence of potential suspects to the FBI, without posting any names publicly. 

This was not the first time citizens have organized to identify individuals involved in a harmful act. In 2015, after the Boston Marathon bombing, members of the public used Reddit and other platforms to conduct a parallel investigation, sharing and searching for information to uncover key information. In both of these cases, many of these amateur investigations had mixed results, with many uninvolved persons shamed and harassed

Acts of digital vigilantism, also referred to as ‘e-vigilantism,’ ‘cyber vigilantism,’ or ‘digilantism’ (Wehmhoener, 2010), are not always directed at matters of national security—these crowdsourced investigations occur as a result of general moral outrage from citizens who seek to distribute justice to groups or individuals they believe have committed an improper act. Often, these allegations can be the result of conspiracy theories, rumors, and a general miasma of distrust. After someone released a video on the internet of a cyclist assaulting two children on a bike trail in 2020, digital vigilantes sought out and subsequently misidentified the perpetrator. Over the coming weeks, this innocent party received threatening messages from angry internet sleuths, who circulated his personal information across social media – including his address.

Digital vigilantism occurs through the sharing of data or information through digital platforms, especially social media. Johnny Nhan, Laura Huey, Ryan Broll, in Digilantism: An Analysis of Crowdsourcing and the Boston Marathon, describe the Reddit community that organized following the Boston Marathon bombing:

“Although some posters focused on technical aspects of the crime in order to identify the perpetrators and understand their motives, others sought a different route. These posters were more interested in discussing whether the attacks were linked to an organized violent extremist group or were instead the work of a so-called ‘lone wolf’ actor. Although different in content from other forms of speculation offered online, these posts similarly were phrased in ways that suggested the poster had some deeper knowledge and/or experience of the field of violent extremism.”

As described above, those partaking in these crowdsourced investigations have a range of motivations—some, well-intentioned and others not. In addition, this crowdsourcing can slow down official investigations by bombarding authorities with unhelpful and false information. 

The fallout from digital vigilantism can also affect targets in a number of ways—from wrongful shaming and harassment online, to death threats lasting several weeks. Daniel Troitter, in the paper “Denunciation and doxing: towards a conceptual model of digital vigilantism,” warns of the social harms caused by digital vigilantism:

“Denunciation may provoke other forms of mediated and embodied activities, including harassment and bullying, threats, and physical violence, often overlapping with gendered persecution and racism. As for longer-term outcomes, researchers can also consider how the reputation and broader social standing of the target and participants are understood and expressed both in news reports as well as accounts by participants […] They may consider references to detrimental life events for targets, for example, an inability to sustain employment, being excommunicated from their community, in addition to physical interventions.”

While many are weary of the illicit behavior that digital vigilantism sanctions, from online harassment to mob organizing leading to physical acts of violence, others acknowledge the collective intelligence practices and their profound impact on societal participation. James Walsh notes:

“[S]uch a transformation in societal participation led to a shift from a deputisation to an autonomization paradigm, referring to the voluntary, or self-appointed, involvement of citizens in the regulatory gatekeeping network. This refers to grassroot mobilisation, rather than governments mobilising the public, with groups of citizens spontaneously aligning themselves with authorities’ aims and objectives.”

Sources and Further Readings: