Digital Vigilantism: Every superhero needs a sidekick

Vigilantism sounds like something from a superhero movie: the hero wants to save the world, but cannot rely on the police to catch the bad guys. Instead, (s)he goes out to seek justice by him or herself.  In todays digital society, vigilante behavior is not only a matter of superheroes or a few very brave citizens. Instead, digital vigilantism is on the rise.

Social media and other open sources online provide citizens with new information about deviance and crime together with greater capacities to act upon this information themselves, for example by engaging in digital forensics or crowdsourcing intelligence. Think of the thousands of people who searched online for the identity of the suspects of the Boston marathon bombingin 2013. Or closer to home, neighbourhood watch groups trying to identify suspects of theft in their neighborhood by sharing pictures of them online.

The recent MEDIA@4SEC workshopon the Policing of Trolling, Hate and Lies Online, provided several examples of this emerging phenomenon entailing online acts of criminal investigation, crime prevention and public condemnation of criminal acts. The ambivalence of this phenomenon was clearly highlighted: not only are not all vigilante actions successful in correctly identifying the bad guy – as the Boston bombing case has proven. Digital vigilantes’ ways of investigating and prosecuting can be harmful to police practice, to others citizens and to the vigilantes themselves in several ways.

Even if the outcomes of this digilantismare successful and broadly praised, the actions raise several legal and ethical questions which remain at best opaque. On whose authority and with what legitimacy are these citizens engaging in law enforcement? This question becomes particularly relevant when acts become invasive in lives of others and are likely to impact upon privacy and personal freedom. A well known case is of a Dutch womanwho took a wallet that was left at the counter of a shop. She didn’t have a criminal record and acted merely upon opportunity. After she was publicly shamed on a video sharing website, she took her own life. Questions concerning the  privacy of suspects online were debated but it was difficult to hold the digital vigilantes accountable.

Besides moral and legal issues, this case also brought forward professional questions related to digital vigilantism. In the case of the Dutch woman, the question of proportionality was raised. Was it necessary and proportional to openly publish video material of such a minor offence online? As this case shows, public shaming, doxingand hounding of victims has a major impact on people’s personal lives. Also questions of prioritization and non-discrimination are relevant in case of digital vigilantism. The online search for the Boston bombers threatened to change into a racist where’s wally’. Digital vigilantes sometimes go after cases that are ‘low hanging fruit’ to achieve easy successes. They prioritize cases of likeable victims and in the process of identifying suspects ethnic discrimination is a risk.

The police often respond in ambivalent ways to these websleuths. They encourage public engagement in issues of public security and can profit from the resourcefulness and ‘streetwise’ information that online citizens bring to them. Yet examples that cross imprecise moral, legal and professional lines are publicly denounced. For example in this case of an online pedophile hunter, the police responded ‘Policing is not a game you can play’.  In another casethey praised teenage girls as ‘junior cops’for bringing evidence to the police. How can the police and other public security professionals respond consistently to digital vigilantism?

One conclusion from this is clear, instead of randomly encouraging or denouncing individual cases of digital vigilantism, the police should more clearly distinguish between specific acts that are acceptable or disruptive. For example: flagging unwanted behavior online without shaming specific persons will help keep up social norms and prevent unwanted behavior. Bringing cases to the police for investigation and prosecution is good practice but pursuing one’s own justice by naming and shaming offenders online is not. By formulating a set of clear and understandable guidelines the police can establish the parameters for the forms of online ‘undercover’ operations that are acceptable and which ones lead to provoking possibly innocent and vulnerable people into crime. What types or citizen arrests are acceptable and which ones cross the line? The main dividing line here is whether digital vigilantes have their own sense of justice and seek to replace (and not collaborate with) police.

Every superhero needs a sidekick: while stopping vigilante superheroes is unlikely in this digital age, instead the police can be a wise sidekick. By clearly distinguishing helpful and harmful acts of digital vigilantism and guiding vigilantes towards helpful acts, they can prevent the superhero from making mistakes that are harmful to themselves and others.

Rianne Dekker

University of Utrecht

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