The Murky Nature of Internet Vigilantes

Image by Frank Tellez

Freedom allows many things, good and bad. The rationalization of justified Internet vigilantes arguably falls in both camps, depending on your perspective.

We love the archetype of the vigilante, the person who goes out and meters justice when authorities fail to do so. In a romantic sense, it makes sense. Consider our pop culture heros; Batman, Iron Man, Jack Reacher (in spite of Tom Cruise), Clint Eastwood’s many tough guy characters, and on and on. We worship their ability to right wrong in the spite of flawed protection mechanisms.

Thanks to the Internet, practicing vigilantism has never been easier. Social media empowers anyone to speak out for justice, and successful acts are met with attention and notoriety.

That’s unfortunate. Vigilantism (or “digilantism” online) is dangerous because the actor may not be well grounded in their ideas of right or wrong.

Here’s an example: In 2011 a Reddit community member spearheaded a campaign against an online scammer. The only problem was that she was fundraising to fight cancer.

In the Internet era, the tools of vigilante punishment have changed. They now include reputation attacks, bullying, anonymous vandalism of websites, and worse. In recent years, diglantes acted on a wide range of wrongs, including the PyCon dongle incident (sexism), Anonymous attacks (corporate wrongs), and the Boston Bombing (Reddit community).

It’s way too easy to meter punishment these days. Sometimes justice serves as the veil bullies hide behind. Nowhere is this more evident than private groups and communities who act on their own. The severity of mob justice can cause one to forget the original provocation, creating permanent tar and feathering moments that scar recipients forever in mind AND Google. Watching flash mob justice is frightening.

Some vigilante acts are wrong, and others are not. Thanks to the psychological reasoning of justice it’s rarely a clear cut case.

The Egotism of Vigilantes

Image by Brian K.

Personally, my greatest errors have been when I decided to teach somebody a lesson… Because I had been wronged or knew better.

I was the judge, jury, and decision maker. Fueled by an anger that needed better outlets, disgusted by injustices or others acts, I sought to correct wrongs.

There were a couple of cases where the wrong was very real, most notably with BP’s Deep Horizon oil spill. I’m still rather proud of the response, CitizenGulf activism.

But lesser acts, the call-outs and the online sniping, were not good. It’s quite egotistical to know better than others. Right or wrong, it’s not my place to go out and teach people lessons. No one knocked on my door and made me God.

That’s why today when something needs to be said, I try to do so without identifying individuals. I feel unequipped to determine who deserves to be criticized publicly. Who am I to harm someone’s career for doing it the “wrong” way?

Yet, there are times when we need to stand up and fight. With an innefectual government, the need for third party answers will only increase. I believe that civic activism is needed now more than ever.

The Chaotic Future

Image by ykcky

In William Gibson’s Neuromancer and Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash we see Internet culture transform society with warring (and sometimes anonymous) communities. Governments lost effectiveness as more people are able to subvert its control. Private parties and corporations grew more powerful, able to act independently and often wrongly.

If these and other visions of the future hold true, government will continue to lose power with time, developing a deeper need for self protection. Where does one draw the line?

“Since the governments are in the pockets of businesses, who’s going to control this most powerful institution? Business is more powerful than politics, and it’s more powerful than religion. So it’s going to have to be the vigilante consumer,” said Anita Roddick, founder of The Body Shop. Her company offered beauty products that prohibited the use of ingredients tested on animals, and one of the first to promote fair trade with third world countries.

Activism and social enterprises like the Body Shop feel better to me than vigilantism. The protocols of civic activism are well known. From public cries of protest against practices and corporations to formalized nonprofits and grassroots lobbying, we’ve seen some powerful examples of successful activism recently.

The growing strength of the same sex movement across America is a testimony to the power of tenacious resistance. On the corporate front, Disney yielded to public dissatisfaction about the company’s makeover of the Brave character Merida. While the many blogs protesting the image change made a difference, perhaps no statement said more than the 220,000 petition signatures on

Then there is the government. When is vigilantism justified? When justice is not served? When the our society authorities fail to protect us in any facet of life?

Ugly Consequence

Image by Mike Hendrickson

Generally, I think everyone’s right to be free and live without oppression of belief, faith, ideaology, etc. should always be protected. I can’t say what good and evil are in most cases, though.

What may be a bad idea or a mistake, may actually be the opposite. Poor judgment can create natural consequence, a necessary experience that causes someone to grow and learn. People should remain free to make mistakes, in my opinion. Consequence dealt through the crowd’s hands online can add further wrong to a situation.

It’s really an uncomfortable topic. Words and judgement hold great power. On a philosophical level, when we judge and condemn others publicly we wield this power, for wrong or right.

Many times these shaming moments seem excessive. I wonder if there are better approaches to seeking justice than straight forward attacks.

Remember John Walsh, and his show America’s Most Wanted? Walsh used his TV show as a means to find suspects, people wanted for acts of murder and other crimes. It was his way of fighting crime after the murder of his son Adam in 1981. What a great use of a media in context with the existing court system to seek justice. “I figured out how to catch fugitives without a gun,” said Walsh.

When justice is needed perhaps more people could act like Anita Roddick and John Walsh.

No matter the course of government, there were always be rights and wrongs in society. Deciding to act against these wrongs is something that should be weighed carefully, rather than the simple reaction of pushing a return button in anger.

What do you think of the murky nature of Internet vigilantism?


  • I think it’s a matter of how you do it vs. whether or not you do it.

    You’ve called me out before, but not in a way that I felt personally attacked (even if you may have meant it that way :) ) . I saw it as a discussion among peers, which, like every other conversation these days, happens in a public forum.

    I favor open dialogue and debate on such issues, yet not everyone is strong enough or confident enough to be challenged. Not everyone is willing to be told they might have been wrong. Not everyone is willing to set their ego aside and say they may have been wrong and thank others for calling them out.

    As you suggest, social media has changed the way we communicate. The medium has evolved, we must catch up. We need to learn to start dialogues without harassment and to receive such dialogue and opinion without being threatened. If we’re too afraid to openly engage people and debate issues, even personal ones, we’ve missed the great opportunity for advancement that social media has offered.

    Too much to hope for?

    • I don’t know, Sam. Calling you out as a disgreeing comment on your blog is a lot different than publicly calling someone out on social networks and by name with negative blog posts.

      I disagree a lot on what debate and dialogue is online. Some people feel like taking names is acceptable. I don’t. Sometimes people are afraid for good reason, as I learned the hard way.

      As to the willingness bit, I think method needs to be factored into this. I’m not willing to walk into a hostile environment where I’m just going to be called names and told to leave. You can call that ego, I call that self esteem. I don’t see social media as advancing anything if people use it to throw mud at each other.

  • I did like the activism vs vigilantism distinction – especially if the activism finds a way of impacting people’s heads/hearts constructively versus tearing people down.

    I think we’ve discussed this before – I’m not an activist. As much as I am online, I also do a pretty good job remaining insulated from sensationalized media…and I will blow over any vigilante posts in my feed. I still focus on doing right by the world. I’ll start with the family and then work my way outwards to friends and people who I can impact through volunteer efforts.

    I have recently written a couple of reviews (actually, I still have to write one). Both of the reviews were a result of a bad customer experience, so I felt compelled to share my voice. However…even then…I try to find the “good” in the same brand that I am critiquing. I guess my wife’s good qualities are rubbing off on me after 2 1/2 decades together.

    • Well, I do think @twitter-18995919:disqus has a point that sometimes we need to say what needs to be said. As you note its the sensational approach that goes too far. What I am seeing, and failed to realize in writing this post is that we need the middle ground, where we have dialogue yet keep the conversation from spiraling out of control.

      Sounds like your wife is a good influence. I know mine affects me in a similar fashion. Cheers!

  • Geoff,
    What an incredibly thought provoking article. I often reflect on the dark side of being judgmental, as you state “who made us God?”
    And yet Edmund Burke calls us out when we hide behind our fear with “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing” I think the lines of good & evil have become murky. We all used to be more in agreement on a standard I believe in which to live by. I do think fear keeps many people on the sidelines, and bullies operating freely under the disguise of anonymity on the Internet or perhaps I should say cowardice. We do as a people seem more fractured in our causes due to the Internet I think. Thanks Geoff for a great article.
    Susan Fox

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