Vigilant audiences and stay-at-home justice

Author Posts Apr 20, 2020

By Daniel Trottier

Our lives are profoundly upset by the COVID-19 pandemic, and many of us are confined to our homes. We are anxiously fixed on our screens for news of the world. New rules of conduct are established before our eyes. Our media consumption includes viewing, sharing and commenting on stories about price gougers and people coughing on food. These may be picked up by news media, but invariably spread through social networks.

In terms of enforcing social distancing, people are watching over their neighbours. Some are denouncing them to local police, but also to a global audience. Moreover, this audience plays an active role in contributing to the shaming of others, be it through vitriolic comments, doxing or harassment.

Denouncing others through digital media is not exclusive to pandemic shaming. Recent examples also include shaming reckless parking, as well combatting hate speech and sexual abuse. Denunciation is not a new phenomena, yet what we consider socially acceptable is subject to revision. Surviving COVID-19 depends on strictly enforcing new norms, and a similar urgency can be felt as when denouncing torch-bearing white supremacists in 2017.

In addition to a changing social landscape, we are still coming to terms with social platforms that increasingly monopolise how we interact with others. By design, digital content is easy to share, but impossible to contain when uploaded. This presents a steep learning curve, and many in the public eye have deleted old tweets that would reflect poorly upon them. Even then, they may still be held accountable by an audience that retain and circulate incriminating content.

Exposing misdeeds by politicians and others in power may seem appropriate, but should this guide the way we denounce and shame private citizens? And at what point does a social media following make someone a public figure, and therefore subject to this level of audience scrutiny?

From our research, vigilant audiences appear to seek criminal and social justice, but are often also driven by a desire for entertainment. This concern cuts across scholarly disciplines, including criminology and media studies. Performing as a citizen overlaps considerably with activities we would otherwise frame as audiences engaging with media content. This overlap is especially felt as we practice social distancing on a global scale.

We can also approach these interventions as forms of vigilantism, which invokes a lengthy history of citizen-based violence. New forms of denouncing may be seen as necessary because of poor government response. The label ‘vigilante’ in particular directs attention to the troubled relation between citizens and a state that may be unable or unwilling to maintain social order.

Our forthcoming edited collection, Introducing Vigilant Audiences, looks at emerging and established forms of scrutiny and denunciation as practices that combine entertainment and justice-seeking. We argue that audiences are actively mobilised against what they perceive as unjust. This may involve combatting racist, sexist and otherwise antisocial actions. Vigilant audiences can also amplify existing harms, as seen in the targeted harassment of marginalised and otherwise vulnerable communities. Mediated denunciation is made possible through platforms and devices that are global in reach; yet it is shaped and understood through local contexts, as well as steps taken by governments to assert control over their digital landscape.

The book covers a range of cases that are organised in four general themes. The first set of chapters addresses entertainment. This includes denunciation as diversion, but also calls for justice against actors, musicians and comedians. In exploring the overlap between audiences and citizens, a second theme considers how national identities are mobilised in mediated vigilantism. While this may fuel violence against minorities, a third set of chapters addresses the backlash against these harms through the denunciation of hate speech. The final contributions to this book consider how police agencies cope with and capitalise on active citizens. While it may seem that legal frameworks struggle to keep up with online vigilantism, some jurisdictions are willing to trial new forms of engaging the public, for justice and for amusement.

Introducing Vigilant Audiences by Daniel Trottier, Rashid Gabdulhakov and Qian Huang will be published in the summer. As with all books released by Open Book Publishers it will be available Open Access, as well as in affordably-priced paperback, hardback and digital editions.

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