Vigilantes in the Digital Age
by Christopher Hubbard
Click. That’s how easy it is for social media users to upload information to public platforms, whether as text, pictures, or videos. This simple capability has transformed the public from an audience of passive observers into a crowd that can take collective action, and thus have an impact on social and political life. Social media platforms allow their users to engage with others on topics ranging from the trivial to issues of life and death.
With the advent of social media came the inevitable rise of digital platforms being used for the purposes of vigilantism. Introducing Vigilant Audiences, edited by Daniel Trottier, Rashid Gabdulhakov and Qian Huang, explores the groups and audiences that behave in this way. As the introduction notes, vigilantes can be organized either individually or collectively and are oriented about a target that has allegedly violated a “social order” via criminal activity or an action or utterance considered “morally offensive”. Vigilantism itself is characterized by acts that seek to right some wrong, where law enforcement has failed and others feel compelled to take the law into their hands. Besides motivations that might align with justice, vigilantes might engage in such acts for financial gain, such as revenue from YouTube videos.
The book takes a case-study approach, diving into particular examples of vigilantism: actions and discourses of fandoms; select groups in Russia who claim to act on behalf of society, such as Lev Protiv, who compels smokers and drinkers to respect the law; and the 2017 white supremacist rallies in Charlottesville which prompted Twitter users to post pictures of participants and asked followers to identify those people, to name a few. The societal and cultural backdrop of vigilantism comes under scrutiny, and the connections between digital media platforms and those activists who utilize them is considered through the lens of performativity and technical mediation.
Aside from the various aspects of vigilantism mentioned above, this text also factors in the role of the audience and how digitally oriented groups might differ from more conventional, non-digital groups.
Vigilante-esque actions are easy enough to find on social media, with so-called ‘cancel culture’ often explicitly targeting someone’s reputation or their job. This is explored in Introducing Vigilant Audiences, which notes the backlash faced by high-profile figures such as Amy Poehler and Daniel O’Reilly, whose comedy has resulted in negative consequences for the creators themselves. A character in the show Difficult People, produced by Poehler, made a joke about R. Kelly urinating on Blue Ivy when she turns 18. O’Reilly, through his character Dapper Laughs, utilized offensive comedy that, albeit that is what originally attracted his audience, resulted in the cancellation of his show.
Recently on social media, I came across instances of vigilantism on both Reddit and Twitter that stuck out to me. On Reddit, someone had exposed racist and anti-immigrant comments that blamed Asians for the current Covid-19 pandemic. Not only were the comments, which originally came from Facebook, relayed to other Reddit users, but so was the identity of the person responsible for the comments (an act that actually contravenes the rules for posting). The person who reposted the comments also revealed the original commentor’s work address and urged others to call her workplace to file complaints against her.
Similarly on Twitter, one often finds a hashtag including a show or famous person’s name alongside “isover,” calling for that show or person to be cancelled and boycotted. A few recent instances include a short clip of Billie Eilish forcefully throwing a bottle into the crowd and liking a meme that implied that Louis Tomlinsin was uglier than a former band member, both of which caused #BillieEilishIsOverParty to trend. A few people on Twitter expressed frustrations over cancel culture and how insidious it has become. Last year, #CamillaCabelloIsOverParty was posted by a few, with some citing the reason as her Tumblr account with racist posts years prior.
It is worth noting that the consequences of acts of digital vigilantism can be startling, unintended, and call into question the proportionality of this form of ‘justice’. A case explored in the book involves a 68-year-old woman who pocketed another person’s wallet; footage of the incident circulated online and went viral. Following a slew of hateful comments against her, the woman ended up taking her own life.
Introducing Vigilant Audiences offers a vast array of such case studies from around the world. Given how prevalent and pervasive instances of digital vigilantism is, this open access book will give both scholars and social media users alike the tools to recognize acts of digital vigilantism and their origins and motivations