Social Media Vigilantes Should Worry Us All

The online sheriffs convinced their personal views should be imposed on everyone

The concept of vigilante justice has been around for ages. Defined as a group of individuals who act to enforce the law, various factors have contributed to the rise of vigilante justice in recent human history, such as ineffective legal systems, social norms, community-based traditions, and religious fundamentalism. In such cases, the criteria of accountability merely relied on the behaviour biases of individuals and personal beliefs that determined the qualifications for being responsible to bringing offenders to justice.

With societies having engendered law enforcement agencies to maintain law and order in the public sphere, social vigilantism has been reduced to an understandably invalid act of retribution to avenge personal disputes outside of legal discourse. However, we are seeing unprecedented waves of vigilante-type activities in the modern age through the internet. This wave is owing to the expansion of social media platforms, affording vigilante justice a far larger scale than it’s ever had, which in turn renders its impact far more reaching.

In the social media world, words that are neither substantial nor reliable, when considered contextually, have the power to provoke millions of people to act aggressively. For a large, and growing, number of people, social media is becoming the perfect platform to impose views on others.

Worryingly, the methods by which people impose their decrees are morally suspect, and it seems that almost any method is now used to discredit the opinions of others. Naturally, because of dissociative anonymity, the internet has the capacity to engender the feeling that people ‘can get away with it’ when committing vigilante acts.

There are certain features associated with all social media including acting either in an individual or group capacity while assuming themselves to be acting on the behalf of the correct side of society; being egocentric and rigid in their online conduct; fervently denouncing the opinions of others insofar as such opinions rebut their own arguments; being oft to hysterically amass around, and fervidly point out, potential transgressions; and desiring to control social infractions by harassing supposed offenders in every possible manner.

…because of dissociative anonymity, the internet has the capacity to engender the feeling that people ‘can get away with it’ when committing vigilante acts

A recent example of this kind of phenomenon is seen in the infamous encounter that took place between a Native American man and a throng of high school boys wearing hats that read ‘Make American Great Again’. The situation was reportedly accelerated when another group of African Hebrew Israelites started throwing racial slurs at both Native Americans and the students alike.

At first, mainstream media divided them into different categories such as “white” students, “Black” Hebrew Israelites and “Native Americans”. Of course, it took no time for them to build a case based on racial stereotypes without even investigating the validity of the video clips circulating on the internet.

Many people were quick to mischaracterise the young boy involved in the incident without looking into his side of the story, which is reportedly entirely different from what had been described online. Naturally, people on social media linked the incident with explosive words such as ‘racism’, ‘white privilege’, and an ‘infringement’ on religious and ideological beliefs, all of which quickly exacerbated the situation. Messages containing hatred, condemnations and prejudice against the accused boy are still flooding social media.

Normally, it is essential to require the other side of the story before reaching any conclusion. But the online jury doesn’t require any other account that doesn’t fit their preferred narrative. Now that the full video footage has surfaced, people still seem confused about their inflaming outrage that led them to behave cursorily. Indeed, the boy came up with a statement that throws light on the other aspect of the story.

There might be many questions as to the way the boy had conducted himself or what made an old person think that marching right up to the boy while beating a drum in his face could possibly defuse the situation. But there are certainly operational law enforcement agencies in US to deal with such unpleasant situations.

Even if the boy were guilty of being disrespectful, it is not for individuals to incite hatred and violence against him, especially to such a degree that his life becomes endangered. After all, because of people intent on vigilante justice the boy and his parents were threatened, and their home address has been shared online.

The incident highlights the vogue modus operandi for accusing individuals of unsubstantiated grievances in cyber space. The normalisation of vigilante attitudes has turned social media into a totalitarian tribunal where keyboard warriors become judge, jury, and executioner at the same time while meting out so-called ‘instant justice’. This reprehensible behaviour clearly depicts how a tool for cognitive gratification and activism may turn into a revengeful vigilantism.

The normalisation of vigilante attitudes has turned social media into a totalitarian tribunal where keyboard warriors become judge, jury, and executioner

Yes, social media is a platform that can be used to enhance connectivity with likeminded people, keep those in power accountable, and it allows us to participate in social welfare activities. With a shared concern, a social media post can potentially proliferate good things.

Saudi teen Rahaf Mohammed’s story is an epitome of such positive aspects of social media. Millions of people participated in an online campaign to turn the world’s attention towards her plight while she was detained in a room in Thailand. The incident underscores the fact that social media is not all about having bad experiences; it can bring forth revolutionary ideas into the socio-political spectrum.

Notwithstanding good cases such as Rahaf’s, there is an influx of substantiated and unsubstantiated posts appearing on the feeds of thousands of people every passing minute owing in a large part to the social media vigilante. Most of them have probably never heard of the victim but still share the post while lashing out at the incriminated for their alleged crime.

According to a study, social vigilantes operate in cyber space as agents who believe they are acting on behalf of society. Unsurprisingly they score high in dogmatism, self-importance, and are overly-controlling. Such self-appointed guardians of morality convince themselves that they have the ordained right to chastise people for how they must conduct themselves on social media. They publicly shame vulnerable people who are unable to defend themselves against a hostile mob. Studies have shown that such situations fraught with difficulty give rise to harmful tendencies such as suicidal ideation, self-harm and social isolation among young people.

This bid to right a supposedly wrong person by informal means ends up stigmatising vulnerable individuals. Though it is a worrisome situation, the fact remains that there are countless fake news sites as well as charlatan individuals circulating false information over the internet. Provocative Stories that prompt outrage and passion are more likely to be reposted.

Laws are already enacted in Western countries to curb online vigilantism to protect a jury from being influenced or prejudiced by media reporting. However, given the scale of social media, it might be hard to eradicate entire amounts of misinformation and tackle online vigilantes effectively. Therefore, it is up to individuals to make better use of the information at hand on social media and refrain themselves from partaking in any inflammatory propaganda that bypasses veracity.

The stories appearing as satire, click bait or propaganda must be put to the test in order to discourage people who try to further their nefarious agendas by spreading fake stories. There are always sources available on social media to identify such fake accounts as discredited and recanted ones. Online vigilantism which is divorced from rationality is the epitome of a witch-hunt that aims to harm people for the sake of self-indulgence. It should be condemnable if a panel comprised of unqualified and egocentric people deciding the fate of those who have been accused by a friend of a friend of a friend, all of whom believing that they are in some way bringing a perpetrator to justice. Discerning what we hear and believe should be our prerogative.

Khadija Khan

Journalist and commentator based in Germany.

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Khadija Khan

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