Digital Vigilantism

By Alexandra Wilson and Ben Beiles. This piece is a part of Digital Hate, a series by Alexandra Wilson exploring the rise of right-wing extremism online.

A phone screen displaying various social media apps.

Daniel Trottier is an Associate Professor at the Department of Media and Communication of Erasmus University Rotterdam whose current research focuses on the use of digital media for scrutinizing, denouncing, and shaming others. In a 2020 article, he defined digital vigilantism as a process where citizens are collectively offended by other citizens activity and respond through coordinated retaliation on digital media platforms, including mobile devices and social media platforms. This can range from using the report button as a method to report hate speech or as a method to silence those reporting hate speech to identifying individuals on the news who broke the law through digital crowd sourcing. As part of an ongoing series on right-wing extremism online, KPR Writer Alexandra Wilson and Editor Ben Beiles interviewed Dr. Trottier about the link between Digital Vigilantism and online hate. The following is an edited transcript of their discussion.


How does digital vigilantism relate to online hate?

I would be hesitant to lay things out in a direct causality, but I think based on the increase of right-wing extremism and what I previously mentioned about how digital vigilantism can work to both combat hatred and silence minorities, I would be inclined to believe there may be a positive correlation. These tools and this process of digital vigilantism can be used to combat hatred, but you also have the flip side where it's used as a moral justification to go after vulnerable communities. If you look at something like Gamergate, “an Internet culture war ... one side … independent game-makers and critics, many of them women, who advocate for greater inclusion in gaming … the other side … a motley alliance of vitriolic naysayers: misogynists, anti-feminists, trolls, people convinced they’re being manipulated by a left-leaning and/or corrupt press, and traditionalists who just don’t want their games to change,” which we could just frame as trolling, harassment, hate speech, and vitriol, the proponents of Gamergate had some sort of moral justification regarding ethics and video game reviewing through which many people were offended and mobilized [1].


So, would you say that right-wing extremism is increasing the prevalence of digital vigilantism? And what the effects of that on free speech?

That's a good question.


With regards to free speech, this is where it becomes kind of a loaded term and is, of course, very partisan. Cancel culture often arises as a form of digital vigilantism and is something to struggle with because you have people like Donald Trump who have been de-platformed which provides a sense of combating hate speech, but when presented in a lot of public discourse, it's seen as this assault on free speech. But, if you think about a group like the Dixie Chicks who denounced George Bush in the early 2000s and were sort of de-platformed, causing their careers to really take a hit, a lot of free speech activists weren't concerned with that, which is of course a very facile thing to say but it's true. So, the way that this gets invoked is often very partisan and ideologically oriented, such that I think we have to be very careful in terms of what the next steps are. There's always an intention behind these steps taken to prevent excessive or disproportionate harm but it often, if we're not careful, disproportionately harms those who have been historically vulnerable and marginalized.


I think in terms of effecting social change and saying we no longer support online extremism, there's a number of mechanisms that are available to most civilians. Even if we might not necessarily agree with the mechanisms or the means through which this has been accomplished. We might see it as disproportionate. But maybe that's a way to raise awareness.


Is a social media ban sort of the natural evolution of digital vigilantism into state policing, and if so, what are the implications of that evolution?


In terms of the evolution, when it comes to digital vigilantism, we typically see this as a bottom-up phenomenon and that's why the term vigilantism has certain limitations. They support their societies’ hierarchy and order but don't have faith in the state to do what they ought to do, so they step up. If we look at the 2011 Vancouver Hockey riots, we saw cases where on these Facebook groups they were sourcing footage and images from various institutions. So, you already had that confluence between top-down and bottom-up. But in terms of tapping into the population like the FBI did after the January 6th riots when asking the Internet to identify the people they saw in the news that had stormed the capital, that was something where you had this top-down mobilization.


I think in terms of police monitoring, I would expect that they would still obviously want to track and to keep an eye on these groups. But it's one thing if we're talking about Gab, Parler, or 8Chan, where it's very clear what these platforms are known for, and another thing when it comes to platforms like Signal or Telegram, where a lot of political dissidents and journalists are using them as they need to watch what information they're disclosing. I think that then becomes a very significant sacrifice if those platforms are decrypted or compromised in any way. I think in that sense we probably have more hope when it comes to the digital vigilantes combating hate speech who don't just have the political motivation but also the technical skills to navigate these types of systems.


Alexandra Wilson, Ben Beiles, and the whole KPR team would like to thank Daniel Trottier for his time. This conversation not only shed much light on how hate is being combatted online globally but also on how these same tactics are being used by perpetrators of hate to disproportionately harm those who have been historically vulnerable and marginalized.

Bibliography


[1] Dewey, C. "The only guide to Gamergate you will ever need to read," The Washington Post, October 14, 2014, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/the-intersect/wp/2014/10/14/the-only-guide-to-gamergate-you-will-ever-need-to-read/