Digilantes: Beware The Many Dangers Of Internet Mob Justice


There’s a new word that’s being used now, digilante, which describes people who fight for their idea of justice through the internet. And like vigilantes of old, they can be fairly casual about the means used to achieve their goals.

Vigilantism rightly has a bad reputation (think the Death Wish movies) for people taking the law into their own hands. Historically, vigilance committees were created when the system of law had broken down. In many towns in the old west, the bad guys ran things and controlled the forces of law and order. So, some people fought back. And if you remember back to the Charles Bronson films, he simply set himself up as a target. If a bad guy passed him by, nothing happened. But he killed those who did jump him, rather than bring them to justice.

People hate injustice, but also that kind of violence, so we settle for superheroes as fantasy. When Superman or Batman catch supervillains, they are going around the law… a point made brilliantly in The Dark Knight.

But internet sleuths, the digilantes, have used the web to go after their own perceived malefactors. There is a group that goes after users of kiddie porn. Law enforcement agencies are restricted by a thicket of privacy laws. The digilantes ignore them; those they find cannot be prosecuted for what is found. But they can threaten to expose these people. And at least some users have stopped, if the stories told are true.

Now some people use our ubiquitous cameras, both security and phone, to check out a lot of incidents. Cell phone footage can go out quickly and easily, and official obfuscation can be overridden. Of course, at times the footage has been somewhat unclear, and that can create massive misunderstandings. Remember that kid from Kentucky who was seen smirking at a Native American shaman? He got death threats after the incident was distributed, but then somewhat longer snippets showed that he and his friends were not the aggressors in all of this. But the damage to the kid’s reputation had been done.

People now often use their phones to show bad drivers (with license plates also showing), others behaving badly and even some acts of heroism. And while all of that is useful, we are in danger of losing any chance at privacy. It was fun when we could go to sports stadiums to watch marriage proposals on the big screen (although probably not as much fun if the person being proposed to said no) but most people would prefer to take such a risky move in private.

There are many examples of good being done by these digilantes. Important information has been dug up that had been hidden. Crimes have been solved. But there has also been a lot of injustice. At one point, only experts could fake what was on a screen. Now some elementary school children have managed to do it.

Nothing seems really private anymore; many young people have lost their need for privacy. A friend told me she warned her junior high school granddaughter against “sexting,” sending out naked pictures to friends. It sounds cute and fun and a way of both teasing and flirting with someone you think really likes you. While many kids now think that way, people of my generation would almost never have done that… that’s what Polaroids were for. But when every kid in your school can see you in the altogether a few minutes after you send, it stops being funny. It winds up hurting. And there have been more than a few suicides from cyberbullying.

So digilantes have to be careful. It is far safer working at a keyboard, often at home, than swinging from tall buildings and fighting people often larger than yourself in the name of “real justice.” And you don’t have to spend a lot on weird costumes that make people think you’re nuts anywhere outside a comic book convention.

But rules are needed for a just society. Many of them seem stupid, and that is nothing new. One of Dickens’s characters characterized the law as an ass. But the protections are there for a reason, and sometimes even seeming justice must be muted, particularly when it impedes truth and damages the innocent.