Singaporean media personality Jade Rasif was 16 when she encountered internet vigilantes. An individual took a picture of her kissing her boyfriend when she was on a bus and shared it online. As a result, not only did she face consequences from her school, but she also experienced online harassment by the public. Ms Rasif shared her story during a webinar about cyber vigilantism organised by TODAY in November last year. While social media is playing an increasingly important role within our social lives, our commitment to media platforms has made us more vulnerable to what is happening online and has sometimes stricken lives.
With 4.13 billion internet users worldwide, the Internet has become a daily essential in our lives. But that also means more and more people on the Internet are acting as “justice warriors”, often without legal authority. When individuals start to carry out vigilante activities through the Internet, they do what is called “cyber vigilantism”.
Sociologist Benjamin Loveluck identified four ideal types of internet vigilantism: flagging, investigation, hounding and organised denunciation. They all involve direct online actions of targeted surveillance, dissuasion or punishment led by a group of individuals who generally seek to establish their societal ideal of justice. However, the targeted persons rarely come out unharmed.
Initially, cyber vigilantism was a harmless phenomenon that was all about people spreading awareness about scams, crimes or other communal problems. For example, Madam Siew Pek Chun, a missing 72-year-old Singaporean elderly, was found on Oct 4, 2020, by a 19-year-old student who saw pictures of her on social media. In specific situations, NUS media studies instructor Gui Kai Chong said that cyber vigilantism can “catalyse enforcement action by the police”.
Political matters have also increasingly spilt over onto online media platforms and have gained massive attention. Political movements like Me Too, cancel culture and more recently — Black Lives Matter — are representative examples of cyber vigilantism. These collective movements are in nature cyber vigilante because they claim to act online against certain behaviours deemed wrong or offensive. These movements have generally been considered to be a positive societal force in creating awareness of various issues and pushing efforts towards racial, ethnicity and gender equality, among others.
Cyber Vigilantism and Its Problems
If cyber vigilantism serves to spread caution and awareness about issues, why is it then considered a controversial phenomenon?
There are two answers.
First, cyber vigilantism often gravitates around rather sensitive emotional issues (such as racism) and can cause the abstraction of the judicial system.
In our society, the legality of behaviours should be assessed by a judicial system to which we are accountable. However, those who conduct vigilante activities on the Internet often demand accountability to them, threatening retaliation if the target does not comply, in effect creating a blackmailing situation.
This second source of accountability creates a problem because the moral judgements of the cyber vigilantes lack legitimacy in contrast to those of the judicial system legitimised by the democratic process. Although the legal system does not necessarily uphold an absolute moral ideal, most of the time the law is the societal tool to generate the most consensus around it. Even if cyber vigilantism is carried out in the name of justice, order or safety, not everyone can and should be a judge, especially when these “judges” cannot be held accountable themselves.
In this regard, the story of Jade Rasif is striking. What was a private and legal matter thus became subject to the punishment of one’s particular morality.
Second, cyber vigilantism can go too far at times.
In particular, the acts of punishment carried out by cyber vigilantes are not under anyone’s control. Cyber vigilantism movements sometimes are often blown out of proportion as there is no leader or institution within the movement to say stop and put a definitive end to it.
“Doxxing”, for example, is an online attack where individuals dig up and publish personal information and documents publicly. This action can potentially threaten the victims’ safety, causing some to change their address or phone number as a result.
The most controversial cyber vigilante movement in this regard is the cancel culture. Although it has sparked important conversations and change, the movement has sometimes ravaged careers and lives. One example is the case of Shane Gillis, who was fired from the Saturday Night Live for racist remarks in 2019. In this incident, Shane claimed to be pushing boundaries in comedy and his racist comments were simply jokes, hence not to be taken seriously. This, of course, angered many which resulted in cyber vigilantes attacking him online, leading to him getting fired.
Cyber Vigilantism and Justice
Anne Charity Hudley, the chair of linguistics of African America at the University of California, said: “Society is still grappling with what’s considered ‘too far’ on the Internet.” But what is “too far”?
The controversy of cyber vigilantism raises the question of how justice should be carried out and by whom.
To fully prevent cyber vigilantism and all its evil seems to be an impossible task for now. The public often chooses to “take things into their own hands”, especially if they feel that justice is not sufficiently carried out. In this scenario, whether they are doing good or bad — when they seek to hold potential culprits or wrong-doers accountable through social media — can be difficult to determine.
This also brings in the subjective and philosophical question of what is even considered good or bad: in whose eyes are these actions considered wrong or justified?
Furthermore, in the case of cyber vigilantism, where the public shares information about a “culprit” or “offender” online to “bring justice”, the question of who is at fault can become complicated. For example, Person A did something wrong in public. Person B then proceeded to share damaging information online about A to rally a crowd around their cause to “bring justice” online. In this case, A becomes the victim in the hands of the cyber vigilantes, but can B be held accountable as an offender for online harassment of A?
Many countries have tried to deter these online vigilantes but to no avail. An example would be Singapore and its Protection from Harassment Act (POHA).
POHA seeks to protect individuals from harassment or stalking, whether online or in real life. However, it was soon realised that the Act, implemented back in 2014, was not sufficient to protect individuals. With rapid technological advances, cyber harassments can now take many forms, causing many cases to fall through the “loopholes”.
This led to the recent amendments to POHA in 2019 to expand the scope of protection against the wide range of online harassments, specifically concerning doxxing.
Doxxing is now considered an offence if it is carried out: (1) with the intention to harass the victim, (2) with the knowledge or intention to put the victim in fear of violence, (3) with the knowledge or intention to provoke the use violence against the victim. These changes were implemented to address communications that may not be considered “threatening, abusive or insulting” under the previous provisions.
The amendments also raise the question of how far the law in Singapore can push the restrictions on what can or cannot be posted on social media.
One point to note is that an act of online harassment can only be considered as “doxxing” if personal information of the victim is shared. However, in a scenario where someone mentions the Instagram username of a person in the comments, for example, can this still be considered doxxing if the username does not consist of any personal information, such as name, address and contact number? If this is the case, how would the legal system work around this said “loophole”?
Cyber vigilantism is a complex phenomenon for which the negative and positive effects are hard to identify and tackle separately. Its relatively recent emergence as a global trend, combined with the rising number of active netizens, is why there is currently no concrete analysis of the trend. Neither has any state implemented any perfect solution to counter its negative effects.
One way to perhaps work around the controversial issue of cyber vigilantism is to educate the public, or rather, the future generations about cyber awareness and cyber literacy. Cybersecurity law professor and lawyer Jeff Kosseff suggested that instead of merely punishing those cyber vigilante groups regularly breaking the law, there could be benefits for governments to collaborate with them. He argues that current laws unnecessarily prohibit private actors from serving the public good and that private actors could fight threats in cyberspace together with public actors. Once monitored, the benevolent actions of raising awareness and conducting investigations online could then pose fewer problems.