Digital vigilan-? what? Why and how I study online citizen-led justice
Updated: Jun 9
Originally published for the IBCoMagazine here
Imagine a world where justice-related matters fall in the hands of citizens instead of the police. Your neighbours, colleagues, classmates, or complete strangers find offence in the way you look, in the words you say, or in how you self-identify. No mandates, no protocol, no due process, just the morality-driven mob law with instant execution. The punishment is not a fine or a prison sentence; instead, you are publicly accused, shamed, humiliated, and exposed to the masses. Not a pretty picture, eh? Unfortunately, this is not just a fantasy, as such practices of digital vigilantism already take place all over the world.
As a member of an international team of scholars at our department, I study digital vigilantism in Russia. I am extremely lucky to be working under the supervision of Dr Daniel Trottier – a person who greatly contributed to the conceptualisation and academic understanding of this phenomenon. As such, in the project, we view digital vigilantism as a process where citizens take on police duties and retaliate on fellow citizens for (perceived) breaching of the boundaries of law and morality, using digital media as a means of punishing their targets. Sometimes vigilantes act purely online, other times they physically harm their targets and film the process, edit the footage, and make it public on social media. Audience views, comments, and (dis)likes, as well as the longevity of unsolicited exposure, have damaging implications for the targets’ reputation and wellbeing.
Russia has a unique history of citizens’ involvement in matters of everyday justice and this involvement is experiencing a renaissance. The Soviet period gave birth to the so-called “comrades’ courts” – public hearings held by “good” citizens over their “fallen” counterparts. A target’s colleagues or neighbours would express their concerns and propose punitive measures; boards of shame and boards of honour were instrumentalised as sorts of public profiles of the time. Decades later, we witness cases where citizens utilise a variety of social media platforms to expose their “delinquent” targets.
What are some of the major problems? Unfortunately, targets who are vulnerable offline are even more vulnerable online. As media consumers, we are quick to judge without a thorough investigation and vigilantes take advantage of this. After a target is exposed, finding justice is challenging as people, understandably, want to hide from the world. Furthermore, due to various structural, legal, phycological, and social-cultural barriers, migrants, activists, women, sexual minorities and other vulnerable groups cannot rely on the help of the police after they fall target to digital vigilantism. Migrants are afraid of deportation; sexual minorities are stigmatised and can face further violence and blackmailing. Women fall target to morality police and are judged for what they wear and how they spend their private time. Accordingly, a female migrant faces a double threat; and a female migrant who is a sexual minority faces several layers of violence and numerous barriers on the path to justice-seeking.
When it comes to legislation, in the case of Russia, the law is applied selectively and often targets those who need to be silenced, as opposed to those who actually break the law. While the exposed elites can pressure social media platforms to block or remove revealing content, activists face lengthy sentences and large fines over their online self-expression; all while vigilantes loyal to the ruling elite receive state grants in support of their activities. Thus, participation is not taking place on equal grounds. In addition to the layers of vulnerability, there are layers of immunity.
Platforms play an important role, as they enable environments where digital vigilantism is taking place. However, regulation is very tricky, as, once again, with the law in hand, the ruling elites can censor some actors and support others.
How I study digital vigilantism? A significant number of artifacts can be accessed online. Through ethnographic studies and qualitative content analysis, I investigate groups and their activities. This is open data. I also analyse discourses surrounding the phenomenon by looking at media coverage and the official framing of digital vigilantism. Another significant part of my investigation involves field interviews. On several occasions, I traveled to Russia and met with participants, targets, law enforcement representatives, lawyers, rights defenders, activists, journalists, researchers, etc. I met a lot of amazing people in the field who are working day and night to help victims of online exposure; such encounters inspired me in my own academic work. I also made a conscious choice of not meeting certain individuals in person or at all. As a research team, we paid particular attention to the ethics and safety of all actors involved. Researchers should adhere to the “do no harm” motto, both in terms of protecting their informants and in terms of personal safety.
What’s next? As I have mentioned, our project is international. This is truly a global phenomenon; we address cases in western democracies, in the post-Soviet region, and in China. I hope to produce more comparative studies with my supervisor Dr. Trottier and a dear Ph.D. colleague Qian Huang.
I love research and teaching and want to continue doing what I enjoy. Being part of the IBCoM is an experience I am very grateful for, as I work with the best students and most inspiring colleagues. In the meantime, I am in the fourth and final year of my Ph.D. trajectory. At this point, data collection is complete and analysis resulted in several publications. I look forward to tying my findings together in the dissertation.