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Internet vigilantism: A mushrooming crisis

Published : Saturday, 19 October, 2019 at 12:00 AM  Count : 792
Sayeed Al Zaman

Internet vigilantism: A mushrooming crisis

Internet vigilantism: A mushrooming crisis

Few weeks earlier, at least eight people were hacked to death by the angry mob in Bangladesh. Publics lynched them only based on rumour, although most of the victims were later identified as innocent. Such vigilantism usually springs up following two other social proclivities: (a) when legal authority in a particular society, that could be law enforcement, becomes malevolent and incompetent mainly due to corruption and lack of capacity and resources; and(b) when publics become desperate who believe social institution, social custom and culture, even their life and property are on verge of ruin because of some "imminent" threats, such as westernization, erosion of traditional values, and transformation of former social structure. Since vigilantes consider themselves as the "law", they frequently try to impose their personal views of what should be good or bad, and right or wrong. Based on their standard of morality, they, as a group or individual, continuously police others.

Vigilantism has been living in any society through ages, but has never been given significant importance in formal discourse. A common sense is: real life and real space were and are not always conducive to conduct deviant acts. But what if vigilantism meets internet? We should not take this improvised and uncontrolled version of vigilantism too lightly.
What does the internet actually reward us with? The answer is simultaneously too na�ve and too complex. It is a normative belief that the cyberspace would be more democratic and effective in nature than the prior public sphere, which, according to some, has been affected by serious crises. Many indicate the recent social-media-led movements while referring the democratic virtues of the internet. In practice, such democracy is not always even.

Rather, marginalization, polarization, surveillance, and many other undemocratic practices are pretty active in cyberspace as well. However, in contemporary world, what is surpassing the other cyber-crises in terms of extent and intensity is the rise of digital vigilantism or digilantism. It prevents the cyberspace from becoming a democratic zone as well. Are markable number of digital publics who are active in cyberspace, more specifically, in social networking sites (SNSs), are frequently partaking in digilantism.
Moral panic, a fear spread among publics that pose as a threat to society too, drives digital vigilantes or digilantes to conduct internet activism. In such condition, digilantes mostly in an organized group take punitive measures to "teach a lesson" to the so-called convict. It is to note that, like real-life vigilantes, digilantes unite into a virtual space either for their common interest or in response to an event or issue, or for both reasons. They come together, form a virtual assembly (of netizens) barely knowing each other, partake in discourses those are mostly related to scandal, shame the accused to deface their social images, and get disperse dafter wards. We may call such gathering or crowd as "online mob". Such mob comprises with digilantes and systematically attack the targets.

It is interesting to notice that those digilantes with lower social status and poor self-esteem tend to use vile language to maltreat and humiliate the convicts. On the contrary, digilantes with relatively higher social status and personality are more prone to express their disgust in a more temperate and formal way: through mocking and trolling. Why digilantism is more ubiquitous and intense unlike real-life vigilantism is the unique nature of the cyberspace: it is easily accessible so that the public presence is higher, and no face-to-face interaction that reduces the real-life risks. Verbal aggressiveness against the convicts in such crowd but relatively risk-free zone also assists the digilantes to catharizing their own miseries and complexities; in this sense, it also might be a coping mechanism of the digilantes. Violent digilantism also hints about the  digilante's lower level of sympathy and disrespect for the rights of others. Moreover, digilantism provides the digilantes a sense of belongingness and collective identity, a feeling of superiority and powerfulness over others.

Practices and incidents of online shaming and moral policing has been becoming normal nowadays. Yes, there have always been many other important issues to resolve and vicious crises to converse about. But trivial, at the same time scandalous events always draw more public interest and attention. This predisposition gives birth to viral culture, a new form of digilantism to denigrate the targets. Revenge porn, leaked videos or photos or private information, and popularizing these sorts of digital contents against the will of the person excite the digilantes and prepare an effected ground for viral culture to stir up. The alarming thing is that no one in this malign online culture would go further to judge whether the person who is being accused or portrayed is guilty or not, or whether the (mal-)representation is ethical or not.

As I suppose, digilantism and its diverse ramifications, including online shaming, moral policing, verbal aggressiveness, and so on, might be the expressions of sociopathy. It could also be the index of collective frustration dwelling amid the society for diverse reasons, may be for so long or not so long. What remedy would be effective to ameliorate this unbecoming situation should be considered immediately before the crisis goes out of hand.

The writer is lecturer and researcher of Digital Sociology, Department of Journalism and Media Studies, Jahangirnagar University

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