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Digilantism explained: Everything you need to know

With the rise of digital communications, some people turn to digilantism for justice and support. Here is how digilantism is used to gain advocacy for various causes.

Vigilantism has been around for centuries. And with the advent of the internet, a digital version -- digilantism -- has emerged.

The internet has fueled ways to communicate with other people quickly and gather others to address social injustice, crime and fraud. This revolution has created online vigilantes who punish others when they feel a person has committed a crime yet wasn't punished enough by law enforcement.

Digilantism is a form of digitally harassing a person or company. It is a way to punish and bring awareness to the public.

What is digilantism?

Digilantism -- also known as internet vigilantism -- carries out activities in response to alleged crimes, scams and offline behavior through individuals or groups using grassroots action instead of working through the national justice system. Digilantism involves people taking justice into their own hands, using the internet to punish those they feel are guilty or corrupt through surveillance, negative publicity, unwanted attention and repression.

Digilantism can coincide with digital activism, which is aimed to increase awareness of a social issue. The goal is to increase social outrage to raise attention with the public. A couple of examples are the #MeToo social justice campaign and #BlackLivesMatter movement. Both campaigns aimed to increase awareness of social injustice issues and gained popularity on social media along with in-person demonstrations.

There can be some overlap between digilantism and cyberbullying because they both use public shaming. Some people might take digilantism too far and justify it by saying it's for social justice. However, even though cyberbullying can also involve publishing private information for humiliation, it is driven more by the harassment of the individual versus a push for social change.

Because there is not as much centralized control in the digital age, there are more people taking action who did not have the platform years ago. Before the internet, most people got their news and information from professionals working at TV news stations, magazines and newspapers. Now, more people have a platform to get their views and opinions out to others when they feel authorities aren't properly handling the issues that matter to them.

Methods of digilantism

There are different methods of digilantism people can use to get their point across and take justice into their own hands. These methods include the following:

  • Doxxing. This is an act of online shaming done by publishing personal details online for punishment. Data exposed includes personal information such as legal name, address, job, personal photos, videos and any other information that identifies a person so that others can find them.
  • Human flesh search engine. This method, similar to doxxing, originated in China in the early 2000s and can be compared to a digital version of a manhunt. It involves crowdsourcing and gathering people together to conduct digilantism.
  • Denial-of-service (DoS) attack. A DoS attack makes a website inaccessible to others by overwhelming it with traffic. It is a way to crash a website as a form of punishment.
  • Scambaiting. This act engages scammers by wasting their time and resources. Scambaiters pose as potential victims to gather useful information on the scammers. Scambaiters then publicly expose the scammers by publishing information about their crime such as tools, methods and names of fraudulent websites to warn other potential victims.
  • Hacktivism. This is a form of breaking into a computer system for socially motivated purposes. The hacktivist might deface a website by adding content or share a company's information, such as internal communications. The purpose is to gain visibility for their cause.
  • Reintegrative shaming. This public shaming is different because it shames the behavior instead of the person. It uses shame for social control and to change any social norms or perceptions.

Legal implications

Like vigilantism, digilantism is done outside the law, but is not always against the law. Some people view digilantism as policing the internet when governments fail to do so. Others view this practice as a menace to authorities, obstructing digital evidence.

Digilantism sometimes can help governments find perpetrators, such as pedophiles or spammers. Vigilante groups pose as victims to get responses and lead violators to authorities.

Other groups take exposure and confrontations public, such as livestreaming events, which has led to some innocent people being publicly condemned. Some of the people demanding justice might also be criminals themselves.

A popular example of digilantism is from the Boston Marathon bombing. The internet community took matters into its own hands to find the bomber. The community used online forums such as Reddit to post photos. However, there were false accusations that implied two young boys were involved, and it caused much distress to their family. The boys' names were posted online, leading people to their homes. One of the boys was missing before the bombing took place, and all the attention caused even more emotional stress for the family. The boys were not involved in the bombing.

Social media offers a platform for people to get information out quickly and rally support for their cause. Platforms can exercise content moderation, but that can take time.

Learn how to spot disinformation on social media.

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