By Christian Chen, Staff Writer
Following the chaos in Vancouver during the Canucks losing the Stanley Cup to the Boston Bruins, the city recoiled with collective shame. After the vandalizing of a building in Vancouver during the riots, concerned Canadians used social media to help cops track the criminals. Thousands of photos and video footage were sent to Vancouver police. Their efforts paid off, as a famous Canadian water polo player was seen and photographed torching a police car and another man was seen smashing a car’s windows with a baseball bat. Eventually, twenty-four people turned themselves in, and since then, they have been completely vilified in the online community.
So what is it about web vigilantism? The same mob mentality that can fuel a riot also can fuel web vigilantism. The often infamous online message board 4Chan has been known to help track down animal abusers on the Internet.
When it comes to the world of justice, the Internet is great, but it can also be a double-edged sword. Activism can be utilized to help others. People missing friends or family members can use social media to get the word out and alert the cops and the media on possible leads. There is also the fact that tracking down identities to help or punishing criminals will get more straightforward in the near future. Reddit has worked to keep personal information offline and Google launched “Me on the Web” to help people track what others post about them online.
Though the Internet can help with detective work, this CSI mentality on the Internet can go wrong. Last year, there was a viral video of an altercation at a market in Toa Payoh, Singapore. People took to the Internet to bring the offenders to justice, but misidentified two people, which led to unintended consequences.
Is there a better way to deal with justice online? Several lawyers have pointed out that the Prevention from Harassment Act could be used against vigilantes if their sense of social justice manifests in threatening, abusive or insulting manners. Attempts at stalking the wrongdoer would also constitute harassment. Those wrongly identified as vigilantes could turn to defamation laws.
Vigilantes should also consider they are working with incomplete information and may end up attacking innocent people. Furthermore, there is no need for an abusive mob, not even on the Internet. Mob justice is not justifiable. Vigilantes often disregard rigorous investigation, due process and accountability. The accused in such cases become victims of bullying with no opportunity to tell their side of the story. Even if they do, the online mob repudiates them.
Those who support web vigilantism argue that such actions may be catalysts for legal action against evildoers. After all, they argue, would cops act so swiftly if video
footage of the incident were given directly to them instead of being posted on social media? The cops perhaps need to assure the public that they would treat the video evidence directly to them with much gravity as a viral video.
Regardless of what position you take here, this much is clear: in the face of injustice, we need to consider if there is any justification to lower ourselves to the level of an abusive and unjust mob.
Personally, I see the Internet as a great tool for justice and helping police with investigations but nothing more. When people take the law into their own hands and shame the criminal themselves online, they cross a boundary between due process of law and vigilantism. People have no right to prosecute criminals themselves, although feeding information about crimes online to the police may help with investigations.
In short, social media, if used for justice purposes, should only be used to help police officers, nothing more and nothing less. Anything beyond that would be stepping outside the law and taking the law into your own hands.