I’ve never taken comfort in the phrase “History repeats itself”. The truth is, the expression itself often comes with negative connotation. But, why? Shouldn’t positive outcomes of history repeat itself just as much? The fact is much of what we consider to be strong historical impact is not always the most optimistic or constructive. It’s often a recounting of painful lessons learned. Usually (and I say this very loosely), we see many negative historical events as lessons; glimpses into the past that offer warning towards our future directions. Unfortunately, factions like white supremacist groups and Neo-Nazis remind us that not all horrendous history lessons remain in the past. During last Saturday’s Charlottesville demonstrations, the world stood watch as angry chants including ludicrous “Jews will not replace us” echoed in the streets.
Of course, that is not to say that we cannot open the door to a new wave of actions that will surely make a historical impact. After the Charlottesville rally turned deadly, something very different began brewing. A system that saw new innovation and without a doubt, captured my attention to a different outcome of Charlottesville. Yes, I am talking about internet vigilantism.
Internet vigilantism (in blatant terms) is the method of seeking truth and justice by a community of people via online platforms. In the past, it has been known to encompass public shaming, scam-baiting, political activism and in this case, counter terrorism (because, let’s be honest…that’s exactly what this event became.) Unsurprisingly, the biggest outlet of internet vigilantism has been and still proves to be social media.
By today’s standards, social media mediums often bring together organized groups of users towards a common ideology, goal or cause. The goal after Charlottesville quickly became to pursue anyone spotted at the rally and to ensure they would be publicly exposed.
Shortly after the riots occurred, a twitter account aptly named “Yes, You’re Racist” was created, calling upon 404,000 followers (to date) to uncover the identities of those who associate not only with white supremacy groups or attribute to Alt-Right ideologies. The account has already disseminated tons of photos and videos around the world. Reports quickly poured in, and have now shown at least one protestor was fired from his job after being exposed by the Twitter account. Another, was publically denounced and disowned by his own family after the family began receiving harassing threats of violence from online users.
With this understanding, some may argue that ousting protestors on social media is unacceptable no matter the circumstances. I would respectfully disagree, and here’s why:
When you’re at a protest that is public, is not peaceful, is inciting hate speech, and is encouraging other hate groups to rise up…this creates a whole other domain in which internet vigilantism operates. The key here is that these protestors were merely photographed and identified by citizens online. Their sensitive information was not (at this point) released, and their identities were not stolen for monetary gain. This was an act purely based on what some people felt was retribution. To reiterate, they were also in a public space, which means that the photographs taken (by which they were identified) were not private and therefore permissible.
What we have is a community that knows no boundaries of time zones or distance. If you do wrong and try to hide yourself from the public eye, internet vigilantes will find you.
There are some major wrongdoings on the part of internet vigilantes. Undeniably, internet vigilantism is not a perfect system. Often, it involves human error, the desire for a quick solution, the willingness to cut corners and the carelessness of those not understanding the power they wield on online mediums. Immediately, I thought back to Reddit’s 2013 hunt for the Boston Marathon bombers, in which a very intense group of users mistakenly identified a middle-eastern young adult to be an accomplice in the bombing. The accused’s family very quickly began receiving death threats online. Of course, law officials soon after confirmed that the accused was not involved in the bombing. Sadly, a similar circumstance did happen during the Charlottesville outcry. As the New York Times reported, an engineer from Arkansas overnight was falsely identified, accused as participating in the protest, threatened and was subject to demands of being fired.
If any lesson is to be learned from these undertaking, is that in-depth police work of this caliber should be done by police. As this article reports, nearly 2,000 leads during the Boston Marathon bombing came in from online platforms alone. Without a doubt, this led to officers being completely overloaded. Luckily, it did not impede the investigation in the end, and the culprits were caught.
Finally, internet vigilantes were not the only ones who took a stand against the events that unfolded in Charlottesville. Just look at the number of businesses that their own statement to denounce white supremacy groups via technology and social media:
- Apple blocked Apple Pay support on sites promoting white nationalism and hate groups
- Airbnb permanently ban White supremacists from making reservations and hiring out flats
- OkCupid and Facebook ban white supremacist featured in VICE Documentary of the Charlottesville protest
Tiki, the Detroit Red Wings, GoDaddy… the list goes on.
The takeaway from all of this online activity is this; no fighting cause has as big of a chance to see real, monumental change in today’s era without the help of online tools and community. Whether it is to denounce racism and hatred, or to boycott a retailer who refused to pay workers a severance package after being laid off, the message is clear.
What we have is a community that knows no boundaries of time zones or distance. If you do wrong and try to hide yourself from the public eye (as many in the Alt-Right do), internet vigilantes will find you. They will come for you. You will be sorry.