the age of the cyber-vigilante is here. now what?

Online mobs have become judge, jury, and executioner. What happens to social media now?

guy in fawkes mask

In another surprising twist, Paul Carr of TechCrunch wrote an interesting post on cyber-vigilantism. With the now long completed move from an anonymous internet to one that’s semi-anonymous at best, we have a very powerful set of tools at our disposal. If we feel wronged or threatened, we can now expose the culprits in only a few minutes and if the offense is egregious enough, have a more than noteworthy number of people leaving the permanent black mark of shame about someone’s wrongdoing across the web. In some cases, such as the recent dust-up over a blogger’s abducted post about pies and the thief’s egregious reply, this seems perfectly legit and well deserved. But in others, where guilt is harder to prove and the hordes of 4chan choose to descend on the case, the consequences may not fit the crime, if the crime was even committed in the first place. It’s true that 4chan and sites like it are not your personal armies, but when they take aim at someone’s inappropriate behavior, the results are very real and very difficult to ignore, especially in an online culture.

As Carr astutely points out, an embarrassing misdeed tweeted and shared by enough people will show up in a quick search for your name when you apply for a job, more than likely eliminating you from the running even if you really are the absolute perfect candidate for the position. Likewise, being a bully on the web or sending threatening e-mails to writers and bloggers used to be a way to vent some steam. No longer. Give one clue to your identity and within about five minutes, someone will know your full name, work or home address, or both, political affiliation, the size of your donations to your political party of choice, and have a picture of you in a few neat links. Unless, of course, you make sure to put up as little personal information as possible or you’re just lucky enough to have a fairly common name, making it very difficult to verify your identity. While philosophically we can say that all this is a really, really bad thing, at a gut level, we can appreciate the appeals of vigilantism and the feeling that justice is being served without the bureaucracy of any court system. In the United States, vigilantism is a pop culture staple. How many American kids grew up admiring comic book superheroes who anonymously met out street justice to criminals and thugs while evading the police?

So how do we combat people using technology to become judge, jury and executioner? Well, we can’t. It’s far too late to get this cat back in the bag unless we suddenly do away with pretty much all social media. Sure, a judge can keep on ruling to discard any evidence found through hacking someone’s Facebook account, and order that any allegation leveled at a defendant be inadmissible in court, but that’s not going to discourage a group of cyber-vigilantes. Their goal is to emblazon a scarlet letter across the chests of the accused, to make sure that everyone who searches of their name knows about their misdeeds, real or alleged. If there’s a court case and the accused is found to be guilty of all charges, and given a legal punishment, that’s a bonus, a big, red cherry on top. But that’s not their sole purpose. It will take years before people truly start catching on to the fact that anonymity on the web is now a skill to be acquired and not the default way the internet operates, but when that realization finally dawns on enough users, we can ponder what it might do to a connected society. Would the threat make us better behaved and more cognizant of what could happen if we act out? Will those with something to hide start learning how to use anonymous e-mails and proxies? Or will we have dual lives on the web, setting up a pristine social network persona, and a dark, anonymous dark web account?

One important thing to note, and this may come as a surprise to some of you, the web we can see, search, or navigate is just a small portion of what’s truly out there. There’s a vast, dark ecosystem where search engines aren’t welcome and nothing is off-limits, an ecosystem roughly 500 times greater than the web we know. If the “surface web” becomes too personal for some, they could quickly find a way to access this dark web. With near-guaranteed anonymity, they could do whatever they wanted away from public view, possibly even getting the means to launch reprisals against cyber-vigilantes of the surface, framing them for crimes and slamming their social media accounts and websites with viruses. What would happen then, I could only try to speculate, but it might not be pretty. And hopefully the dark web would be too unruly for a stealth to surface tit for tat bouts of no rules, no limits cyber-bullying to happen on a regular basis…

# tech // law / vigilantes / vigilantism


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