A vigilante, once upon a time, may have been among a gang of marauding villagers with pitchforks seeking vengeance on someone they heard – through the grapevine – was doing wrong. Stealing sheep, perhaps. Or stealing another villager’s wife. Acting against the interests of the harmony of the community.
Then, during the suburban boom, Neighbourhood Watch flourished as a kind of de facto police force. We’ve seen real-life vigilantes such as the Guardian Angels patrolling the streets at night, against the wishes of the police.
Now, everything has changed. We have a thing called the internet. For better or worse, it’s more powerful than we like to think, and is the perfect tool for those who seek punishment for those they perceive have broken the law or norm. “You’ll never be able to believe exactly how powerful the internet is,” says Monash University criminologist Dr Lennon Chang. “It’s possible to find almost anyone.”
Dr Chang is interested in modern-day internet vigilantism, which is common in most countries but rife in Hong Kong, Taiwan and, particularly, China. The phenomenon plays out when internet users – or “netizens” – empowered by the reach of search engines, forums and social media, try to solve crimes or misdemeanours themselves, online, without seeking help from the relevant authorities such as the police.
In China it’s called renrou sousou, which translates as ‘human flesh search’. China has the world’s largest internet population – 250 million people.
Dr Chang cites and examines intriguing stories from Asia, beginning with what he thinks was the first suspected case of internet vigilantism, in China in 2006. Internet vigilantes (netilantes) – the self-styled vigilantes – outed a prominent gamer who was having extramarital affairs. A case the following year saw netizens find the husband of a woman who had committed suicide after he had cheated on her, leading to, he claimed, harassment and lost income in the real world and also online. He successfully sued three website administrators.
Then the famous cat abuse case occurred in Hong Kong. Five teenagers allegedly kicked a stray ‘village’ cat, injuring it so badly that it had to be put down. Netizens found the cat’s attackers and posted their information and identities online – but they got the wrong teenagers, and those accused were found to be innocent.
A Taiwanese case in 2010 involved netizens pursuing the identity of a young man who had stood in the way of an ambulance and given the driver the middle finger, delaying the vehicle. A sick woman inside the ambulance died. Netizens found and named the young man, and he was thrown out of his university where he was a PhD student.
The questions are: Is this justice? Is this like the Wikipedia of law enforcement, where everybody with an internet connection gets to have a go, regardless of their qualifications? Dr Chang says the “downside” is clear, and while ‘human flesh search’ provides benefits, the negatives are many, including netizens making moral judgements without having the facts of the case, spreading false information, and causing “collateral damage” on those they falsely accuse.
Dr Chang has found that internet vigilantes in the countries he studied have different personalities or characteristics from people who don’t do it. A 2016 paper he co-published – from Hong Kong – says they hold a higher degree of self-efficacy; that is, they believe they can and should pursue these online manhunts.
“They believe social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter can help reach social justice.”
He says they also have lower trust in the government and the authorities. “They think these are issues the government needs to deal with but are not, so they take justice into their own hands and use social media as a tool.”
"They think these are issues the government needs to deal with but are not, so they take justice into their own hands and use social media as a tool.”
He found differences between internet vigilantes in China, Taiwan and Hong Kong based on what he calls the distinction between "individualism and collectivism". Those living under collectivism in China were more likely to pursue "corruption and mismanagement" cases, whereas Hong Kong or Taiwanese netizens gravitated towards "minor crimes and immoral activities".
His argument is that “in Hong Kong and Taiwan there are better ways to report government inaction and corruption, whereas in China it’s a different context, so the people feel they need to be vigilant to deal with it themselves”.
He says there’s been a global rise of online and social media groups who find and entrap suspected paedophiles, as well as increasing instances of anonymous hackers finding illegal material online and handing it to authorities.
Dr Chang is looking wider still – into cybercrime prevention using the skills of netizens and hackers. He has an ongoing project called ‘The co-production of cybersecurity’ involving further researching internet vigilantism in different countries (including Australia), but also this idea of netizens helping government to make the online world more secure.
“Everyone is online,” he says. “We have hackers, we have internet vulnerability. Can we build a good information sharing system, like a kind of quarantine using the same model in public health that alerts us to infectious diseases?”
What he’s talking about here is people power, or crowdsourcing, where the general population is ahead of the authorities and help those authorities spot problems and issue warnings.
“These people online are not doing it for fun,” he says. “They might be doing it with a sense of justice. If that’s the case we need to know how we can use their data and their information in helping investigate crimes. How can we evaluate whether their information is correct? How can we make this kind of information valid in court?”
Criminology at Monash is internationally renowned for its global focus on crimes that cause widespread, measurable harm and the prevention of these harms. In 2019 it is launching a cutting edge Bachelor of Criminology degree program that will bring together innovative teaching methods with specialist knowledge and key capabilities relevant to careers in a wide range of Criminology related fields.