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Wednesday, December 19, 2007

online defenders: the rise of internet vigilantism

A friend of mine offered to help me find a contact from whom I will buy genuine Havianas. I was relieved that I finally found a means to get a Christmas gift with less the hassle. As the friend browsed through the Internet to locate the schoolmate who was selling things from signature bags to fake accessories, she laughed at my sigh of relief. I asked why, and she said that locating the contact proved to be hassle-free, except that failure to pursue a sealed deal with her would probably provide the very hassle I was trying to steer away from, in the first place. When my face lit by the brilliance of the computer monitor refused to shed its confusion, my friend clicked away at her contact's Multiply profile, and there I got shocked more than amused that the contact posted photos and information of people who agreed to buy certain stuff but upon the finality of the negotiation, disappeared without a trace, their mobile contact numbers ringing forever. Apparently, this was the contact's way of retaliation: to shame the fugitives publicly via the Internet.
Internet vigilantism, also called e-vigilantism or digilantism, is listed in the Wikipedia (2007) as “the phenomenon of vigilantism occurring on the Internet or carried out by way of Internet.” Like my friend's contact, Internet vigilantes employ the Internet as a resource in promoting vigilante reactions against crimes, scams or even just behaviors, notwithstanding whether or not the latter are Internet-associated. The continuing deficiency of central regulation of the Internet as well as the exploited culture of Internet liberalism can be said to have caused Internet users to misbehave in a certain way, and in an ironic twist, these very reasons are the ones drawn upon by Internet vigilantes in responding to the demeanor of their misbehaving victims.
The rise of Internet vigilantism may be related to and discussed via the class readings by Roger Silverstone, Mark Federman and Douglas Kellner.
In “Mediation and Communication,” Silverstone asserts that everyday is unimaginable without communication and that all communication involves mediation, a catalytic process wherein the meaningfulness and value of things are structured. Because we live in the modern world, we witness and get defined by a progressive technological invasion in our conduct of everyday life, the most recent manifestation of which is the media technologies. These technologies become dramatically central to the ways people lead daily lives. They create a paradigm for the organization of the everyday activities and are capable of providing the symbolic resources and instruments for making sense of the complexities of everyday. As such, the introduction of the Internet into our lives makes it integral into our daily living, making it seem that Internet is indispensable as a tool in making sense of the day-to-day complications. Because of this, something technological such as the Internet is lent with cultural attributes in order to legitimize its presence in our everyday living. We use it as mediation, as a means to create meaning, an institution for communication. The vigilantism happening online is a manifestation of the general circulation of symbols in social life. It does not require face-to-face communication, and yet is effective in transacting the human necessity of mediation of culture. In order to get across the message that some anti-social behaviors need to form of punishment, the Internet is being used by the society to communicate this if not to the person concerned, then to the persons attached to one’s social network online. Internet has made it possible to mediate the human culture of retribution, that despite its ethically questionable view of justice, the Internet communicates and mediates the idea that the errant shall not be allowed unpunished.
In “McLuhan Thinking: Integral Awareness in the Connected Society,” Federman argues that we tend to overlook the message that the Internet medium sends: that it is the message itself. It will have to take sometime before we realize how influential the Internet is in transforming the lives of those in the society. The omnipresence of the Internet makes it possible for a “world of simultaneous relationships” to exist, in experiencing connection to a world so real that we lose our very sense of reality in the Internet. In essence, everyone with an access to the Internet can be connected anywhere one may be, whether in a far-flung rural town or in a burgeoning metropolis, especially. This makes it possible for anyone cyber-empowered to relate with everyone else online, creating that world of interrelationships all at the same time. Because of this connection, even the ones we do not know can be someone who is just there in the Internet, ready to be privy to our lives. This is not so far-fetched with the idea of people with socially-unacceptable wrongdoings wreaking havoc in our lives, or their very villains who are the vigilantes. Even without knowing one another, they are related to one another by virtue of the antagonistic behavior one has for the other. As such, it is clear here that the Internet not only becomes a medium of communication, but a message itself. It can make or break an aberrant’s life, while it can attempt to wield justice for the vigilant.
In “Media Culture and the Triumph of the Spectacle,” Kellner presents another dimension in which to see the Internet. The various forms of entertainment integrate into the culture of the spectacle, of which Internet is included. The cyberspace joins films, TV, sports, music, fashion and the like in being invaded as a field of experience. The Internet is being watched. Corollary to this, images coming from what is being viewed can multiply in a matter of seconds across the globe. Such is the power of the Internet that it becomes somewhat impossible to control, especially with the culture of spectacle deeply embedded in the consciousness of the humanity. The emergent voyeuristic culture can be framed in the light of Internet vigilantism. The manifestation of anti-social behavior is a scene-stealer in itself, but the show of punishment for that misbehavior is also spectacular. We become participants to the judgment of the aberrant just by looking at the images of retribution being meted out on them. We cannot help but consume the videos or photos being fed by the vigilantes, and pass judgments whenever possible. It is not a mistake that vigilantism itself draws its original meaning from the word “watchful.” Vigilantes watch movements of online offenders so that an unacceptable action by them can be castigated by being exposed for all the world to see.
Internet vigilantism can include such reactions as the psychologically tormenting public embarrassment, to the more serious scam baiting, counter-terrorism, anti-pedophilia and anti-identity theft.
The personal anecdote mentioned in the introduction is identifiable as public shaming, a kind of internet vigilantism wherein the Internet’s communications and social networking devices become instrumental in publicizing incidences of anti-social attitudes far and wide, in one easy swoop. One such case happened in South Korea three years ago when bloggers or people who maintain weblogs branded a woman “dog poop girl” when she snubbed the requests for her to tidy up the subway train floor on which her dog defecated on. An angered commuter had taken a picture of her and her dog and posted the photograph on a famous Korean website. Days passed and Internet vigilantes had identified her and spread her personal information over the Internet in trying to castigate her for her misdeed. Her incident went a step further when it got reported in South Korean media, causing controversies that ignited discussions in as far as Koreatowns in the United States. The public embarrassment finally took a toll in the woman and she withdrew from the university she was attending.
Naturally, the criminally liable cannot be spared by Internet vigilantes, who also spawned the idea called scam baiting. This notion of pretending interest in a scam in order to get back at the mastermind is conducted by spending much of the scammer’s time, shame her or him, squeeze information from them to be submitted to authorities for legal action, make the scammer shell out money, or just to manipulate the scammer for amusement. This vigilantism is a response to e-mail-originated hoaxes like the Nigerian-419 fraud. Several websites post transcripts of dealings between scam baiters and hoaxers and publish online videos and images of scammers in an attempt to expose their deception and warn the public against them.
Another serious attacker is the counter-terrorist group who prowls the Internet in search of terrorists. One such example is a Montana judge who assumes the identity of an Internet vigilante terrorist hunter, disguising as an anti-American Muslim extremist in the hope of attracting like-minded radicals. Counter-terrorists like this judge adopt legal authorities’ practices of preventing or mitigating terrorist acts used by insurgents, conscious of the involvement of all entities from all levels of the society in safeguarding the community.
The anti-pedophile activists are also included among the Internet vigilantes. Their organizations track down adult offenders who solicit sex from minors online. In cooperation with legal enforcements and the media, they expose child pornography-related activities done by pedophiles by pretending to offer children for these sexual predators, and entrapping them.
Another organization in the vein of anti-pedophilia is the ID theft activist group. Faking themselves as similar thieves, they get stolen personal information from encoded payment or ID microchip, bank account numbers and login details, social security information, among other things. The gathered information are submitted to the concerned banks, credit companies or to the law authorities in the hope of prosecuting the perpetrators.
Other Internet vigilantes perform site-killing, the specialization of removing fraudulent websites, fake banks and deceptive online shops. One action done by such vigilantes is the intentional attack of denial of service to the felonious websites in order to catch the attention of the website host, or to expend quickly the allowance allotted to them monthly.
So far, the only legitimized vigilante of sort is the anti-spam alerts in the e-mail. Spams are bulk e-mails that are unsolicited and sent in large quantities. Anti-spam alerts report occurrences to the authorities, which undertake legal actions like exposing and convicting the offender. However, Blue Frog is a recent example of Internet vigilantism as it is perceived. This is a community-base system that transmits complaints to get back at spammers. Its vexing impact to the spammers is such that the latter retaliated at it, paralyzed the service and compelled Blue Frog to close down.
Concerns over Internet vigilantism eventually emerge: that it breeds a society of witch hunters and kangaroo court, that normal violators are passed on as grave offenders in the cyberspace, that it creates a forum of false truths, that privacy is being violated, that social stigma is not associated with prudent, uniform judgments and proper punishments. As it is, Internet vigilantism only suits the taste of web surfers who anticipate villains meeting disasters, since it shows the predicaments of the lynch mob who lack the appeal, who lack the unbiased hearing, and who may be given to grave castigation. Owing to the libertarian attitude encouraged by such a modern tool as the Internet, there are as yet no necessary legal frameworks that understand the gravity of some criminal offenses related to the Internet and the sufficient resources for law enforcement to execute such legislation that will deter actions detrimental to the interest of the public. Hence, citizens of the Internet continue to be drawn to vigilantism in the cyberdomain as a form of self- and site-defense against the adversaries rather than fall victims to a culture of oppression.

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