Digital Vigilantism, Between Denunciation and Punitive Action

Outlaw Vigilantes
Online Self-Justice and Arrangements of Visibility
By Benjamin Loveluck

The Web is often the theatre of public denunciations, prompted by intense outrage. These actions sometimes take a punitive turn, which draws them towards the field of digital vigilantism. Indeed, not only do they involve alerting the authorities or public opinion, but they are also an attempt to “take justice into one’s own hands” by engaging in forms of active and targeted surveillance, repression or dissuasion. These are often achieved by an excess of unsolicited attention or negative publicity. This article first seeks to identify different modalities of online self-justice. Building on a number of case studies, it looks at the types of practices at stake, the roles within each situation, and the justifications presented by the actors, in order to highlight four main dimensions: flagging, investigation, hounding, and organized denunciation. The article also shows how the digital public sphere, due to its specificities as a regime of visibility on the one hand and its bias towards self-organization on the other, can now more easily be seized as a space for collective trials and in some cases as an instrument for direct coercion.

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