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Op-ed: Digital literacy needs to combat the rise of Internet vigilantism

Digital vigilantism refers to the individuals or groups use the Internet, especially social media, to enforce justice as they see it.

America's top health official said there is growing evidence that social media use is associated with harm to young people's mental health
Image: - © AFP/File DENIS CHARLET
Image: - © AFP/File DENIS CHARLET

We are in a new era of social discourse, one where public opinion can catch and spread like wildfire, often with significant implications. In the UK, the rise of so-called ‘online vigilantism’, facilitated by the widespread use of social media. This user-led activity challenges the traditional pathways of enforcing law and order.

Digital vigilantism refers to the phenomenon where individuals or groups use the Internet, especially social media, to enforce justice as they see it. This can involve identifying and shaming alleged wrongdoers or organizing collective actions against them.

The characteristics are:

  • Speed and Reach: Social media platforms can disseminate information faster than traditional media, reaching thousands, if not millions, within minutes.
  • Anonymity and Pseudonymity: Users often feel empowered to act out roles as judge, jury, and occasionally executioner while hiding behind screen names and avatars.
  • Lack of Regulation: The spontaneous nature of online mobs can lead to actions outside the bounds of regulated and procedural justice systems.

“Just because you can, should you?” – a question that’s emerged in the face of recent statistics reflecting 19 percent of the UK meddling in direct action online.

In the UK, several high-profile cases have demonstrated how quickly the court of public opinion can assemble online, often bypassing official law enforcement processes.

One example is the media guidance provided by the HM Courts & Tribunals Service for managing high-profile cases. This guidance acknowledges that some cases attract significant media interest, which can lead to a surge in public opinion forming online before the official law enforcement process is complete.

Another instance is the introduction of new rules that allow more UK court cases to be shown online, aiming to promote “open and transparent” justice. This move has sparked discussions about the pros and cons of streaming trials online, with proponents arguing it increases transparency and public trust in the judicial process.

The rapid judgment and sentences delivered by social media users undermines the procedural justice system, which is designed to be deliberate and thorough to ensure fairness.

It is also often wrong. Many individuals accused on social media platforms have faced real-world consequences, including job loss, threats, and harassment, before any formal legal action could be taken.

Commenting on this tendency, Philipp Pratt, an Innovation Expert at Geonode, has told Digital Journal: “The digital age demands evolving strategies for law enforcement, not only in terms of operations but also in legal frameworks and public interaction.” According to him, “Policing social media without infringing on freedom of speech presents one of the most complex challenges today.”

Going forwards, there needs to be balance between monitoring social media for harmful content and respecting individual privacy rights. There is also a point of distinction between determining what constitutes free speech versus actions that may incite violence or panic.

The tendency also makes clear the need to educate the public on the ethical use of social media. Responsible social media use requires:

  • Verifying information before sharing to avoid spreading falsehoods.
  • Understanding the distinction between allegation and proof.
  • Respecting privacy and avoid engaging in or supporting illegal activities.
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Written By

Dr. Tim Sandle is Digital Journal's Editor-at-Large for science news. Tim specializes in science, technology, environmental, business, and health journalism. He is additionally a practising microbiologist; and an author. He is also interested in history, politics and current affairs.

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