If you’ve spent any time online or on social media, you’ve come across a social media vigilante. It’s that friend who complained about her Uber driver in a Facebook post, that uncle who sent you a WhatsApp forward about seeing rats at a fast food outlet or that neighbour who tweeted about a suspicious man lurking outside the gate of your co-op. Now that everyone has a smartphone and an internet connection, they think they can pass judgement on anyone who they feel has wronged them. And considering all the personal information available online – especially our locations – doling out the punishment without involving the authorities would not be that difficult.
What follows are the misadventures of Trollum (a.k.a. social media vigilantes) and how they can be a danger.
One of the biggest problems with vigilantism on social media is how easy it is to actually do it. Just pick up your phone and accuse away. Proof? Who needs that? All you need is enough prejudiced suspicion. Trollum sees a criminal stereotype, assumes it is, in fact, a criminal and hits the big red panic button. That’s what happened to Eoin McKeogh. A video intended to expose two men evading cab fare was posted on social media, where one man called the other ‘Eoin’. The video went viral and someone commented that Eion McKeogh as the Eion in the video. Overnight, Eion McKeogh became infamous, accused of being a ‘scumbag’ and a ‘thief’. Once the matter actually went to court, Eoin presented his passport to prove he was in Japan when the video was taken. On a much bigger scale, Steven Rudderham was accused of being a paedophile by someone on Facebook. The backlash was so severe that Rudderham committed suicide due to all the threats and accusations. In 2017, an apparent shooting on Oxford Street in London went viral on social media. People rushed to escape the area, causing injuries in the ensuing stampede. When these ‘too quick to accuse’ trolls don’t consider evidence while making the accusations, their victim’s reputations are hurt, whether they are guilty or not. If you asked Eion McKeogh, Steven Rudderham’s family or all those people on Oxford Street that day, they would say this form of social media vigilantism can be very very dangerous.
Social media’s wide reach and accessibility have caused a paradigm shift in the service, food and hospitality industries. Remember those feedback form you get after a meal? Well, who needs those when you can rant about bad service in 280 characters on Twitter. While this makes reviewing easier for customers to avail better service from industries who want to maintain their reputation and business, it also brings corporations and retail employees at the mercy of customers. Kind of like when Snapchat’s stocks were affected by Kylie Jenner denounced its new update or when Wendy’s found itself on the wrong side of the #MeToo movement. In 2015, a study found that 50% of the surveyed organisations were unfairly targetted by online trolls and about 1 in 5 organisations spent at least 30,000 pounds/year to put right the malicious online criticism against them. Thanks to the extreme PC on the internet, a lot of these takedowns have to do with misunderstood ad campaigns. When cosmetic company Lush launched a campaign to support a documentary about obesity, it was accused of fat shaming. What ensued in their comments section speaks for itself.
Trollum And The Criminals That Weren’t
Social media has definitely aided in nabbing criminals. However, there have been instances when good intentioned fingers were pointed at the innocent. The most prominent example is that of Sunil Tripathi. Tripathi was a Brown University student who went missing a month before the Boston Marathon bombing in April 2013. Based on hazy conjecture and shoddy guesswork, some people raised suspicions that the timing of this might mean that he was the Boston bomber. The resulting social media trial resulted in regular attacks and death threats against the Tripathi family until the real bombers were caught and it was found that Sunil was missing because he had committed suicide. In Jharkhand, WhatsApp messages about ‘child-lifters’ created panic among tribal groups. This panic eventually culminated in the lynching of four men on the suspicion that were child-lifters. It was later found that the messages contained false information.
Trollum really enjoys calling out celebrities for straying too far away from their ‘pretty and polished’ jobs and actually having an opinion. They hope they’ll get worldwide attention and if people agree with them, they’ll get validation too. But that’s not what really happens. Most times, they end up baiting other users into joining in on the attack causing a social media hurricane for the celebrity.
One of the most famous examples is when Milo Yiannopoulos turned Twitter users against Ghostbusters star, Leslie Jones, resulting in vicious racist attacks against her. Things got so bad that Twitter has now banned Milo Yiannopoulos from their platform for life and Leslie Jones had to take some break from Twitter. Zelda Williams, daughter of actor Robin Williams, was mocked for her father’s suicide, people even put up pictures of Robin William’s head edited on a dead body with marks around its neck. Alia Bhatt was mercilessly trolled for not knowing who the Prime Minister of India was on the show “Koffee with Karan”. When Neha Dhupia tweeted about good governance and safety, she was criticised for daring to have an opinion, even given threats and abuses. Celebrities can become important leaders of change due to their widespread influence, shutting them and their opinions down on social media with a ‘you should just focus on looking pretty’ attitude has become common, but can be very dangerous.
Social media vigilantes love to shame people who they deem to be wrong. ‘Politically correcting’ public opinion is the social media vigilante’s way of bettering the world, one tweet at a time. And the way they like to do this is by shaming people into submission. However, many times, this turning deadly. When some anti-abortion activists released a ‘hit list’ with information about abortion providers, it led to eight murders. A girl from Korea was shamed on the internet when she didn’t pick up her dog’s poop from the sidewalk. Was she wrong? Yes, but she didn’t deserve the public shaming that came after. Similarly, Justine Sacco tweeted racist humour while boarding a flight to South Africa. By the time she reached, she had been fired and become the world’s most hated person of the day.
When social media vigilantes are also technologically competent, they launch high scale DDoS (Distributed Denial of Service attacks) against their targets. They not only pose a problem for normal civilians but governments too. Groups like the Lizard Squad and Anonymous are prime examples of this. A DDoS attack is when a website is flooded with so much internet traffic that it’s knocked offline. Lizard Squad has claimed to launch the attacks against Pokemon Go servers as well as the Xbox servers apparently so that children could spend time with their family instead of electronics. They also created a service through which a person could launch DDoS attacks on victims with a set amount monthly. Anonymous is a decentralised hacktivist group with the aim of delivering social justice through cyber-attacks. It has hacked into ISIS’ social media and taken down their websites. It has taken down child-abuse websites. While most of these sound positive, the methods of execution can be questionable, especially since it operates outside the law. The vigilante group LetzGo Hunting poses as vulnerable children online in an attempt to catch and punish paedophiles. One such person was Gary Cleary, who committed suicide after he was targeted by LetzGo Hunting, even though the police had not charged him with any crime.
Trollum is clearly getting bigger, nastier and stronger by the day. Many Indian cyber law experts have suggested amendments to India’s IT law so that these social media vigilantes can be brought within the jurisdiction of the law and dealt with appropriately. But just like cases of sexual harassment, cases of cyber harassment are grossly under-reported. So netizens, if you’re a victim of an online crime, reporting it to the authorities is the best way to only get justice for yourself but also to ensure that IT laws in India are updated to prevent these crimes from happening again.