Online Vigilantism: The Best Way to Serve Justice?

Jul 02, 2018   |   Hai Oufan

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You do not need the power of an Avenger to be a vigilante, a computer is sufficient.

This article is written in response to the article “The lure of the shame game: Are online vigilantes going too far?

In mid-April, a row between a driver and a petrol station attendant went viral.

The driver, who drove a BMW car, claimed that he had only asked for 10 dollars’ worth of petrol, and refused to pay for the full tank of petrol that had been added to the car. He insisted that the elderly pump attendant had not heard him clearly. To avoid escalating the issue, the kind-hearted attendant chose to absorb the cost and let the driver walk away. This outraged everyone who came to know the story this way.

Google Street View of the Caltex petrol station along Tampines Avenue 8

This incident had caused havoc on social media. How could someone who can afford a BMW force an attendant at the gas station to pay for his gas? It immediately sparked a mass online crime scene investigation (CSI) movement. Within hours, the driver’s phone number, address and place of work were revealed for all to see. The distressed driver filed a police report, fearing for the safety of himself and his family.

While I most definitely do not approve the action of the driver, I felt that this had gone too far. Are the online vigilantes – netizens with technical ability to dig up personal information of their targets – in the position to issue punishments and torture the driver emotionally? I am afraid not.

By gathering information of the wrongdoers and issuing punishments (e.g. publishing their profiles online and sending death threats), the online vigilantes have been doing the jobs of journalists, police officers, and judges.

Some claimed they were doing it to get the attention of higher authorities such as the police, and pressure them to act promptly. Others felt compelled to act out of righteous indignation. I believe bringing the matter to the police, and ultimately to the judiciary, is the best way to ensure the offender got the punishment that he or she deserved. But online CSI doesn’t go unhurt.

Previously, innocent people had been mistaken by online vigilantes as wrongdoers. For example, in the incident of which a couple verbally abused and shoved an elderly at the hawker centre, innocent individuals were wrongly identified as perpetrators. Both the wrongly-accused and their family members had suffered tremendous emotional stress and anxiety as a result. Is it what we want to achieve with online CSI?

The online CSI of an incident usually starts with video recordings or photos of the incident. It baffles me to know that there were people present but little has been done to mediate the situation. As witnesses, those who took videos and photos should have stood up to the bullies or wrongdoers, and prevent conflict from worsening instead of passively recording videos to post online later.

With all that said, online vigilantism, when done right, may serve as a way to strengthen the moral code of the society and discipline the citizens. What this means is to ensure that we express opinions in neutral and objective ways as much as possible, and refrain from turning them into personal attacks or cyberbullying. When used correctly, online vigilantism could be a positive force that helps instead of wounds.

Until we can regulate our words and emotions for more positive influence, I urge that we refrain from fighting fire with fire the next time an unjust incident happens and becomes viral. Or the very least, we will not partake in senseless and hurtful online vigilantism.

Written by Hai Oufan, 17

Raffles Institution JC1

Heartware Network Media Volunteer