One of my favorite moments in Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight is the final scene where Lt. James Gordon tries to explain to his son why the police must hunt down Batman. “Because he’s the hero Gotham deserves, but not the one it needs right now,” Gordon says, looking saddened but resigned.

I’ve always loved the quote and find myself thinking of it often. Gotham was dark and flawed and the nature of its own corruption demanded an equally flawed protector. Batman has his own issues that are the foundation for the moral code he is driven to uphold. He sees a gap in existing systems, a failure from trusted institutions to do their jobs, and so he steps in. Within a super-hero movie, his actions are romanticized, seen as a noble sacrifice for the greater good. As viewers, Batman’s story is transparent and so we can empathize with this justification for taking the law into his own hands.

As I was researching an article for MAKESHIFT MAGAZINE  about Cyber-Vigilantes, I couldn’t help but think of Batman and his quest for justice. I wrote about one of the most well known examples of cyber-vigilantes known today – the hacktavist collective Anonymous – and their self-assigned role as our protectors. They too are deeply flawed and sometimes dark. They have made mistakes but have also played a role in highlighting some of the shortcomings of the law (even though they had to break the law to do so.)

Anonymous has taken a stance in many political situations, often picking sides and launching attacks in order to uphold their own code of honor. For example, after the Paris terror attacks in 2015, where 10 staff members of the satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo were killed, Anonymous launched #opcharliehebdo –DECLARING WAR ON ISLAMIC RADICALS. They disabled websites and social media profiles affiliated with known extremist groups. It’s an intriguing space, once that can be morally ambiguous. On one hand, taking down the websites of known radicals who actively preach for the killing of innocent civilians is  a good thing. On the other, the means to do it violates the law.

Anonymous has also recently targeted the Missouri chapter of the Klu Klux Klan after the white supremacist group threatened to use “lethal force” against Ferguson protestors. In retaliation, Anonymous “dehooded” Klan members, making their personal information available online and disabled Klan affiliated sites.

Deconstructing Cyber-Vigilantism

I’m particularly interested in the psychology that necessitates this type of response from civilians who deliberately decide to engage in these behaviours without any legal jurisdiction. I started by looking at the commonalities that unite all of these communities, regardless of who their target was. I’ve found that there are three main elements of Cyber Vigilantism.

1) “I was wronged.”  - The Violation of a social/moral/cultural Code  

Someone feels like the code has been broken and the initial outcry is declared, be it through uploaded video, photographs, or first person accounts of what happened. The declaration is important as it calls attention of this transgression to the rest of the web, helping to publicize the offense and increase the scale of the response, especially once the content goes viral. Usually, the outcry begins on a social network or a YouTube video that begins to gain stream through extensive sharing. Content sites like Reddit and Buzzfeed act as amplifiers, helping to curate and direct the information to specific web audiences. Eventually, popular blogs will pick up the story and will bring it to the attention of the mainstream media who will help spread awareness to offline audiences as well.

Good Example:  TRASH BIN LADY, Mary Bale who was captured on CCTV putting a neighbor’s cat into a trashbin was identified within hours after the cat’s owners posted the footage on Facebook asking for help identifying the suspect. Within days, the story had received international attention and the CCTV footage was being played on television networks all over the world. (2011)

2) “They’re getting away with it.” – Lack of Traditional Accountability 

Often, the victim of a crime feels helpless and there is always a fear that the perpetrator won’t get what they deserve. This is important, because it refers to the gap that I mentioned above – often, people feel like traditional law enforcement insufficient or incapable of responding. Both Duri.net, Anonymous and other groups are driven by the belief that they are a necessary part of society, filling a void that is either overlooked or underserved. Their activities are always driven by an unmet need.

Good Example:   There are several online COMMUNITIES who devote themselves to hunting down child molesters, often by posing as minors in chat rooms in an attempt to incriminate offenders. Many members of these communities feel that general law enforcement don’t have the resources or the time to hunt down so many possible perpetrators and so they take on that task themselves, passing along relevant information to the police. In Russia, DURI.NET is a community that has taken their involvement one step further.  The site uses the Internet to lure drug dealers. Once a meeting is arranged, the suspect is confronted, their stash destroyed and they are often beaten up as well. Members of the network blame the police for their inability to curb drug trafficking, so they opt to do it themselves. The site has now “expanded” its services to include hunting down child predators.

3) “You’re Guilty” – Public Shaming and Tangible Consequences for Actions 

The act of cyber-vigilantism concludes once consequences have been delivered. At minimum, the punishment involves some form of public shaming – the exposure of personal identity including information about your past, workplaces, etc. Unfortunately, public shaming is usually accompanied by more severe tangible impacts including receiving death threats and harassing phone calls, loss of employment, and emotional duress.

Good exampleJUSTINE SACCO, a communications professional was fired from her job after a public outcry in response to her tweeting “Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding. I’m white.” What’s interesting about this is that Justine didn’t do anything illegal, but violated a social code in a way that had very real consequences.

 Brave New World

One of the most empowering aspects of the Internet age is an individual’s ability to access power that was normally reserved for large organizations. The problem is that too often, individuals who act outside the scope of the law do so without any clear accountability. I am often conflicted in my opinion on Anonymous. I am wary of their methods but cannot deny my belief that their work is important, even essential.

In the Dark Knight, the villains were very identifiable, making it easy for us to support Batman’s actions even when they broke the law. However, we all know that in the real world the truth is a far more complex thing, a story with many sides that requires time and patience to unravel – two things that online communities often lack in their fervor to pass a sentence on a transgressor. In my next post on this subject, I’ll explore the implications of wrongful accusations, social codes that are themselves problematic, and the normalization of cyber-vigilantism in our daily digital culture.