The calls for revenge were swift: Within days of Amanda Todd’s death, personal contact information for a man purported to be the teenager’s chief tormentor was blasted around the world.
From there, threats: “You are a … pervert and I hope you die a horrible death,” read one tweet, apparently echoing the sentiment of many others. The man’s name accompanied a home address in many messages appearing to identify him conclusively as the person responsible for the 15-year-old’s suicide.
“I hope the Internet gets its justice before the law does,” read another message.
But Internet justice is rarely certain or straightforward: Residents of the New Westminster address insisted they had nothing to do with the man. Someone with a similar name approached by the Vancouver Sun said he knew Amanda, but was friendly with her. He then fingered a person he called the “real” villain: an American using the screen name Viper. Anonymous, the online activist group that outed the first alleged offender, then set its sights on him.
And so it goes in the online world, where anyone with a distrust of authorities can take law enforcement into his or her own hands. As emotions run high, citizens feel compelled to take action, to expedite justice.
Such actions, however, are not without consequences, criminal defence lawyer Eric Gottardi says.
“If someone has their address published and then two or three people grab their pitchforks and head over there, and there’s an assault of some kind, you might reasonably ask the question: Whomever outed the guy’s address, was it objectively foreseeable that violence might arise from that?” he said. “Is there criminal negligence? Do they owe a duty of care to that person? Especially if it turns out to be not the right person, you might be into a libel, defamation-type situation.”
An alternative to judicial process
Rhonda Lussier, leader of the civilian crime-fighting organization the Vancouver Guardian Angels, understands the desire to take immediate action in the face of injustice.
“When people see a crime happening, or feel they have been victimized in some way, we all want a solution to it right away,” she said. “That’s why they take matters into their own hands, because the [judicial] process isn’t happening fast enough, or it isn’t happening the way they want it to.”
While the U.S. chapters of the Guardian Angels have been accused of vigilantism and bullying, Ms. Lussier says local members fight crime “with softer gloves.” They patrol city streets wearing red berets and jackets – aids in their goal of being visual deterrents – and are equipped with only two-way radios, cell phones and training in martial arts and crisis intervention. They aim to be non-confrontational, but will try to keep suspects at the scene for police if need be, Ms. Lussier said.
Vigilantism through the Internet
While the act of vigilantism predates the creation of the word, recent technological advancements have drastically changed the face of it, Simon Fraser University criminology professor Neil Boyd says.
“We’re used to thinking of it taking place face-to-face, or in a much more personal context,” he said. “The Internet changes that because the technology of social media allows people to connect … and anyone can weigh in.”
Dangers of vigilantism – like mistaken identities and whistle blowers with ulterior motives – are much the same as before, Prof. Boyd said, but the porous nature of the Internet and lack of accountability and quality control mean people with “bad taste and foolish ideas” can reach a much larger audience, and quicker.
“One of the benefits of the openness of the Internet is the benefit of increasing public scrutiny of all kinds of issues,” Mr. Boyd continued, citing WikiLeaks. “But I think vigilantism is an entirely different matter.”
Superhero stunt made headlines
In addition to Anonymous’s involvement in the Amanda Todd case – which helped shed light on video chat communities like Stickam, Tinychat and blogTV – several cases of vigilantism have made headlines in Vancouver in recent times.
Just last week, the name and online contact information for a young Justin Bieber fan flooded Vancouver-based Twitter feeds after she defaced a makeshift memorial for the late Canuck player Rick Rypien, writing “JB Concert Oct. 10/2012” on the concrete column, signing it with her name and encircling it with a heart. Amid threats of violence, cooler heads reminded people Mr. Rypien wouldn’t have stood for such bullying.
Last year, after the Stanley Cup riot in downtown Vancouver, several people received death threats for taking part. Nathan Kotylak, then 17, a standout water polo player, was photographed apparently trying to set a police car on fire. His family was forced to flee their home after their address appeared online.
But perhaps the most memorable instance of vigilantism came from the three Chilliwack teens who posed as a 15-year-old girl online, luring men seeking sex with underage girls and confronting them in public places dressed as superheroes. Three men were charged in connection with the stunt, but Mounties warned about such actions, saying the teens had put themselves, and others, at risk.
Wrong information potentially harmful
The shooting death of U.S. teenager Trayvon Martin spawned a high-profile case of mistaken identity last year. Among the many people who tweeted and retweeted what was believed to be the Florida address for the shooter was film director Spike Lee, who had more than 240,000 Twitter followers. The address was incorrect: hate mail and unwanted visits landed at the doorstep of a couple in their 70s, forcing them to stay at a hotel until they subsided. Mr. Lee apologized and settled financially with the couple.
Ms. Lussier said people should be “investigating all you want,” but giving potentially valuable information to professionals.
“Pass the message on to the authorities and if you feel unsatisfied with the progress, inform the authorities the press is getting a copy,” she said. “You can never assume that your information is correct.” Things are not always black and white. We’re making an assumption about somebody, and that could be really devastating to the person if we’re wrong.”