Skip to main content

It wasn't long after Amanda Todd's death before the Internet was abuzz with demands for frontier-style justice. A call went out to the amorphous online hacker collective known as Anonymous for help in tracking down the adult male who, four years earlier, had convinced Amanda to flash her breasts on a webcam site for underage teens.

It was a mistake that would precipitate a heartbreaking downward spiral for the 15-year-old girl from Coquitlam, B.C., that eventually ended with her taking her own life last week.

There are many who have felt the public's wrath for the role they're perceived to have played in this affair, for the cyberspace and face-to-face bullying that became so unbearable for Amanda. But most of it has been reserved for the person who persuaded an 11-year-old girl to expose herself, then later posted the pictures online for all to see and ridicule.

It would be the beginning of the end for Amanda Todd.

Calls for the head of her online tormentor have been palpable. Few seem to have the patience for an old-school police investigation that could take who knows how long to complete. There were now "hacktivists" who sleuth around to find Internet bad guys within days – which is precisely what Anonymous suggested earlier this week it had done.

Anonymous posted the name, home address and e-mail of the person it said was responsible for taking and posting the pictures of Amanda. This sent reporters scurrying to the man's house and later charging down the street after him. You could almost feel the online horde readying its pitchforks. There was only one problem.

According to the RCMP, it wasn't the guy.

But all was not lost for the online army quickly assembled to defend Amanda's honour. An Ontario clothing store worker was fired this week after being exposed by a Calgary mother and Internet gumshoe as the person who wrote on the dead girl's memorial page that she deserved to die.

Just as Amanda's death serves as a dark reminder of the unfathomable yet pervasive nature of cyberspace bullying, it has also cast a light on a phenomenon that, relatively speaking, is still in its infancy – Internet vigilantism, or e-justice as it's been coded by some.

For the most part, it's a development as random and unscripted as the Internet itself. But it's also one that comes with profound implications that could have devastating consequences. What if a group of people had decided to seek justice on its own terms with the man wrongly outed by Anonymous? What if he'd been beaten to a pulp or had his house burned down? There were alternatives suggested on the Internet that were worse.

E-justice raises even further questions about Internet governance, a digital minefield with which governments have been grappling for years. Public shaming dates back to the 13th century, but the Internet has made it far easier to do because anonymity keeps people safe from any repercussions. Consequently, "digitalvism" is carried out with little regard for the fallout that may occur. People insist it's being done to further social order, but, instead, it can create a mob-like mentality that has precisely the opposite effect. Internet vigilantism walks a fine line between activism and all-out anarchy.

Examples of it are becoming more frequent. One of the more infamous involves Megan Meier, a 13-year-old Missouri girl who became the victim of a cyber hoax carried out by the mother of a classmate. The woman, helped by her daughter and an employee at the small business the family owned, created a fake online boy who initially had a crush on Megan, then viciously turned on her, denigrating her in the most humiliating way. In 2006, Megan hanged herself.

The identity of the perpetrators was posted on the Internet. It wasn't long before members of the family were receiving death threats and had bricks thrown through the windows of their house. An elderly woman had to vacate her home when Internet rabble threatened to burn it down after she was identified as the mother of the ringleader.

Meantime, a U.S. couple in their 70s received threats after their address was erroneously posted online as that of George Zimmerman, the neighbourhood watch volunteer charged in the shooting of unarmed teenager Trayvon Martin in Florida. A tweet containing the false information was retweeted by director Spike Lee to his 240,000-plus followers. He later apologized and asked people to leave the couple in peace.

That's what it's come to.

Vigilantism is on the rise, fuelled by an online community that now easily forms and shares a collective consciousness that can be powerful and extremely dangerous.