n 2016, internet vigilantism is not a new phenomenon. For many users, being part of a virtual justice squad that hunts down paedophiles, uncovers criminals and spreads awareness of wanted miscreants is, understandably, morally rewarding. However, more often than not, the ‘honourable’ actions of these online crime-fighters result in widespread misunderstandings, with dire consequences for those (wrongly) accused.
In the real world, it is wholly unjust for a judge to prosecute a suspect purely on the grounds of accusation; in order to reach a fair and just outcome, both sides of the story must be heard. In the digital world however, this is apparently not how the justice system works. Due to the reactionary nature of the internet, once an individual has been indicted and their behaviour/actions have been publicly scorned by these so-called vigilantes, they are automatically labelled as ‘guilty’. Most of the time, no further questions are asked and as their story rapidly spreads across the net, there is little they can do to defend themselves. This is particularly true in regards to cases of public shaming and was exemplified in a story that has recently raised concerns surrounding the issue of internet vigilantism.
This week, as reported by The Mail Online, a man was accused of harassing several Asian women on a public tram in Melbourne after a woman posted a picture of him online, along with a nasty message in which she referred to him as “a festering turd of human being” for his so-called “intimidating” behaviour. In the picture, the man was shown to be sitting down on the bus, rolling a cigarette and smiling up at the camera, which is perfectly normal behaviour in my opinion. From this post alone, he was subject to a wave of online abuse that consisted of many threatening and violent messages, some even including death threats.
However, it later emerged that the man was in fact autistic and known to many commuters on the tram service who described his behaviour as harmless and an effect of his condition.
Although there was absolutely no evidence whatsoever to support the claim made by the woman who branded this man as a “low life”, “creep” and “loser” in her post, users automatically assumed she was telling the truth without giving a second thought to his side of the story, which I believe, is totally wrong. Throughout this brutal public bashing, he was never given an opportunity to explain and defend himself, although in the end, other users did this for him.
Repeatedly in these situations, it is clear that for many users, sensationalism obviously outweighs legitimacy and whether a story is true or not appears to be of little concern to those sharing it. This is precisely the problem with internet vigilantism: it is incredibly one-sided. Forget innocent until proven guilty – if you’ve been the target of a public rant or as the vigilantes would call it, ‘morally exposed’, quite frankly, you’ve got no chance.
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