What can be a force for good in the form of support groups, can also be used for disinformation campaigns and digital mob violence that targets an individual or organizations perceived to have violated an accepted social or moral norms.
The convergence of capitalism and democracy has empowered the rise of big tech companies that have provided every individual with voice and visibility, allowing them to take collective action. While that is usually a good thing, research shows that these collective actions are easily influenced through technology and can potentially be used to further the agendas of state or organisational actors, agendas that may or may not be aligned with the public welfare.
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This has also led to the weaponisation of visibility and spawned a rapidly burgeoning culture of digital vigilantism. What can be a force for good in the form of support groups, can also be used for disinformation campaigns and digital mob violence that targets an individual or organisations perceived to have violated an accepted social or moral norms.
Public enemy number one
Digital vigilantes are often confused with keyboard warriors and trolls, accompanied by the mental image of someone sitting down in their basements and killing time on the web. However, make no mistake, in today’s world, digital vigilantes have very real power. As traditional media channels compete with their more agile, digital-led counterparts for viewer attention, they often rely upon the latter to cover “trending” news. As such, it is not uncommon for the victims of digital vigilantism to become national news, further compounding their problems.
Take the example of patient 17, a woman in Vietnam who was a COVID-19 vector after she traveled back to her city from Europe and hid the information, infecting hundreds in the capital city of Hanoi. The public got wind of this and quickly got together to expose her, including personal information such as name and address. In a matter of days, she became national news and was ostracised by the country.
While she did make a mistake and should have reported herself, the response to her actions was disproportionate and continues to affect her to this day after her actual identity was revealed. What’s more, many other people were also caught up in a web of misinformation as the suspected patient 17 and had to issue public clarification backed by statements from the authorities validating them after a public backlash.
We have seen multiple examples of people losing their careers and reputations after being mobbed online for some act or statement that was either unlawful or just did not go down well with the vigilantes’ personal moral compass. The problem is that just like mob violence, acts of digital vigilantism usually take a life of their own. The narrative of the crime committed by the victim of digital vigilantism can inflate with every retelling and the punishment meted out to them can be in complete disproportion to the wrong, perceived, or real that they have committed.
Patriotic hackers: State-supported terrorism?
Digital vigilantism is also creating offshoots, for instance, the patriotic hackers —a term used to describe individuals who attack perceived enemies of the state. While they are being tightly regulated in countries such as the United States, elsewhere, they are receiving recognition and approval from their governments. For instance, in 2015, Indian hackers took down thousands of Pakistani websites including those with government extensions in an operation that came to be known as Operation Vijaya.
The operation received quiet nods of approval from highly placed government officials including the Indian NSA Ajit Doval. A couple of years later, a Pakistani hacker group going by Pakistan Haxor Crew (PFC) retaliated and defaced the websites of over 10 Indian universities. Unlike regular wars that are fought under the ambit of rules, and where there are measures to contain the damage, battles on the digital front are often indiscriminate.
Unfortunately, as the world becomes more and more digital, states are showing rapidly increasing interest in this new frontier of war. Because cyberattacks provide governments with plausible deniability, they are much more indiscriminate with using them compared to acts of conventional war.
A case in point is North Korea’s Lazarus Group, responsible for perpetrating attacks on South Korea, Sony Pictures, and banks across the globe, successfully stealing well over $100 million. According to the FBI and North Korean defectors, the group is made up of the country’s best and brightest individuals who undergo rigorous state-sponsored education and training before being deployed. Last year, a lone American hacker retaliated against the island nation, crippling websites across the nation through an attack on the central routers that provide internet access to the country.
The line between digital vigilantes and cybercriminals can be very thin.
The impact of digital vigilantism will be felt more deeply
The world is set to move deeper into the digital space. The proliferation of digital payments, education’s great shift to the web, the increasing amount of time we are now spending on social media and eCommerce websites; look around and you will discover that we already live with one foot firmly entrenched in the digital world. Over the next few years, the lines between the digital and physical worlds will blur further, and simultaneously an increasingly greater percentage of the population will also jump onto the web.
While this will have huge benefits in terms of connectivity, communication, and opportunities, it will also provide digital vigilantes with a lot more power. Internet regulatory authorities across the globe are starting to take cognisance of this but that is not enough. Digital vigilantes may in many cases work to uphold the laws and social norms of the land, but they do it outside the ambit of law and the potential for misinformation and disproportionate punishment is very high. In some cases, these vigilantes can spark off major controversies, for instance the 2020 Bangalore riots that were spawned by a social media post and led to riots across the city and 3 deaths.
Sitting just one rung above these vigilantes are actual cyber criminals, who although outside the scope of this article, are causing massive damage whether it is through heists, identity theft, or attacks on other states or organisations.
Individuals, enterprises, and governments are all at risk from these new-age caped crusaders who operate outside the ambit of law and depending upon their agenda, can be aligned with organisational or state players. While most countries currently lack a regulatory framework and infrastructure that can keep a tab on digital vigilantes without infringing on the fundamental right of free speech of the masses, digital vigilantes pose a very serious and rapidly growing challenge that needs to be confronted at once.
—Mudit Mohilay is a marketing professional, author and writer. Views expressed are personal
(Edited by : Ajay Vaishnav)