Digital Vigilantism: User-led Policing of Smart Cities?

June 30, 2015

While most conversations about smart cities focus on fixed infrastructures, it is necessary to also consider how citizens are enacting ‘smart citizenship’ in these environments. When equipped with mobile devices and social media platforms, they are able to render their peers visible, and use this visibility as a kind of weapon. Digital vigilantism (DV) is a process where individuals are collectively offended by other citizen activity, and respond through coordinated retaliation on digital media. The offending acts range from mild breaches of social protocol to terrorist acts and participation in riots. These offensive acts are not meant as a provocation in the context in which the vigilantism is situated. Therefore, the targets of DV are initially unaware of the conflict in which they have been enrolled.

The vigilantism includes, but is not limited to a ‘naming and shaming’ type of visibility. This typically involves sharing the targeted individual’s personal details by publishing them on a public site (this practice is known as ‘doxing’), including highly sensitive details such as the target’s home address, work details as well as financial and medical information. This is done with the intention of encouraging conventional justice through police or other legal channels, as well as unconventional justice such as online harassment and face-to-face encounters. The visibility produced through DV is unwanted (the target is typically not soliciting publicity), intense (content like blog posts, photos and video evidence can circulate to hundreds of thousands or even millions of users within a few days) and enduring (the vigilantism campaign may be the first item to appear when searching the individual’s name, and may become a cultural reference in its own right). 

Among the more prominent cases of DV, we may consider the persecution a woman in Seoul faced after she refused to pick up her dog’s faeces on a subway (Solove 2007), as well as the campaign to identify and shame suspected rioters in Vancouver following an ice hockey match (Schneider and Trottier 2013). User-led practices like DV will undoubtedly shaped citizens’ experiences in smart cities. DV is a product of digital media platforms along with their associated cultural values and practices. Yet it is also an embodied and violent intervention that both overlaps with and contests attempts to govern and police smart cities. Not only is DV located at the intersection of several scholarly disciplines, but it also forces a reconsideration of many of the key concepts in each of these disciplines. 

Digital media culture

DV benefits from digital media affordances such as the ability to coordinate with minimal organizational resources, in order to monitor and intervene in the lives of others. Social media platforms allow citizens to discuss a targeted individual, publish their personal details and call for action. In addition, mobile devices such as smart-phones enable real-time recording and transmission of an offending act to other citizens. DV occurs in a context where citizens are coming to terms with the relation between online activity and offline consequences. While the ‘early web’ was characterised by a perceived distinction between online and offline, the emergence of social, geo-located and ubiquitous media has led to a dissolution of this barrier, to the extent that digital media activity can have lasting consequences in both local and global contexts (Wellman 2002). Thus, DV participants may not be aware of social harms that result from their actions. It is also important to note that DV is as much a communicative and mediated act as it is a collective social act: clicks, ‘likes’ and ‘shares’ culminate in a coordinated mass persecution of a targeted citizen.

The late web connects formerly distinct sections of users’ lives. This connection is even more pervasive with the growth of the mobile web. By accessing the Internet on mobile devices, users can submit content to social media virtually anywhere. A user can take a picture with their phone, and immediately upload that photo to a social network. This convenience means that sharing may supersede reflecting. Davis (2010) describes a temporal buffer between reflection and presentation on social media. While users might choose to think before they share, this reflection is likely contextualised with a particular audience in mind. The fact that this imagined audience might not be the entire audience suggests that the media logics that inform social media use (van Dijck and Poell 2013; Altheide and Snow 1979) augment the consequences of DV.

Whereas the early web was understood in terms of anonymity, freedom from constraints and discrimination, this has given way to a media culture with a preponderance for online stigma (Goffman 1963; Trottier 2013), as well as compromised personal reputations (Solove 2007). What remains to be explored are the motivations and experiences of those who engage in this crowdsourced policing of urban spaces. 

Violence, power and politics

Vigilantism is typically understood as a kind of “private violence” (Culberson 1990) whereby citizens seek to legitimate their own violence as a form of criminal justice. Whereas the state is said to hold a monopoly on violent activity, through vigilantism citizens deny this state monopoly in an attempt to legitimate their own violent acts. In the case of digital media, this legitimation is explicitly posted as text, image and video content. Conventional vigilantism is also understood in terms of a single territory, and contained within its borders. This can be seen through the use of nationalist and xenophobic rhetoric (as in the case of the Ku Klux Klan, arguably the most prominent vigilante group). However, the coupling of digital media and vigilantism complicates the relation to any single geographic space. While there is evidence that DV retains nationalist sentiment, participants are in no way contained to city borders. Yet the backlash against the 2011 Vancouver riot marked a clear distinction between a local ‘us’ and an outsider ‘them’, as manifest with the naming and shaming of lower-income and racialised communities that were symbolically denied citizenship (Schneider and Trottier 2013). As a result, the relation between vigilantism, citizenship and nationalism needs to be reconsidered in the digital age.

Vigilantism is also manifest as a kind of cultural commentary, where citizen violence is meant to represent a form of claims making. As stated above, it often reflects a kind of us/them identity building based on a targeted enemy. Yet it also reflects other denunciations about contemporary society. For example, the emergence of the Guardian Angels in the USA is a response to the outrage following the murder of Catherine “Kitty” Genovese in 1964. Implicit (but also explicit) critiques and dismissals of the administration of (smart) urban spaces are culturally embedded in vigilantism. What remains to be addressed is how municipal governments along with other organisational actors ought to respond to emergent DV practices.

Daniel Trottier is Assistant Professor in Media and Communication at Erasmus University Rotterdam. 


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Solove, Daniel. 2007. The future of reputation: Gossip, rumor, and privacy on the Internet. New Haven: Yale University Press.

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