The ethics and psychology behind online vigilantism

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“This is not the first time something like this has happened, and it certainly won’t be the last.”

Last week, a video of a young couple bullying an elderly man at a hawker centre went viral. People were outraged, and soon enough, a named was thrown out – “Cherry Tan”. More details about her started to emerge, including her picture and her workplace, and she was cyber-bullied. The allegation turned out to be untrue. The person in the video was not Ms Tan – but it was too late; the damage had been done.

What happened after, however, was even more troubling. At least some of the very same people who made Ms Tan’s life a nightmare did not respond by reflecting on their actions, and on the damage they caused, but instead took this to be a sign that they should work harder in finding the real culprits.

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Taken from Kuanyewism’s Facebook page

This is shameful. This is not the first time something like this has happened, and it certainly won’t be the last.

The problem

Why is this breed of online vigilantism wrong? First, there is a lack of public accountability and due process – ‘evidence’ is gathered and the ‘accused’ is identified without any sort of proper investigative procedure or oversight.

Second, the ‘accused’ suffers ‘punishment’ in the form of cyber-bullying without being given the opportunity of a fair trial. There are many reasons why fair trials are important. It gives the accused a chance to produce evidence to prove their innocence. This was something Ms Tan eventually did, but it was too late – by the time she had proven her innocence, she had already suffered her ‘punishment’ at the hands of the online mob.

Furthermore, even if the accused is guilty, providing him/her with a chance to explain his/her actions, and the existence of any mitigating circumstances will allow us to have a better idea of what actually happened, and allows the community to inflict an appropriate level of punishment to reflect the true circumstances of the case. This is why even so-called “open and shut” cases still end up in court.

All these are absent in online vigilantism. People jump to conclusions and ruin lives; and those responsible seem to get away scot-free. However, if online vigilantism is so problematic, why do people still take part in it? I can fathom three guesses.

It feels good 

I believe that some online vigilantes honestly believe they are doing a good deed for society. Doing a good deed often feels good – think, for example, of the warm, satisfying feeling that you get in your heart when you help someone in need. Perhaps online vigilantes see themselves as superheroes in the fight for justice, and that by identifying and punishing those who commit wrongs, they are doing a good deed for society. If they indeed honestly believe that they are doing a good deed, then it is no surprise that they feel good doing what they do. This good feeling is further boosted when they receive support from other online vigilantes, since the endorsement of their actions by others further reinforces their belief in the goodness of those actions.

As my above arguments suggest, this is of course misplaced. In any case, what I am curious about is how those who see themselves as bringers of justice feel when they find out that their actions have in fact brought about injustice and harm to an innocent person. For some at least, we know that their response is not to repent, but to remain indignant.

Shame and insecurity

It can be embarrassing for us as a society to see one of our own members misbehaving – moments like these make us desperate to say to ourselves: “This person is not one of us! We are not like that!” What better way then to send this message than by banding together to hunt down those responsible for their misbehavior, and punishing them ourselves.

I can understand this emotion, but I cannot agree with acting on it through the medium of online vigilantism because of its uncontrolled and unaccountable nature. Besides, are we so insecure as a society that we have to lash out at people this way? Instead of jumping so quickly to “other” them – (that is, to reinforce the idea to ourselves that they are deviants who are “not one of us”), why do we not think a little more about why things like that happen, and how we can address the root of the problem?

Take for example the way Amos Yee was treated when he released his inflammatory video. People were quick to insult and bully him; many are now glad he is gone. But as one of our writers pointed out in an article – why was so little attention paid to asking ourselves why did someone like Amos Yee emerge, and why did he think the way he did? Of course he acted wrongly, and we may disapprove of his actions. But he was after all a product of our society – shouldn’t that give us something to think about?

A sense of power

If you haven’t heard of the Stanford Prison Experiment, it might be worth reading it up. Even ordinary people, when given the opportunity to wield great power, can slip towards sadistic and abusive tendencies without realizing it. In addition, having power feels good, especially for those who live dis-empowered lives. Think about the last time you met a parking attendant, or a BMT sergeant who gave you a hard time, not because they have to, but because they can.

No wonder then, online vigilantes take great pride and pleasure in their work – they wield immense power to ruin someone else’s life, whether as a result of causing that person to lose their job, or to go to prison, or be simply traumatized by the cyber-bullying that they allegedly ‘deserve’ for their ‘misbehaviour’. The feeling of someone else being at their mercy is probably both refreshing and attractive at the same time. In addition, by releasing the personal information of the ‘accused’ they know that others will act on that information, and that again gives them a sense of control and power.

Conclusion

I believe that most of us are good, decent people with a basic sense of justice. Most of us do not take pleasure in ruining someone else’s life, and most of us are cool-headed enough to say “let’s solve the problems in our society through proper channels that respect due process, and the right to a fair trial, rather than through uncontrolled, unaccountable mob justice”. We might not be able to control what the ‘hardcore’ online vigilantes do, but we can do our part by not spreading their material, and to call out on the wrongness of their actions when we see it.

On the other hand, I urge the government to take action against these online vigilantes. The government has talked a lot about clamping down on fake news recently, and citing examples of how fake news can harm the reputations of politicians.

Perhaps they should also consider the impact of other types of online behavior that are not fake news, and yet, can destroy the lives and reputations of ordinary Singaporeans.

 

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Author: Rio Hoe

Rio is the chief editor and co-founder of Consensus SG. He is a recent law graduate from the University of Oxford. His interests include politics, sociology, legal theory and political philosophy.

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