In a phenomenon that started in 2012, individuals and loosely-affiliated online groups have used the internet to call for justice (particularly in response to sexual assaults on young women) and, in some cases, to try to provoke community retribution for certain crimes.
National and international reports of tepid official responses to gang rapes and sexual assaults involving underage victims were the fuel that fired the passion of these would-be cyber knights. In the U.S., the group Anonymous led the charge. After a group of high school football players allegedly raped a teenage girl in Steubenville, Ohio, in 2012, the group Anonymous obtained a video of part of the assault along with mockery and boasting by one of the boys. Anonymous posted the video on YouTube and it went viral, sparking national outrage. When two of the boys were convicted of sexual assault, Anonymous (and a blogger who wrote extensively about the case) were lauded for inspiring local authorities to press charges and seek stringent penalties.
The internet not only provides Anonymous and its off-shoots a way to band together and to disseminate their “wanted” posters; it also gives them access to personal data and other materials to use in getting revenge against alleged assailants.
Cyber avengers refer to the unauthorized gathering and posting of personal information--names, addresses, social network profiles and handles, and other personal information-- as “doxxing” (for documents).
The individuals in these cyber “posses” are not acquainted in real life (“IRL”) and often do not know each other’s actual names. They often hew to a “hacker ethos” that values technological investigatory techniques that may skirt the law. But, sometimes these tactics clearly violate the law and, even when they don’t, they can have unintended, devastating consequences.
Even people acting with the best of intentions and the most righteous outrage over unpunished crimes may themselves break the law by engaging in some of these activities. Of course, simply calling for justice in a particular case may be protected by the right to free speech guaranteed by the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. But, if the alleged perpetrator is a minor, personal information is disseminated, or calls for “justice” lead to harassment, the “heroes” may become defendants in criminal or civil actions.
Online activists could be charged with violating state cyberbullying or harassment laws. This is a particular risk where cyber avengers harangue an alleged assailant or call for others to do so.
In 2013, a 17-year-old Canadian girl killed herself two years after reporting that several boys had sexually assaulted her at a party at which she had downed nine shots of vodka. The boys texted a photo of one of them having sex with the girl and the photo spread through the victim’s high school. The girl reported the assault to The Canadian Mounted Police (“CMP”), who declined to press charges based on lack of evidence. Following the girl’s suicide, Anonymous criticized what it viewed as the slow and ineffectual response of the CMP. The group also doxxed a boy who had been exonerated by an off-shoot of Anonymous that investigated the matter. The boy told reporters that he became the target of relentless harassment and feared for his physical safety.
In many states, harassment itself is a crime. In general, these laws usually apply where there is a pattern of conduct that targets a particular person. Cyber avenging may fall within the scope of harassment laws, as in a situation like that of the boy targeted in the Canadian case.
Publicly accusing another person of committing a crime may be defamation, which could expose the accuser to civil damages if the accused sues him or her.
One of the most dangerous aspects of any type of community “justice” is that it undermines the criminal justice system and can lead to “mob” retribution.
Shortly after the Canadian girl committed suicide, a member of Anonymous posted a video in which he demanded (from behind the group’s trade-mark “Guy Fawkes” mask) that the Canadian authorities take immediate action against the individuals alleged to have assaulted her, and stated that the group had confirmed the identities of two of the alleged assailants. The Anonymous member concluded his video by saying that it took the group just two hours to locate the two boys, so it would not be long before someone else found them. An Anonymous affiliate group was already making personal data on some of the boys public. At this point, the victim’s mother expressed doubts about the wisdom of the cyber vengeance campaign, saying that she wanted the justice system and not the cyber avengers to take action against the alleged assailants.
In the U.S., we establish a code of laws through the democratic process of elections and legislation. These laws define the acts we consider crimes, and set out the punishment to be imposed on those convicted by a guilty plea or a trial by their peers. It is a complex system with mechanisms that must be followed to protect the public and the constitutional rights of those accused of criminal acts.
By contrast, when evidence is not gathered by attorneys and investigators, and analyzed by judge and jury who then render a verdict, punishment is not appropriate. Obviously, online activists cannot ensure the constitutional rights of those they name and target for public shaming and worse. In this way, the cyber avengers may act to thwart the criminal justice system. Some of the worst-case scenarios include:
The focus on young female victims, while important and laudable, also raises troubling questions about the motives of cyber avengers. Is the “white knight” really a lonely hacker with a hero complex and a desire to save a damsel in distress? There may be a subtle sexist taint to the impetus to champion the victim’s cause. A less subtle facet of this side of the phenomenon has come to light in the response of some online activists to female journalists and feminists, including the writer Amy Wallace (“Life as a Female Journalist: Hot or Not” , in the New York Times), who have been subjected to sexist, often violent, blow-back from the blogosphere and Twitterverse.
Cyber activism has unquestionably done some good and spurred authorities to take needed action in certain egregious cases. But, it has also done damage and may do more, for example when there are innocent people wrongfully identified by cyber avengers as the culprit. Now is the time to seriously consider the practice, while it is still a young movement. Anger and the desire for justice are understandable in the face of an unpunished wrong. Keep in mind: In a democracy, retribution belongs to the state and vengeance has no place.