Muzzling the online vigilantes

April 22, 2013


There is a new justice being administered online by well-meaning and not so well-meaning people who have learned to use the Internet as a tool for investigation and retribution against perceived or suspected wrongdoers. It seems to have started within the last two years with the online bulletin board 4Chan and within the hackers loosely assembled under the name Anonymous. It has since migrated to community sites such as Reddit. Sometimes, the target is a cad suspected of bullying somebody. Recently, amateur sleuths tried to figure out who was behind the Boston Marathon bombings.

It’s well past time to put on the brakes. Uncontrolled online mob vigilantism can potentially wreck lives as enthusiastic dilettantes investigate people in public and rush to inaccurate conclusions.

Last week an informal group of self-deputized online activists communicating on a Reddit board called “/r/findbostonbombers” identified Sunil Tripathi, a 22-year-old Brown University student who has been missing since mid-March, as perpetrator of the Boston bombing. Tripathi’s family, still trying to find their kin, was gracious in their response. But the implication was libelous. Those who perpetuated it should face consequences.

Reddit has since apologized, as did the moderator of the “FindBostonBombers” page. The moderator referenced the site’s “no personal information until confirmation” rule, which is meant to prevent this type of error. The rule failed. If Reddit wants to prevent something like this from happening again, it should ban the use of its forums for investigating crimes. There is no reason to believe that the Reddit community can effectively police itself.

Enabled by mass-produced technology, the United States is fast becoming a society of snoops and tattletales. While this has obvious advantages for law enforcement, it threatens the health of civil society, which depends on trust among its members. Michael Mandelbaum, director of the American Foreign Policy program at Johns Hopkins University, argued in his 2007 book, Democracy’s Good Name: The Rise and Risks of the World’s Most Popular Form of Government, that trust is the basis of a functioning democracy. He cited, for example, the difficulties that Iraq’s people face as the country moves from a society dominated by informants to Saddam Hussein’s secret police toward a collaborative democracy. We don’t yet know what happens to an established democracy when its citizens become willing and enthusiastic informants to the police.

People seem overly forgiving of online activists after the Boston bombings because, despite mistakes, the activists were genuinely trying to help law enforcement officials. The Reddit investigation seemed to be something of an extension of the “If you see something, say something” post-9/11 security ethos.

In other instances, online activists have won some measure of public sympathy by targeting odious people. Hackers affiliated with Anonymous claimed in mid-April that they know the identities of at least two Nova Scotia teenagers who have been accused of raping classmate Rehtaeh Parsons and then cyber-bullying her until she committed suicide. The incident has attracted attention because, despite photographs of the alleged crime, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police decided it did not have sufficient evidence to charge any of the boys. The group is demanding “immediate legal action against the individuals in question,” or it will, if the Parsons family consents, release the names, substituting public shaming for a criminal prosecution.

Of course, there is no due process when dealing with Anonymous. Just as with the Reddit investigators, we have to trust their motives, their restraint, their ability to police themselves and their willingness to be fair. Even if they take the utmost care, mistakes are possible and, of course, there will be times when online investigators believe that crimes have been committed but the authorities don’t.

People are free, of course, to say what they want and to investigate what they want. People in public spaces have no real expectation of privacy. But there needs to be some negative consequences for those investigations that have gone wrong, if only to deter amateur sleuths from too enthusiastically pursuing their quarry and smearing people with allegations. One answer would be to give those who are publicly accused of a crime, but never convicted, an easy avenue to sue their accusers in civil court. In cases where the accusers use online handles, those who are accused and exonerated should be able to compel Internet service providers and services like Reddit to identify their users. If the Recording Industry Association of America can identify online music pirates, surely somebody falsely accused of a crime should be able to identify their antagonist.

In the U.S., it is purposefully difficult to bring successful suit for libel or slander, as the laws are written largely to protect the rights of people to speak their minds and to sometimes make mistakes. A complainant has to prove not only that false statements about them were harmful but also that the statements were the result of recklessness and malice.

Civil libertarians tend to worry about the government’s surveillance powers but, practically speaking, the nosy neighbor is probably more a threat to people’s privacy and reputations than government eavesdropping. These days, that neighbor could be a stranger living thousands of miles away. It could be an accuser who will never have to face you.  Our laws need to be updated to deal with that.

PHOTO: Boston police officer Pat Duggan writes in chalk outside a makeshift memorial along Newbury street in Boston, Massachusetts April 17, 2013. REUTERS/Shannon Stapleton


We welcome comments that advance the story through relevant opinion, anecdotes, links and data. If you see a comment that you believe is irrelevant or inappropriate, you can flag it to our editors by using the report abuse links. Views expressed in the comments do not represent those of Reuters. For more information on our comment policy, see

” nosy neighbor is probably more a threat to people’s privacy and reputations than government eavesdropping”

Except for the fact that a nosy neighbor cannot issue a warrant for your arrest.

Sure, Reddit was too aggressive in their well-intentioned vigilantism but their overreach is nothing compared to that of the federal governments.

Given the choice between a prying nosy neighbor and the government, I will take the neighbor everytime.

Posted by taybme | Report as abusive

You’re wrong to say that a US plaintiff has to prove “recklessness and malice.” First, the “and” should be “or” – an important distinction. Second, that is only the rule when the alleged victim is a public figure (politician, celebrity, etc.) In the examples you gave (one of which was from Canada, but I’ll let that slide) the plaintiffs would have a much lighter burden of proof. Before recommending changes to existing law, make sure you understand it.

Posted by amateurediteur | Report as abusive

If anything, online commentators reveal the truth about powerful people previously able to muzzle critics. We do not need to have that system back.

Wrongdoing has long been a habit of the highly placed. It is significantly more hazardous now. If someone slanders someone else, let them sue. In general, public discussion of all sorts strengthens our system.

Posted by usagadfly | Report as abusive

@usagadfly – except the attacks are obviously partisan when it comes to the powerful. And there is no repercussions for anon in general, only a few hackers.

Posted by VultureTX | Report as abusive

If you fear we are becoming like the former soviet union where neighbors spied on neighbors your a little late. We converted to a system of neighbors spies back in the eighties under Reagan. He was our true big brother. We’re so used to it now we don’t even recognize that it exists. Granted, it’s not so much about crime incarceration, but rather cowing for the purposes conformity and consumption. That’s why to industry leaders the high consumer is more important than the high performer.

Posted by brotherkenny4 | Report as abusive

Is there a law that says I cannot post “Michael Maiello will give $1,000 to the next 200 people who post comments on this article?” Well, no, but my credibility is at stake here. I’m not going to say it because it’s not true. One thing I’ve learned from these vigilante sources (and they have learned as well) is that information comes fast and it’s often wrong right after an event. Look at CNN, they flubbed a serious amount of reporting around the Boston event. Do we shut them down? Or make laws against them? No… because their credibility tanked. Let natural forces work here– people will stop trusting what they read on Reddit or 4Chan, and stop watching horrible news like CNN. Stop trying to legislate common sense.

Posted by NorthernLight | Report as abusive