Friday, January 13, 2017

Social Media and Vigilantism

Could there be a sinister aspect to commonplace grumblings on social media? I recently came across a complaint on social media by a person who claimed that a young man on a bike had assaulted him and threatened him. The complaint which included a photo and a caption ended with the complainant asking the readers of his post “What should be done about such goondagiri [sic] where a law-abiding citizen has to face such humiliation that too by people who have shamelessly broken the law?”

Judging by the fact that the photograph was shared close to one hundred and ninety three times on social media the question was obviously rhetorical. The post was shared precisely to offer up the biker to public justice and ensure that he be shamed, ostracized or punished by other means. But this is precisely where we have to pause and take stock of our actions because these kinds of complaints and appeals to public justice are in fact calls to vigilante justice.

Vigilantes are groups of citizens who take it on themselves to undertake law enforcement in their community without legal authority, typically because the legal agencies are thought to be inadequate. Because vigilantism is often associated with mob justice we associate the term with howling mobs and violent action. However, the roots of vigilante actions lie well beyond these dramatic acts. Vigilantism does not begin with a lynching. Lynching is merely the highpoint of vigilante action.  Vigilantism begins when individuals abandon the state’s justice delivery system, prefer a kangaroo court of public opinion, and take it upon themselves to administer justice. When this happens what we have is the jettisoning of the system of due process through which facts can be established and a fairly objective decision can be reached.

What is particularly scary is that it is not just in the realm of social media that one can see appeals to vigilante justice. Indeed, one sees the mass media, whether print or audiovisual, also engaging in setting up popular courts, presuming guilt before a person is held guilty by the judicial system, and condemning these people in very forceful terms. These are in fact terrifying signs because it signals that we are increasingly moving towards a breakdown of a system of a rule of law, and due process, two concepts that ensure that justice is done.

Let us mine the post that inspired this column for examples. In this particular instance the complainant alleged that the biker rode on the sidewalk and responded violently to the polite request to follow the law and get off the sidewalk. If we rely entirely on the account on social media we have only one side of the story. What we do not have is the biker’s account. It is possible that the biker’s version may be radically different. He might argue that he recognizes that the bike should not be on the sidewalk but there were extenuating circumstances for the violation. He might also argue that while acknowledging his fault the complainant was not particularly polite but in fact aggressive. It is because there are always at least two versions to a conflict that one needs a judicial system manned by an impartial third party. Without an objective system of justice delivery we have no way to determine whether the photographer was in fact telling the truth. One would recognize that a social media complaint does not provide such a dialogical approach to conflict resolution but only presents one version that we often take as the gospel truth.

Central to a justice delivery system is the requirement of being dispassionate. In the post that I refer to, the complainant indicated that after being assaulted and threatened he approached the police who did not act on his complaint. It was the failure to get support from the logical agents of law and order enforcement that he turned to social media. As such, it turns out that the police were also responsible for the disaffection that drove the complainant to social media. If this was the case, why not post images of the allegedly errant police persons as well? Indeed, in the post I refer to the complaint ended the caption with statement indicating Please note that I don't intent [sic] to target any politician or policeman. My grouch is purely against such law-breakers who are full to the brim with arrogance.”

One of the significant features of vigilante justice is that the vigilantes very often attack the weak. Further, it is not the structure that is attacked, but individual manifestations of a larger, social problem. For example, we know that the sidewalk is hardly respected in our country. Sidewalks are often in a bad state of disrepair, and when available are routinely used to park vehicles. In such a situation it is little wonder that when people are rebuked for using their vehicles on the sidewalk they respond aggressively wondering why they are the only ones to be pulled up and not the others.

Interventions in social media are not innocent. They can often be the apparently innocent appeals that will eventually end in violent vigilante justice. It is imperative, therefore, that we resist the temptation to invite social ire against individuals on social media. To redress this problem what we need to do is to hold the state and its agencies responsible for their primary task; the upholding of a system of due process and the rule of law. It is no use utilizing social media as an alternative to the state system precisely because such a process is not only capricious but it threatens to empty the state of its responsibilities leaving behind a state only interested in asserting its powers. Neither of these situations is an ideal one.

(A version of this post was first published in the O Heraldo on  10 Jan 2017)

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