Vigilante groups seem from another time. Centuries ago, these people served as the judge, jury, and executioner for the accused. Historically, vigilante groups often tried, convicted and executed a person caught stealing, all in the same hour. As time went on, our judicial system expanded and vigilante groups dispersed. However with growing technology, new as-yet-unregulated territory has opened and vigilante groups once again are taking the law into their own hands. Many people and organizations have felt the wrath of such groups.
In one well-publicized case here in the U.S., online vigilantes sought vengeance for a mother and her daughter after they were denied access to the restroom at the Rocky Mountain Chocolate Factory in Huntington Beach, California. The sick 5-year-old was defecated on herself after she was refused access to an employees-only bathroom. The employees allegedly laughed, showing no compassion or remorse towards the little girl or her mother.
The outraged mother called the manager to complain, but when the manager finally called back, she reportedly sided with her employees. Informing the woman that public use the restroom was an insurance liability, the manager said to sue if it made the mother feel happy.
This story first landed on The Consumerist as an example of extremely bad customer service and circulated on many websites. People were incensed at the treatment of this mother and daughter. The manager’s contact information was shared all over the Internet, and she received death threats. People even posted pictures of the manager’s house online. As a result the CEO of Rocky Mountain Chocolate factory issued a public apology stating that the store in question was not operating under company policies.
Online vigilantes are also working all over the globe, including in China. A vast community of people use the “Human Flesh Search Engine” as a forum to expose and punish people for deviant behavior. In a country without a system that advocates for victims, the Human Flesh Search Engine fights the Internet and state censorship. This site boosts the power of online vigilantes by allowing instantaneous communication among millions of users and creating an unstoppable force.
According to the New York Times, online vigilantes responded to a Chinese woman, who posted a video of herself with a small white and brown kitten. In the video, she smiled as she placed the kitten on the ground and then viciously began stomping the kitten to death with her stiletto heels. When the video was posted, enraged viewers wanting vengeance led a massive effort by the “Human Flesh Search Engine.” The vigilantes quickly hunted the woman down, in a country of over a billion people, no less. Ultimately, the woman lost her job and had to leave town.
At the same time, people deserve a fair trial. There’s a reason the judicial system was created here in the U.S. Without the right to due process, people are often treated as guilty until proven innocent. Online vigilantes don’t give individuals a chance to clear their names or tell their side of an incident.
For example, the Victoria Times Colonist wrote about Garnet Ford, a man who was wrongly accused of murdering Jamie Kehoe on a bus in Surrey. The accusation didn’t come from the police; it came from anonymous messages on Ford’s Facebook page. After Kehoe’s murder and the anonymous message, Garnet Ford started receiving death threats and derogatory messages on Facebook accusing him of being Jamie’s murderer.
Ford was horrified. He was innocent, but the damage was done. His boss forced him to take time off work, making it impossible to financially support his family, including a 4-year-old son and another baby on the way.
The story created such a stir that the local homicide unit held a press conference emphasizing Garnet Ford was never a suspect.
Mr. Ford assumes that his race was the reason that people online targeted him in their witch-hunt. The police had only describes the suspect as a black male in his 20’s. With just a general description, online vigilantes labeled an innocent man a murderer. This demonstrates the dark side of social media and those affected.
Online vigilantes are an extremely powerful force – a united group of people seeking its version of justice, focusing on a person or an entity – and vengeance can be swift and extreme. The consequences of Internet vigilantism will forever affect each of the individuals mentioned above.
Not only are online vigilantes prohibiting people from proving their innocence, I believe that the punishment must fit the crime. People have lost their jobs, family and friends not because of a criminal infraction, but because they broke a societal norm. We have all done things in our lives that we are not proud of, but should those mistakes define the rest of our lives?