Put Away the Pitchfork: Explaining the Dangers of Online Vigilantism to Your Child

You’ve probably seen some vigilantism in your Facebook newsfeed. Maybe you’ve seen an unhappy customer accuse a local business of something terrible and encourage others to inundate the business with bad reviews. Or a parent at your school has a disagreement with a teacher and takes it to Facebook, leading to dozens of abusive messages getting sent the teacher’s way. Or someone shares around a picture of someone else doing something they think is morally shameful—say, hunting or fishing—and encourages others to track the person down and make their life as difficult as possible.

Unfortunately, online vigilantism and public shaming are very much in vogue. In a world where social media allows everything to be recorded and shared instantly, witch hunts have become turbo-charged. Social media is a tool for instant gratification, and sometimes the gratification users want is in the form of vigilante justice.

Online vigilantism is happening all around us, every day, in situations as banal as a tech conference and as serious as a terrorism investigation. And unfortunately, some of those vigilantes are children and teens.

Of course, witch hunting is bad and online vigilantism gets ugly fast. The wrong people get targeted. Or the “punishment” is disproportionally brutal compared to the “crime”. Or there are messy legal consequences. Here’s what your child or teen needs to understand about online vigilantism:

Online Vigilantism Can Be Bullying

The website Jezebel once catalogued a series of racist tweets written by 16-year-olds about President Obama. However, they also published their names, contacted their high school principals, and made sure to include their hobbies and activities to ensure that potential colleges would find the students when they googled their extra-curricular activities. Most of the kids deleted their twitter accounts, but the Jezebel article still appears whenever their names are googled.

What those kids wrote was disgusting. Racism isn’t acceptable. However, is it fair for a website with a readership in the millions to punish 16-year-olds? Is it fair for that punishment to exist in perpetuity? And is it fair for Jezebel’s readership to then seek out those 16-year-olds and write them thousands of nasty messages?

Racist teenagers should be punished. But online vigilantes don’t care that it isn’t their place to mete out punishment and sites like Jezebel don’t care about the massive power differential between themselves and teenagers. The result is bullying.

Online Vigilantes Frequently Hurt Innocent People

Complicated police investigations and lengthy trials don’t feel very emotionally satisfying, especially to an online public who want injustice punished, but at least they make sure justices is applied accurately. Vigilantes tweet the wrong address. Or they hunt down the guy accused of writing something racist on a Red Lobster receipt, but can’t or won’t undo the damage when it turns out that the whole thing was a hoax. Or they attack a cancer victim’s charity fundraiser as being a hoax, sending nasty messages, reporting the fundraiser to the FBI for fraud, and harassing the cancer victim’s family—only to find out that the fundraiser is legitimate. Vigilantes, as you can see, are pretty bad about getting the facts straight.

Online Vigilantism Has Legal Consequences

Some people who’ve engaged in online vigilantism have been arrested, typically as a consequence of the damage they’ve caused. In Canada, online vigilantes have been hit with mischief and harassment charges.

Your child or teen needs to understand that online vigilantism isn’t a valid way to solve problems. Instead, they need to talk to an adult. If they know of some kind of misconduct or even a crime, then authorities like school principals or the police are the right people to handle it. And if the issue provoking the online vigilantism isn’t significant enough for school authorities, then chances are said online vigilantism has become bullying.

If you need more information on cyberbullying, be sure to visit our cyberbullying resource page.

If you want to read more about online vigilantism, consider reading Jon Ronson’s book So You’ve Been Publically Shamed.


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The One Thing You Shouldn’t Do in Response to Cyberbullying

Let’s talk about a hypothetical scenario. Your daughter, who is finishing up grade seven, has something important to tell you. There’s a group of kids from her school who have been sending her harassing messages over Instagram. They do it pretty much every day. She’s blocked them all, but they create alt accounts or try and use other classmate’s Instagram accounts. She knows they have a private Snapchat group where the bullies talk trash about her and others. One of her friends joined, giving your daughter a chance to peek in and see what they’re saying. She’s also heard that they’re asking around for information about other social media accounts she may have.

So you think to yourself: step one, let’s take a break from Instagram for a little while. We’ll work out the next steps later.

Clearly these bullies are using Instagram as a vector to attack your daughter, so if you take away the vector, you take away the bullying. And it might be a bit healthy to take a social media break anyway.

That’s a very understandable line of reasoning. But it doesn’t hold up. Taking away a kid’s technology, social media, and/or Internet access is the one thing you shouldn’t do if they’re cyber bullied. Here’s why.

It’s Like Punishing a Kid for Being Bullied

Social media is a place cyberbullying happens, but it is not a cause. If your teenager got bullied at the mall, you wouldn’t ban them from the mall. It wouldn’t be fair to take away something they like because something bad happened to them.

Phones are a way for bullies to reach their victims, but they are not a cause. If, in some odd non-digital world, your child was getting bullied via letters in the mail, you wouldn’t ban letters at your house. The bully remains the cause, not the letters.

Internet access is a major part of social life in today’s world, not to mention a major connection to TV, music, culture, news, and just about everything important to kids and teens. Bullying is already isolating. It doesn’t make sense to isolate your child further.

Kids Don’t Like Reporting Cyberbullying for Exactly This Reason

Research shows that kids don’t like reporting cyberbullying to their parents. Fear of losing social media privileges, phones, and Internet access is the big reason why. It’s important for your child to keep you as a resource and ally against cyberbullying, so it’s important to make clear to your child that they won’t be punished for reporting cyberbullying.

Online Space Is the ‘Real World’

Some people make the distinction between the online world and the ‘real world’. To be sure, the online world has some major differences than the non-digital world and it’s worth exploring those differences, but the online world is real. We know that digital news isn’t less ‘real’ than something in the print edition of the newspaper, we know that a digital bank account balance isn’t less ‘real’ than the one you get it the mail, we know that a shirt you buy from a digital store won’t be less ‘real’ than one you buy at the mall, so why do we pretend like digital social space isn’t the ‘real world’? The realness that makes cyberbullying as real as bullying you’d find on the schoolyard also makes the rest of social interaction online real. And it isn’t fair to take that social interaction away. Especially if it wasn’t their fault.

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