Internet vigilantism

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Internet vigilantism is the phenomenon of vigilante acts taken through the Internet (the communication network or its service providers) or carried out using applications (World Wide Web, e-mail) that depend on the Internet. The term encompasses vigilantism against scams, crimes, and non-Internet related behavior. It was termed "digilantism"[1] in the wake of the Boston Marathon Bombing.[citation needed]

Some have suggested that the Internet's lack of central control has prompted a tendency towards vigilante reactions against certain behaviors in the same way that they have prompted those behaviors to occur in the first place.[2]


The following are methods of Internet vigilantism that have been used or proposed for use:

Scam baiting[edit]

Main article: Scam baiting

Scam baiting is the practice of feigning interest in a scam in order to manipulate the scammer behind it. The purpose of scam baiting might be to waste the scammers' time, embarrass him or her, cause them to reveal information which can be passed on to legal authorities in the hope that they will be prosecuted, get them to spend money, or simply to amuse the baiter.

Scam baiting emerged in response to e-mail based frauds such as the common Nigerian 419 scam. Many websites publish transcripts of correspondences between baiters and scammers, and also publish their "trophies" online, which include videos and images scam baiters have obtained from scammers.

Public shaming[edit]

The social networking tools of the World Wide Web have been used as a tool to easily and widely publicize instances of perceived anti-social behavior.

David Furlow, chairman of the Media, Privacy and Defamation Committee of the American Bar Association, has identified the potential privacy concerns raised by websites facilitating the distribution of information that is not part of the public record (documents filed with a government agency), and has said that such websites "just [give] a forum to people whose statements may not reflect truth."[3]

After some controversial incidents of public shaming, the popular link-sharing and discussion website Reddit introduced a strict rule against the publication of non-public personally-identifying information via the site (colloquially known on Reddit and elsewhere as "doxing"). Those who break the rule are subject to a site-wide ban, and their posts and even entire communities may be removed for breaking the rule.

In 2015, online shaming was the subject of a book So You've Been Publicly Shamed by Jon Ronson

Notable examples[edit]

The Goblin Valley rock-toppling incident[edit]

In October 2013, a delicately balanced hoodoo was intentionally knocked over by three Boy Scout leaders who had been camping in the area.[4] The men claimed that the hoodoo appeared ready to fall, and that they knocked it over to prevent park visitors from being hurt.[5] They recorded the illegal act and posted it to Facebook, but subsequently admitted that they should have told a park ranger. The two scouts leaders were targeted by death threats [6] and Internet vigilantes encouraged the prosecution to charge the two with felony charges.

Australian racist bus incident[edit]

In November 2012, an Australian man filmed several passengers on a Melbourne bus verbally abusing and threatening a woman who had begun singing a song in French. A video alerting viewers of their racist and sexist comments was uploaded to YouTube[7] and quickly attracted national[8][9] and international media attention.[10] The two male perpetrators most prominently displayed in the video were later jailed, with Magistrate Jennifer Goldsbrough describing their threats as "offensive to the entire population".[11][12][13]

PyCon Dongle Incident[edit]

In March 2013, at the technology conference PyCon, Adria Richards took offense at a private but audible discussion between two male attendees seated nearby comparing the words "dongle" and "dong". Richards photographed the male attendees, published the photograph on Twitter, and included a shaming statement in the tweet. The following day, the employer of one of the photographed individuals, a software developer, terminated that individual's employment because of the offensive joke.[14][15][16][17]

The fired developer noticed that Richards had tweeted a sexual joke about penises only days earlier.[14] In response to Richards' public shaming of the developers, Internet users who were uninvolved launched a DDoS Attack on Richards' employer the day after the incident.[citation needed] Subsequently, the employer terminated Richards' employment as well.[18]

At least as recently as early 2014, Richards attempted to blame the developer for instigating the Internet backlash against her, in contrast to the developer, who had written that Richards was within her rights to tweet her complaint about him in the way that she did.[14] As of 2015, Richards remains unemployed.[14]

China's Watch Brother Incident[edit]

On August 26, 2012, Yang Dacai, chief of the Shanxi provincial work safety administration, was caught grinning widely amid the wreckage of a long-distance bus that killed 36 passengers when it collided with a tanker loaded with highly flammable methanol on a Chinese highway in Shanxi Province. Pictures of the accident began to circulate on Sina Weibo, the most popular micro-blogging site in China which led to a meme dubbing him as the "Smiling Brother". Searches on the Human flesh search engine followed leading to pictures surfacing on Weibo, showing Yang wearing luxury watches such as a $10,000 Rolex initiating another meme calling him "Watch Brother". On Sept. 21, Yang was relieved of his position and accused of serious discipline violations.[19]

YouTube cat abuse incident[edit]

In February 2009, an incident involving the posting on YouTube of a video clip in which a domestic cat, named Dusty, was beaten and tortured by a 14-year-old[20] boy calling himself "Timmy".[21] After about 30,000 viewings, this clip and the account were removed by YouTube as a violation of their terms of service.[20] Members of the 4chan imageboard investigated the incident, and by extrapolating from the poster's YouTube user name and the background in the video, they identified the abuser.[22] As a result of these complaints, the Comanche County Sheriff's Department investigated the incident,[23] and two suspects were arrested.[24] Dusty survived the abuse, and was placed in the care of a local veterinarian.[25] Both the assailant and the cameraman were charged with animal cruelty; as both were juveniles, possible punishments included "psychological counseling, court monitoring until they turn 18, community service to provide restitution for treatment of animals, and/or placement in court custody."[26]

Dog Poop Girl[edit]

In 2005 in South Korea, bloggers targeted a woman who refused to clean up when her dog defecated on the floor of a Seoul subway car, labeling her "Dog Poop Girl" (rough translation of Korean: "개똥녀" into English). Another commuter had taken a photograph of the woman and her dog, and posted it on a popular South Korean website.[27] Within days, she had been identified by Internet vigilantes, and much of her personal information was leaked onto the Internet in an attempt to punish her for the offense. The story received mainstream attention when it was widely reported in South Korean media. The public humiliation led the woman to drop out of her university, according to reports.[28]

The reaction by the South Korean public to the incident prompted several newspapers in South Korea to run editorials voicing concern over Internet vigilantism. One paper quoted Daniel Solove as saying that the woman was the victim of a "cyber-posse, tracking down norm violators and branding them with digital Scarlet Letters."[29] Another called it an "Internet witch-hunt," and went on to say that "the Internet is turning the whole society into a kangaroo court."[30]

The Kitten Killer of Hangzhou[edit]

In 2006, Wang-Jue (simplified Chinese: 王 珏; traditional Chinese: 王 玨; pinyin: Wáng-Jué), a Chinese nurse appearing in an internet crush video stomping a helpless kitten with her stilettos, gave herself up to authorities after bloggers and some print media started a campaign to trace back the recording. In the beginning, she was labeled as the kitten killer of Hangzhou, because it was believed she was from there; but some internauts recognized an island in northern Heilongjiang province. Upon discovery of her identity, Wang Jue received death threats from many angry animal lovers.

Wang posted an apology on the Luobei city government official website. She said she was recently divorced and did not know what to do with her life. The cameraman, a provincial TV employee, and she lost their jobs when internauts discovered their identities.[31][32]

Evan Guttman and the Stolen Sidekick[edit]

Other notable instances also include the case of Evan Guttman and his friend's stolen Sidekick II smartphone,[33][34] and the case of Jesse McPherson and his stolen Xbox 360, PowerBook, and TV.[35][36]

Rocky Mountain Chocolate Factory Refuses Bathroom Access to 5-Year-Old[edit]

In 2008, a 5-year-old girl asked to use the bathroom at the Rocky Mountain Chocolate Factory at Bella Terra/Huntington Beach. "I [The mother of the girl] explained she had diarrhea and couldn't hold it and told [the store owners] she was about to go on the floor. They refused again and never offered me any alternatives. I begged them to have a heart and that she was 5 but by that time she had lost it all over herself and me.".[37] The story then spread to sites like where contact information for the owner of the store was released in message boards.

Zhang Ya & Sichuan Earthquake[edit]

In 2008, a girl called Zhang Ya (S: 张 雅, T: 張 雅, P: Zhāng Yǎ) from Liaoning province, Northeast China, posted a 4-minute video of herself complaining about the amount of attention the Sichuan earthquake victims were receiving on television.[38] An intense response from Internet vigilantes[39] resulted in the girl's personal details[40] (even including her blood type) being made available online, as well as dozens of abusive video responses on Chinese websites and blogs.[41] The girl was taken into police custody for three days as protection from vigilante death threats.[42]

Stephen Fowler and Wife Swap[edit]

Stephen Fowler, a British expatriate and venture capitalist businessman, gained notoriety after his performance on ABC's Wife Swap (originally aired Friday January 30, 2009) when his wife exchanged positions in his family with a woman from Missouri for a two-week period. In response to her rule changes (standard procedure for the second week in the show) he insulted his guest and, in doing so, groups including the lower classes, soldiers, and the overweight. Several websites were made in protest against his behaviour.[43][44] After the show, and after watching the Wife Swap video, his wife, a professional life coach, reported that she had encouraged him to attend professional behaviour counselling. Businesses with only tangential connection to Fowler publicly disclaimed any association with him due to the negative publicity.[45] He resigned positions on the boards of two environmental charities to avoid attracting negative press.

Cyclist abuser Incident[edit]

In 2008, video of Patrick Pogan, a rookie police officer, body-slamming Christopher Long, a cyclist, surfaced on the Internet.[46] The altercation happened when members of Critical Mass conducted a bicycling advocacy event at Times Square.[47] The officer claimed the cyclist had veered into him, and so the biker was charged with assault, disorderly conduct and resisting arrest.

The charges against the cyclist were later dropped and Pogan was convicted of lying about the confrontation with the cyclist.[48]

Vigilante group targets mother[edit]

In 2009, a Facebook group was started, accusing a single mother for the death of a 13-month-old child in her foster care. It was the mother's then common-law husband who pleaded guilty to manslaughter and the mother was not formally accused of any wrongdoing. However, the members of the group, such as the boy's biological mother, accuse her of knowing what was going on and doing nothing to stop it.[49]

Cat dumped in wheelie bin[edit]

In August 2010, a passer-by in Coventry, England later identified as Mary Bale by 4chan's members,[50] was caught on a private security camera stroking a cat, named Lola, then looking around and dumping her in a wheelie bin, where she was found by her owners 15 hours later. The owners posted the video on the Internet in a bid to identify the woman, who was later interviewed by the RSPCA about her conduct. Outrage was sparked among animal lovers, and a Facebook group called "Death to Mary Bale" was created, and later removed. Police said they were speaking to the 45-year-old about her personal safety.[51]

The woman, who at first downplayed her actions ("I thought it would be funny", "it's just a cat" and "didn't see what all the buzz was about")[52][53] eventually apologised "profusely for the upset and distress".[54]

Bale has been convicted under the Animal Welfare Act of 2006 with causing unnecessary suffering to a cat. An additional charge of failing to provide the cat with a suitable environment was dropped.[55] She was fined £250 and ordered to pay costs, totaling £1,436.04.[56]

Cooks Source Incident[edit]

The food magazine Cooks Source printed an article by Monica Gaudio without her permission in their October 2010 issue. Learning of the copyright violation, Gaudio emailed Judith Griggs, managing editor of Cooks Source Magazine, requesting that the magazine both apologize and also donate $130 to the Columbia School of Journalism as payment for using her work. Instead she received a very unapologetic letter stating that she (Griggs) herself should be thanked for making the piece better and that Gaudio should be glad that she didn't give someone else credit for writing the article. During the ensuing public outcry, online vigilantes took it upon themselves to avenge Gaudio. The Cooks Source Facebook page was flooded with thousands of contemptuous comments, forcing the magazine's staff to create new pages in an attempt to escape the protest and accuse 'hackers' of taking control of the original page. The magazine's website was stripped of all content by the staff and shut down a week later. [57]

Rabbit gate[edit]

In 2010, a case was publicized involving a young female, from Sichuan under the alias name Huang siu siu (黄小小), torturing and crushing rabbits. The group that financially sponsor the making of these videos was later revealed to be called "Crushfetish" who pay young girls to crush fish, insects, rabbits and other small animals. The girl was paid 100 yuan for each attempt, and she has been participating since 2007. Police said the group makes videos to sell overseas, and the company has allegedly made 279 animal abuse videos with a subscription fee.[58] Because of the concurrent hosting of the 2010 Asian Games, the animal videos were only limited to hosting just a few hours a day on some websites.[59]

Operation Dogfight[edit]

On February 9, 2011, a man supposedly located in Spain posted a video of himself torturing a Pomeranian dog. Within two days, Anonymous picked up on the incident, and began searching for the man.

After attention was brought locally by Spanish Anonymous members, a news website carried an article asking local people to remain calm, and confirming that the IP address had identified Badajoz as the location of the blogger who uploaded the video.[60]

Bullied Bus Monitor Karen Klein[edit]

An elderly bus monitor, Karen Klein, was taunted, picked on, and threatened by four ruthless seventh-graders. The act was caught on video and uploaded to the Internet which in turn caused an act of kindness from complete strangers. $586,000 was raised for Karen in donations from concerned strangers who were outraged after viewing a video that captured her torment.

Distributed denial-of-service[edit]

A DDoS attack can be used to take down malicious websites, such as those being used for phishing or drive-by downloads. Thousands of people generate traffic to a website, flooding it such that it goes over quota or simply can't serve that many requests in a timely manner.

Notable examples[edit]

Campaign for "Santorum" Neologism[edit]

[relevant? ]

The campaign for the neologism "santorum" started with a contest held in May 2003 by Dan Savage, a columnist and LGBT rights activist. Savage asked his readers to create a definition for the word "santorum" in response to then-U.S. Senator Rick Santorum's views on homosexuality, and comments about same sex marriage. In his comments, Santorum had stated that "In every society, the definition of marriage has not ever to my knowledge included homosexuality. That's not to pick on homosexuality. It's not, you know, man on child, man on dog, or whatever the case may be." Savage announced the winning entry, which defined "santorum" as "the frothy mixture of lube and fecal matter that is sometimes the byproduct of anal sex". He created a web site, (and, to promote the definition, which became a top Internet search result displacing the Senator's official website on many search engines, including Google, Yahoo! Search, and Bing. Savage offered in May 2010 to remove the site if Santorum donated $5 million to Freedom to Marry, an advocacy group for same-sex marriage.[61]

"Project Chanology"[edit]

Main article: Project Chanology

Project Chanology was a protest movement against the practices of the Church of Scientology by members of Anonymous, a leaderless Internet-based group that defines itself as ubiquitous. The project was started in response to the Church of Scientology's attempts to remove material from a highly publicized interview with Scientologist Tom Cruise from the Internet in January 2008.

Project Chanology began its campaign by organizing and delivering a series of denial-of-service attacks against Scientology websites. The group was successful in taking down local and global Scientology websites intermittently from January 18, 2008 until at least January 25, 2008. Anonymous had early success rendering major Scientology websites inaccessible and leaking documents allegedly stolen from Scientology computers. This resulted in a large amount of coverage on social bookmarking websites.[62]

"Operation Payback"[edit]

Main article: Operation Payback

In September 2010, the founder of Aiplex Software, Girish Kumar's admission of using distributed denial of service attacks against known and suspected copyright violators including some large-profile P2P sites resulted in the company's servers as well as those of the MPAA and RIAA suffering a DDoS attack themselves.[63] The attack was launched by Anonymous, coordinated through IRC; the participants have willingly given control over their LOIC to the irc, forming a voluntary botnet in order to overpower their targets.

As a result, Aiplex went offline for a full 24 hours while the MPAA's website was unreachable for 22 hours. The RIAA, the Gallant Macmillan and ACS Law firm, as well as AFACT and the Ministry of Sound has been targeted as well.

On 16 October 2010, Anonymous launched an attack against the UK Intellectual Property Office website. The attack commenced at 17:00 GMT, causing the site to go down swiftly. It was brought back online on October 22. The rationale for the attack was that the site was "Perpetuating the system that is allowing the exploitative usage of copyright and intellectual property."[64]

Alan Ralsky spamming incident[edit]

In December 2002, convicted spammer Alan Ralsky was interviewed by the Detroit News. In the interview, Ralsky defended his position by arguing that spamming was a "perfectly legal business." He also claimed that he would never quit spamming and expressed interest at some of the newest spamming technologies such as "stealth spamming".[65]

Shortly afterwards, this article was posted on Slashdot, a popular technology news site. In response to Ralsky's remarks, the members of Slashdot posted his personal information and urged people to use this information to subscribe Ralsky to a number of free mailing subscriptions for the purpose of sending junk mail to his home. As a result, Ralsky's home received bags of mail daily.[66]

MegaUpload Retaliation[edit]

In response to MegaUpload's seizure by the US Department of Justice and FBI, the hacker group Anonymous announced on Twitter, "We Anonymous are launching our largest attack ever on government and music industry sites. Lulz. The FBI didn't think they would get away with this did they? They should have expected us." Later that week, as many as 10 sites had been taken offline in response to the Megaupload shutdown including the FBI, Universal Music, RIAA (Recording Industry Association of America) and Hadopi - the French government agency responsible for "protecting creative works on the Internet" and "the attacks were carried out by spreading links via Twitter and other parts of the Internet which carried out distributed denial-of-service attacks".[67]


An American judge, serving in Montana, has a controversial role as a vigilante online terrorist-hunter, posing as militant anti-American Muslim radicals online, hoping to attract the eye of those with similar mindsets.[68]

Lizard Squad Attacks[edit]

In September of 2014 the hacker group 'Lizard Squad' made multiple DDoS attacks on a variety of online games that include Destiny, Call of Duty: Ghosts, FIFA Madden, and Sims 4. The game servers were brought offline multiple times which caused a large commotion in the gaming community and on Twitter.[69]

Anti-pedophile Internet vigilantism[edit]

Perverted Justice is a well-known example of an anti-pedophile organization that aims to expose and convict adults who, using email or web sites, solicit minors in order to commit child sexual abuse. They often collaborate with television crews such as those from Dateline. Some freely hosted blogs claim to expose real or potential child sex offenders.

Another initiative, Predator Hunter, headed by Wendell Kreuth, aims to track down and expose the pornography-related activities of alleged 'sexual predators'. In 2002, Kreuth disclosed details of his activities in an interview with Minnesota Public Radio.[70]

The Australian group MAKO has used the Internet to warn families about sex offenders in their areas,[71] and to coordinate warnings about them.[72]

Members of the subculture "Anonymous" have also been credited for seeking out pedophiles and collaborating with law enforcement.[73][74] They describe themselves as a collection of individuals united by ideas. They left a mark with the arrest of Canadian pedophile, Chris Forcand. In early November 2011, Anonymous launched Operation Darknet, which targeted websites that distribute and traffic child pornography. Anonymous reportedly leaked the personal details of more than 1,100 pedophiles to pastebin, and invited the FBI and Interpol to investigate the information for leads.

Members of the usenet group Alt.Hackers.Malicious have also been known to target and expose child predators, taking credit for dozens of arrests and convictions. They are most well known for breaking into the NAMBLA servers on three separate occasions, downloading and disseminating the organizations membership information as well as emails which directly led to several arrests and convictions of child sexual abuse.

In June, Anonymous members claimed to have located and identified two predators in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. After passing on the information and "evidence" including a video purportedly showing one of the alleged pedophiles attempting to lure youths, Edmonton police announced they would not be able to lay charges due to a lack of real evidence. They also stated that Anonymous' interference and public attacks on their integrity in the media, while not providing them with what they needed in private was keeping them from legitimate cases currently being worked. An e-mailed statement to media from Alberta Law Enforcement Response Teams’ Integrated Child Exploitation (ICE) Unit in Edmonton said, " “The video postings this week have not only hampered our investigations, but have also distracted our ICE team and investigators from other work,” adding “The time we have spent dealing with these videos has been at the expense of other important child sexual exploitation investigations.” ICE followed up by saying they are committed to working with any tipster who can help them stop child exploitation, including Anonymous.[75]

In 2012, an unidentified group located at began exposing potential Internet predators in New York and the surrounding areas with the use of decoy profiles. Conversations which identify the individual by name are posted on the Internet, usually followed by interrogatory phone calls made to the subject for the purpose of obtaining a confession. The subjects are then left to deal with the consequences of their actions, with the evidence of their inappropriate contact with minors spread through social media.[76]

Identity theft activism[edit]

Main article: Identity theft

Organizations similar to vigilante action against pedophiles also target ID theft. Posing as ID thieves, they gather stolen personal information such as "dumps" (the raw encoded information contained on a payment or identification card's magnetic stripe, microchip or transponder), bank account numbers and login information, social security numbers, etc. They then pass this information on to the associated banks, to credit monitoring companies, or to law enforcement.

Other groups specialize in the removal of phishing websites, fake banks, and fraudulent online storefronts, a practice known as "site-killing". Artists Against 419 is a web site specializing in the removal of fake bank websites. Such groups often use tactics like DDoS attacks on the offending website, with the aim of drawing attention to the site by its hosting service or rapid consumption of the site's monthly bandwidth allowance. The Artists Against 419 always argued their tools were not a denial-of-service attack. At any rate they abandoned such tactics some time ago.[77]


Some companies engage in Internet vigilantism for profit. One such example is MediaDefender, a company which used methods such as entrapment, P2P poisoning, and DDoS attacks.

Other political activism[edit]

See also: Patriot hacking

Around the time of the 2008 Summer Olympics torch relay, which was marred by unrest in Tibet, Chinese hackers claim to have hacked the websites of CNN (accused of selective reporting on the 2008 Lhasa riots[78]) and Carrefour (a French shopping chain, allegedly supporting Tibetan independence),[79] while websites and forums gave tutorials on how to launch a DDoS attack specifically on the CNN website.[citation needed]

Real crime vigilantes[edit]

Some people form themselves into vigilante groups aiming (overtly) to expose injustice, whitewash and cover-ups in high profile criminal cases against innocent victims, often children. Recent cases include the death of JonBenét Ramsey in the USA and the disappearance in Portugal of the British girl Madeleine McCann.

Anti-software piracy Internet vigilantism[edit]

An example cited on the tech news site by Kevin Poulsen illustrates how two coders implemented and distributed a program that disguised itself as activation key generators and cracks for illegal software circulating on peer-to-peer file sharing sites. The duo researched software that was popular on these file sharing sites and tagged their code with their names. As soon as the software was executed, it displayed a large message, “Bad Pirate! So, you think you can steal from software companies do you? That's called theft, don't worry your secret is safe with me. Go thou and sin no more." The software then called back to a central server and logged the file name under which it was executed, amount of time the message was displayed on the downloader’s computer screen and their IP address. The information gathered was then re-posted onto a public website showing the downloader’s IP address and country of origin. The program also had a unique ID embedded into each downloaded copy of it for tracking purposes to keep track of how it traversed the different networks. [80]


Many sites have taken measures to prevent vigilantism. One form is the reporting and deletion of any sensitive information regarding an individual or group that can lead to their identity being known. Admins, moderators, users, and bots all take action to find and detect doxing.

Legislative framework[edit]

In 2002 in the United States, Representative Howard Berman proposed the Peer to Peer Piracy Prevention Act, which would have protected copyright holders from liability for taking measures to prevent the distribution, reproduction or display of their copyrighted works on peer-to-peer computer networks.[2] Berman stated that the legislation would have given copyright holders "both carrots and sticks" and said that "copyright owners should be free to use reasonable, limited self-help measures to thwart P2P piracy if they can do so without causing harm."[81] Smith College assistant professor James D. Miller acknowledged the threats to the privacy of legitimate Internet users that such actions would pose, but drew comparisons with other successful crime-fighting measures that can invade privacy, such as metal detectors at airports.[82]

See also[edit]


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Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]