Handing out the pitchforks: BuzzFeed and mediated digilantism

15 minutes to read
Astrid Fokkema


'Digilante' BuzzFeed posts show how the news outlet actively invites users to participate in online shaming. By doing so, BuzzFeed mediates digilantism. 

BuzzFeed and Mediated Digilantism 

On an ordinary Wednesday in December 2013, Justine Sacco posted a tweet just before boarding a flight to Cape Town. “Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding. I’m white!” When she turned on her phone again after the 11-hour flight, her phone ‘started to explode’. Outraged Twitter users had retweeted her post thousands of times, calling her racist and ignorant and demanding she be fired. Three weeks later she no longer had a Twitter account or a job. Justine Sacco had just become one of the most well-known victims of digilantism (Broderick, 2013).

Trottier (2017) defines digilantism as “a process where citizens are collectively offended by other citizens’ activity, and respond through coordinated retaliation on digital media, including mobile devices and social media platforms” (p.57). Examples of these citizens are abundant. A Google search for the term ‘offended’ will yield a spectrum of collectively offended citizens: from Great British Bake-off viewers who deemed the show’s Japanese week ‘racist’ to women’s advocacy groups offended by how abuse stats are represented. These wildly different examples are illustrative of how ubiquitous and diverse digilantism can be.

BuzzFeed has tapped into the anger of these collectively offended citizens. It is the tenth most visited website in the United States and has millions of unique visitors worldwide (BuzzFeed, 2019). Their content ranges from listicles on dog Halloween costumes, to quizzes that tell you what Hogwart’s House you would be in, to news stories on the Black Lives Matter protests. In the Justine Sacco story they played a particularly active role. BuzzFeed editors were among the first few to retweet Justine’s post. BuzzFeed then published a news article on the post going viral and a recap of events a few days later (Broderick, 2013). 

BuzzFeed taps into the anger of collectively offended citizens

The Justine Sacco narrative shows how digilantism exposes transgressions of social norms online, transforms visibility between participants in the interaction and by doing so defines social norms. This article analyses various BuzzFeed articles to show that, although digilantism is seen as a process initiated by citizens, BuzzFeed actively taps into the anger of the mob and thus acts as a mediator of digilantism.

Using quizzes to define social norms

Digilantism deals with offences that transgress moral or normative boundaries (Trottier, 2019). The hybrid media system offers not only numerous opportunities to make behaviors and preferences visible to others (Treem & Leonardi, 2012, quoted in Geber & Hefner, 2019), but also establishes those social norms through interaction. Theories of normative social behaviour distinguish between descriptive norms, what is done in a referent group, and injunctive norms, what ought to be done in a group (Geber & Hefner, 2019). BuzzFeed plays a mediating role in defining social norms by directly identifying and reporting on desirable behaviours, by enabling users to test to what extent they adhere to those behaviours, and by actively engaging users in defining social norms.

One of BuzzFeed’s trademarks is its often humorous clickbait titles which, to a large extent, detail the contents of the articles. As a normative power, BuzzFeed uses these titles to very clearly state a value judgment. The article ’15 People who were Purer than Holy Water in April’ (Schocket, 2018) is a compilation of anecdotes submitted by users and tweets collected by editors that display ‘pure’ stories. These range from @downlinglilly sharing a picture of her grandma holding hands with her new best friend to @sophiedukebox sharing a text from her aunt that reads ‘jesus loves u’ (Schocket, 2018). The article could be seen as the very opposite of digitlantism. Whereas digilantism itself is about exposing and shaming 'sinners', this article jokingly invites readers to join in on the deifying of people 'purer than holy water'.  Though the hyperbole is evident, so too is the norm: these pictures and stories are defined and should be perceived as ‘pure’ and therefore ‘desirable’ behaviours. From a theoretical perspective, this shows how BuzzFeed increases visibility of descriptive norms.  

Whereas individual citizens need to find many fellow digilantes, BuzzFeed already has millions at its disposal

BuzzFeed not only displays existing social norms but also enables users to test the extent to which they adhere to these social norms. A clear example of this is the quiz ‘How Many Ways Have You Been A Good Neighbor To Your LGBTQ Community?’(BuzzFeed, 2020). The quiz asks you to check off activities from a list such as ‘purchased from an LGBTQ owned shop’ to ‘took the time to confront your own internal bias’. Ticking all the boxes will reveal that you are ‘an exceptional ally’, while ticking no boxes show that you are ‘a growing ally’. Additionally, users can share their results on Facebook, and by doing so make visible to others how ‘well’ they are adhering to the social norm. In fact, by also displaying how 'well' you scored compared to others, BuzzFeed even quantifies the extent to which you are in line with desirable behavior. 

Result of the LGBTQ BuzzFeed Quiz

Lastly, BuzzFeed actively asks its users to define social norms, albeit indirectly.  They frequently post questions for input such as 'Multiracial People, What Things Are You Sick Of Hearing?’ (Vouloumanos, 2020a). Collected inputs are then featured in an article, in this case ‘Multiracial People Are Sharing Things That People Constantly Say To Them (And It's Genuinely Eye-Opening)’ (Vouloumanos, 2020b). They actively ask members of the same social group (multiracial people) what they perceive as undesirable behaviour towards that group. By doing so they show injunctive norms, or ways in which people should not behave. It shows that BuzzFeed is actively on the prowl for non-normative behaviors on which to shine their torches. 

The first two examples illustrate a more reactive mode, where BuzzFeed merely responds or participates in already existing outrage. In the last example however, BuzzFeed is deliberately seeking actionable content regarding socially undesirable behaviours. Additionally, these examples show how BuzzFeed plays into the affordances of hybrid media logics. Within this logic, 'actors create, tap, or steer information flows in ways that suit their goals and in ways that modify, enable, or disable the agency of others, across and between a range of older and newer media settings' (Chadwick, 2017 xi). BuzzFeed is one actor in an interdependent media field. Users share their own experiences, BuzzFeed integrates those within the framework of their articles, and various social media websites create uptake of articles while simultaneously being a source of content for new ones.  

Identifying outliers

Digilantism is about exposing those behaviours that are not in line with prevalent social norms. In this respect, again, BuzzFeed plays multiple roles. In some instances BuzzFeed acts as a ‘traditional’ news medium, and merely reports on transgressions that are already the centre of online outrage. This can be illustrated by a BuzzFeed article on reality tv star Kendall Jenner, who violated Covid-19 public health regulations while hosting a party (Jokic, 2020). The article explains that there was a strict ‘no social media’ policy at the party. This shows that Jenner was aware that her actions might be deemed inappropriate in a more public framework and consciously tried to minimize visibility. The article reports that, despite the no social media policy, some attendees posted pictures showing people without face masks and ignoring social distancing rules.

The 'no social media' policy shows that Jenner was aware that her actions might be deemed inappropriate

These pictures were quickly shared and collective outrage ensued, illustrated in the article by screenshots of tweets such as ‘THERE ARE PEOPLE THAT ARE DYING U DON’T NEED A HALLOWEEN PARTY’ (Jokic, 2020).  In fact, these type of tweets make up the biggest part of the article. Though celebrity transgressions are the very material on which many gossip magazines have thrived for centuries, the fact that anyone can respond to these transgressions shows the extent to which anyone can participate in digilantism. In other words, digilantism is not only about exposing those that break social norms. It is also about exposing and sharing collective outrage over those transgressions.


However, BuzzFeed not only reports on transgressions that have already been identified. It also acts as a normative power by publishing on perceived transgressions. They then generate engagement by letting users decide what social norm has been transgressed. For example, the article ‘19 Actors Who Took Roles That They Proooooobably Shouldn't Have’ lists mainly white actors who played non-white characters, for example “Natalie Wood (a white woman of Russian descent) [who] played Maria, a Puerto Rican woman, in West Side Story” (Osifo, 2020). BuzzFeed does not explicitly state why actors should not have taken these roles, it merely states the ethnicity of the actor and the ethnicity of the role they played.

Natalie Wood 'probably' should not have taken the role, according to BuzzFeed

BuzzFeed clearly provides ‘specific affordances for social actors to engage in shaming’ (Trottier, 2017). It merely draws attention to perceived transgressors, but does not explicitly say what social norm has been broken. As such, BuzzFeed leaves it to readers to define the social norms and transgressions and to engage in the shaming. The comment section shows that readers are happy to to do so. In over 1300 comments, users name examples of other white actors who took on non-white roles and actively discuss when someone is or is not breaking a norm. One comment, for example, reads ‘Bruh Mickey Rooney played that role in like the 1960s. Standards were different then. You can’t judge old movies for “evil racism” when that was the norm at the time. Norms change".  From a theoretical perspective, BuzzFeed entices readers to deduce the social norm themselves. In other words, readers are asked to define injunctive norms and explicate how people ought to behave. 

BuzzFeed leaves it to readers to define social norms, define the offence, and engage in online shaming 

Further, by expressing their outrage at the transgression, readers are consciously portraying themselves as being ‘in the know’ on prevailing social norms. Furthermore, they become part of a community in which group members assert their membership by defining who does not belong and why. 

Look at all these angry people 

The inclusion of angry tweets in their articles and users' active involvement also show how BuzzFeed amplifies the visibility of collective outrage and transgressors. Thompson (2018) explains how this is an integral part of new forms of interaction: ‘In the new forms of interaction (…) the visibility of individuals, actions and events is severed from the sharing of a common locale: one no longer has to be present in the same spatial-temporal context in order to see the other individual or individuals with whom one is interacting or to witness an action or event’ (p.19). Digilantes often aim to maximize the visibility of the transgressive actor. The more widely published the transgression is, the more effective the digilantism is (Trottier, 2019). It is this transformation of visibility that has given rise to the online exposure of both online and offline scandals.

It is also this visibility that strips transgressors of their privacy. Any citizen can share pictures or posts of deviant social behavior with their social media followers. However, whereas individual citizens need to find many fellow digilantes, BuzzFeed already has millions at its disposal. 

The article ‘A Wedding Videographer Is Facing Criticism For Mocking A Client Who Asked For A Refund After His Fiancé Died’ (Baer, 2020) underlines the idea that more visibility increases the efficacy of digilantism. Justin Montney was set to marry in May, but his fiancée died in a car crash, after which he asked the wedding photographer to refund his payment. The photographer refused and created a website to publicly mock Justin. The article includes photos of the negative review Justin posted on the company’s website, screenshots of a local TV station that reported on the case, and screenshots of the website the photographer started to ‘build a case against Montney’. These actions show how both parties were aware of the importance of visibility in making their case. Both ‘leverage audience cynicism' to capitalise on the visibility and denunciation of the opposing party (Trottier, 2019). By reporting on it, BuzzFeed further increased the visibility of the case.

The article mainly contains quotes from Justin explaining his side of the story. It also includes one quote from the photographer that reads ‘"we hope you sob and cry all day for what would have been your wedding day. Sorry, not sorry” (Bear, 2020). BuzzFeed does not explicitly condemn the photographer but does make editorial choices in favour of Justin. In this respect they are mediating digilantism. Trottier (2019) points out that websites such as BuzzFeed have business models that "benefit from viral spikes in online engagement following controversial shaming campaigns, to the extent that they may tolerate or even cultivate digilantism" (p.13). Following Buzzfeed's report and the incident being televised, the photographer’s website received thousands of negative reviews (Bear, 2020), further illustrating the role of visibility in the effectiveness of digilantism. 

Since BuzzFeed's report, the photographer’s website has received thousands of negative reviews

Visibility also pertains to how digilantism both enables and needs people to become witness to events in other spatial-temporal contexts. A BuzzFeed article on ‘manspreading’ contains tweets of pictures of men taking up space on public transport (Nashrulla, 2014). Those engaged in posting these pictures do share the same spatial-temporal context as the transgressor, but by posting about it online they allow for even more ‘witnesses’. They choose not to address the perpetrator face-to-face but instead opt for mediated online interaction. This also shows the hybrid nature of digilantism: real-life transgressions are made visible online, aimed at achieving a change in offline behaviour.

Tweet shared in a BuzzFeed article on 'manspreading'

What BuzzFeed does in both these instances is mediate visibility. They are sharing a transgression that has already been spotted and commented on - BuzzFeed abstains from direct comment. Rather, the articles simply report on angry people, thus garnering even more angry people and amplifying digilantism. Trottier (2019) points out that while journalism more broadly involves making people visible through, for example, crime reporting, what is new is that it has now begun to overlap with social media practices. This amounts to a hybrid media system (Chadwick, 2017) that not only involves individual user input, but integrates that into a narrative of collective outrage that shapes social norms and makes them visible.

The BuzzFeed Salon

In a 1957 discussion on mass media, C. Wright Mills stated that: “The realization of opinion in action is controlled by authorities who organize and control the channels of such action” (Mills, 1956, quoted in Habermas, 1989). In 2020, Buzzfeed proves that this quote has never been more relevant. 

When looking at Habermas' definition of the public sphere, one might argue that BuzzFeed actually facilitates democracy. Whereas salon debates of the 19th century were attended by a select number of intellectuals, BuzzFeed has drastically remodelled the salon and has its doors wide open. Anyone can participate in both defining social norms as well as upholding of the rule of law by convicting those that transgress social norms.

However, within this open-source public sphere also lies its most problematic affordance: anyone can participate and so too can anyone fall victim to digilantism. In the BuzzFeed salon there is no rule of law, just the rule of the mob. And since its doors are wide open, there is no privacy either. Justine Sacco posted one unfortunate tweet six years ago and still the first two pages of Google search results are about #hasjustinelandedyet?. 

BuzzFeed digilantism is defined by the absence of legal authority 

BuzzFeed, however, appears unaware of the consequences of the digilantism they mediate. One year after the ordeal, BuzzFeed published another article about Justine, who was interviewed by Jon Ronson for his book about online shaming. The article emphasizes that "other than a brief public apology last year, Justine has never spoken publically about the tweet" and "Sacco also defended her joke, saying she thought "there was no way that anyone could possibly think it was a literal statement"" (Testa, 2014). The editor appears to suggest that Justine's penance was not sufficient or public enough. In the Justine Sacco case, and in many similar digilante cases, BuzzFeed has acted as a legislator, executor, and juror and invited the crowds to join in. BuzzFeed digilantism, like traditional vigilantism, is defined by the absence of legal authority and the whims of a self-appointed group of citizens. 

BuzzFeed readers appear to be more aware of the mediated digilantism BuzzFeed facilitates. In the comment section below the LGBTQ quiz for example,  one comment reads: "WTH is this about? I'm a good neighbor to all i meet. If they need help I'll help. I don't have to virtue signal". Comments on the article about the actors in problematic roles read: "Focusing on the negative does nothing but continue to breed contempt" and "Buzzfeed writes articles that divide, rather than unite people all under the guise of being woke. Hypocritical and condescending." Just as BuzzFeed is dependent on its readers to foster digilantism, so too it appears to be dependent on its readership to be made more aware of its mediating role. 

All in all, BuzzFeed has proven to be very much aware of the affordances of digilantism and uses these to define social norms, identify deviance from those social norms, and use the affordances of being a highly-trafficked website to foster engagement through online shaming. By integrating their users into their articles, BuzzFeed allows collective outrage to take centre stage. Archaic vigilantism entailed crowds of angry citizens rallying with pitchforks in hand, ready to pierce any alleged criminal or heretic. Within digilantism, BuzzFeed hands out those pitchforks, enabling any angry citizen to partake in the rally.

Whereas BuzzFeed increases accountability of those who deviate from the social norms they define, they show little accountability themselves. Though they are interdependent on other actors in the hybrid media field, they position themselves as a normative power that is above privacy and the rule of law. To safeguard these principles of democracy in a hybrid media system, it is time to bring them back down. #HasBuzzFeedLandedYet?


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