In March 2020, a Vietnamese woman tested positive for the COVID-19 virus. A single infection quickly spurred digital vigilantism on Facebook among Vietnamese people.
Through an analysis of this case, I will demonstrate how social media enables vigilante justice. What are the consequences for the targeted person? For both Vietnamese and foreign newspapers, does their over-interest in the case have any impact? This case will be used to demonstrate how citizens, social media, and news publishers participate in the digital vigilantism process.
Who is the 17th Patient?
After 22 days without any new infections in Vietnam in March 2020, a woman tested positive for COVID-19 after returning from Europe. This was the first case in Hanoi, the capital city. She was called “Patient 17” because she was only the 17th COVID-19 case in Vietnam.
The Vietnamese government imposed a compulsory health declaration for any passengers coming to the country to prevent the virus' spread. The government also reasserted the Law on Prevention and Control of Infectious Diseases, originally passed in 2007. If a patient infects too many other people, they must declare their name, address, and a detailed schedule to faciliate the disease control process. Early in 2020, anyone returning from Italy was required to quarantine.
Patient 17 did not show the passport she had used to enter Italy and was allowed to go home without quarantine. This false medical declaration had enormous consequences for Hanoi. Her family members and passengers close to her on the plane tested positive for the virus. People from her entire street and the hospital she visited for a check-up were forced to quarantine - the case affected hundreds of people in the city.
After 24 hours, the news had spread. People started searching for Patient 17's personal information and, finding it, posted it to Facebook. There was a huge reaction from online users, kicking off the ‘naming and shaming’ phase of digital vigilantism. Social media is crucial here because it “allows citizens to discuss a targeted individual, publish the personal details and issue calls for action” (Trottier, 2015). The reactions from social media were unfortunate. Patient 17 did not expect her data to be exposed online and used for vigilantism. Negative media visibilities became a weapon to punish the targeted person. People use it to criticize her and create an intense and widespread online reaction.
Digital vigilantism on Facebook
The first page to confirm the case on social media was Beatvn. Beatvn is a verified news channel on Facebook widely known in Vietnam for their ‘up-to-the-minute’ news. The post's caption summarizes the events around Patient 17 next to pictures of the street where she lived was being quarantined. Significantly, these pictures were taken by citizens who live nearby and sent to Beatvn. The patient’s name is given only as “N.H.N” (for anonymity) and describes where she got the virus and her schedule thereafter.
However, in the comments section, people shared Patient 17’s Facebook profile. They took part in digital vigilantism by finding the target's personal information online and sharing it with other people. "Vigilantism on digital media can be framed in the context of online communication: the sharing of personal details, photos, and videos, adding commentary, discussion, and calls for action" (Trottier, 2015). All images and information were found by citizens. These comments demonstrate the concept of "doxing" or "human flesh" searching - citizens collectively identified and share Patient 17’s personal information, including her name, address, and appearance. Social media is used as an identification tool.
Multiple features of digital vigilantism can be seen in this case. First, the public found Patient 17's behavior reprehensible. People felt angry and indignant that she did not make the proper health declaration, affecting hundreds of people. Second, they demonstrated their anger by doxing the patient and sharing her personal information. Third, the case quickly gained visibility online, continuing the shaming in the Beatvn comments. Finally it became newsworthy enough for the traditional news outlets to report on.
Identifying the target
When the news about Patient 17 broke, people rushed to identify her and mistakenly identifyed other people in the process. One of the side effects of digital vigilantism is that it “can lead to several negative consequences” (Kosseff, 2016). In this case, people started seeking another person and posting her image online. The primary tool people use to find digital vigilantism targets is social media, so information can be difficult to confirm. It sometimes happens that “the target is misidentified as a suspect or offender” (Trottier, 2015).
Citizens started to upload images of another woman who looked similar to Patient 17 attending many events. People thought that ‘she’ - as the Patient - went to many places without quarantining after returning to Vietnam. People found images of other celebrities and influencers and claimed they were Patient 17. This damaged people’s reputations and many received negative comments for things they did not do. The woman who was primarily misidentified as Patient 17 had to confirm that she was not the targeted person on her personal Instagram account. Ronson (2015) writes that "Digital vigilantism participants may not be aware of the actual impact of their actions." When citizens “pursue informational goals such as identifying a targeted individual” online, there is no guarantee they will find the right information (Trottier, 2015).
"Digital vigilantism participants may not be aware of the actual impact of their actions."
However, this surplus of information sharing, mistaken identity aside, may positively impact the Vietnamese socio-cultural context. There have been several cases in which reporters got newsworthy information from people online. Apart from the impacts on the government’s efforts to halt the pandemic, they also provided the necessary measures to prevent fake news about the outbreak. Police asked people online to delete the false informaton they were sharing about Patient 17. Further, Vietnam recently increased regulations to control and protect information security.
Named and shamed for a second time
Patient 17's case did not end there. Six months after the initial digital vigilantism, the New Yorker, an American weekly magazine, published an article about public shaming during the COVID-19 pandemic. Patient 17 was interviewed about her experience. Unexpectedly, it made Vietnamese social media users even angrier with her. They believed she misunderstood the regulations in Vietnam - no official news spread her private information, just digital vigilantes. People commented that citizens had begun to forget about the case, so share a misleading story with a foreign newspaper now? The vigilantism started up again with people discussing the article’s misunderstandings and sharing Patient 17's identity online.
The New Yorker story faulted the Vietnamese government for leaking Patient 17’s information. The Western news media's emphasis on the mistakes of a non-Western government demonstrates how they choose and interpret the news: "Daily news coverage was strongly biased towards an episodic interpretation in which news depicts social issues as limited to events only and not placed in a broader interpretation or content" (De Vreese, 2005). The New Yorker’s article focuses solely on information privacy, limited to the context of the pandemic.
Furthermore, accuracy is traded for Western news values, as the Vietnamese government did not in fact expose Patient 17’s information: "This language of reflection is similarly employed in critiques of news coverage to pinpoint evidence of ‘bias’, that is, to question whether journalists have mirrored reality in an ‘objective’ manner or, failing that, the extent to which they have allowed certain ‘distortions’ to creep into the reporting process" (Allan, 2004).
According to Harcup and O’Neill (2016), the journalists targeted the ‘magnitude’ of the news story: “that is perceived as sufficiently significant either in the numbers of people involved or in potential impact stories.” By comparison, Vietnamese journalists prioritized epidemic and fake news prevention.
The remediating and amplifying role of the news outlets
The Vietnamese news media focused heavily on this case, especially as people began searching for Patient 17's information and photos. News broadcast organizations even used citizen witnesses' materials in their reports. This supermarket photo below was taken by a nearby resident, posted online, and eventually used by VOV2 news. "While evidence of such campaigns may be removed, news media coverage will likely remain and will include information about individual targets and their alleged offending acts" (Trottier, 2015). Journalists use many channels to keep up with the news, even going to social media to follow trending alerts.
Because of the case’s virality, it is also followed by the mass media. News outlets focus on and even amplify news that comes through other channels. In cases of digital vigilantism, social media networks urge people to share, connect, and communicate with others. By pushing for virality online, digital vigilantism cases can gain enough relevance to break into mainstream news.
Following viral topics is becoming routine for professional journalists, and “it has also provided journalists with a new way of learning more about their audiences” (Napoli, 2011). Journalists can now use software to track trending topics: "Stories that had gotten good traffic based on web analytics would get updates and follow-up" (Tandoc, 2014). Indeed Vietnamese journalists used web analytics in selecting the news on the day the government anounced the 17th case. Further news publishers also used a native posting strategy by reporting about Patient 17 on their Facebook accounts, enabling both vigilantism in the comments section and more traffic to their sites.
News outlets play an essential role in amplifying cases of digital vigilantism: "Newsmakers had to go to media outlets in order to share their message, get it amplified, and reach those they wanted to reach." It enlarges the audience and introduces a variety of framing issues. Journalists and editors make choices about not just what information they report on but how that information is presented. The New Yorker article in particular framed personal information privacy as a crucial element during the pandemic, distinguishing it from the way the Vietnamese media presented the same issue.
This case demonstrates the potential for scale and impact when it comes to digital vigilantism, especially nowadays, when social networks have become a space to connect like-minded people. Compared to the time prior to social media, it is now far easier to communicate about a topic on a large scale. The increased efficiency of mass mobilization is precisely what makes digital vigilantism possible. Social media affordances enabled both the public shaming of Patient 17 and journalists' research about the case.
The whole situation led to a mass discussion on online public shaming and how to control personal information privacy. Although there were some positives in managing the information, online identity searches, like that directed towards Patient 17, also run the risk of misidentifying people.
The case further demonstrates the increased relevance of digital media for traditional news outlets. Especially with a digital vigilantism case, journalists should carefully consider the impact of their reports.
Allan, S. (2004) News Culture. Open University Press.
De Vreese, C. H. (2005). News framing: Theory and typology. Information design journal & document design, 13(1).
Harcup, T., & O’Neill, D. (2016). What is News? Journalism Studies, 18(12), 1470–1488.
Kosseff, J. (2016). The hazards of cyber-vigilantism. Computer Law & Security Review 32(4).
Napoli P (2011) Audience Evolution: New Technologies and the Transformation of Media Audiences. Columbia University Press.
Tandoc, E. (2014). Journalism is twerking? How web analytics is changing the process of gatekeeping. New Media & Society, 16(4), 559–575.
Trottier, D. (2015) Digital vigilantism as weaponisation of visibility. Philos. Technol., 30. 55–72.