Social Media enabling vigilante justice

The Interference of Social Media within Law Enforcement

12 minutes to read
Roeline Machiels

As a democracy, we have created a system of justice to prevent acts of vigilante justice, but social media have made this increasingly difficult. In this article, I will discuss how vigilante justice on social media interferes with law enforcement.


Networking platforms, or social media, are immensely popular these days. Millions of people spend hours a day roaming the streets of their timelines. We like, we comment, we befriend and we share whatever drives us with our network (Kaplan & Haenlein, 2010). It is not illogical then, to assume that this has an influence on our society and that our behaviour online also impacts matters besides our own social environment.

Not so long ago, I came across a video on the Facebook page of Dumpert. It was a clip of a teenage boy tackling and kicking a girl. Senseless violence, or even violence in general, angers me, and looking at the comments section, I was not the only one who got upset by the footage. Some commenters seemed to be so angry that they even promised to award money to the first person that would find the boy and give him a taste of his own medicine. The teenager's information, such as his address, name and Facebook account, was shared in the comments. A complete manhunt was set up for the boy (, 2016).

This is a clear example of vigilante justice, a scenario where an offender gets punished by people without any legal authority, who have decided to take the law into their own hands (Legal dictionary, 2017). This concept has been around for ages, but with the introduction of law enforcement, it had diminished. As a democracy, we have created a system of justice that is supposed to replace and prevent acts of retribution or revenge. Even though vigilante justice continued to exist offline, the founding of social media platforms has caused it to become a larger scale activity again.

Vigilante justice is a hard concept to deal with, considering that 'justice' is a very personal concept. Moreover, it is not recognised as a legal punishment. In our democracy, suspects are put on trial in court and receive an administration of justice from a legal authority (Nelson, 2016). So in some cases, offenders might get a second round of ‘justice’ served to them. In this article, I will discuss how vigilante justice on social media interferes with our society's law enforcement.

The use of social media

The world wide web developed from a relatively passive medium to one with an open nature, which led to the founding of platforms which focus on participation and an interactive communication process. These platforms are called ‘social media’ (O'Reilly, 2015). Kaplan & Haenlein (2010, p. 61) define social media as “a group of internet-based applications enabling to create and share user-generated content.” User-generated content includes the creation of new posts, uploading and sharing other people's materials and even commenting one’s own opinions on other posts (Evans, 2012).

How people use the platforms can be expressed by Maeres' (2013) definition of engagement as: “to hold the attention of, to induce to participate.” This means that engagement occurs when the attention of an individual is held by something, or when the individual is induced to participate in some sort of activity. The online engagement process can be divided into several steps steps, and with that several gradations, of online engagement (Evans & McKee, 2015, p. 37). The first step of the process is ‘Consuming’. Within the context of the personal use of social media, this step consists of reading, listening, watching and downloading digital content. The second step is ‘Participation’, which is equal to 'liking' a post or comment. Both steps have a low threshold and degree of online engagement.

Online vigilante justice is not only more accessible, but one can also participate in it within the safety of one's own home.

The step ‘Participation & Creation’ means that a user enters a conversation by creating their own content, e.g. by ‘commenting’. The threshold of this degree of engagement is higher, since this step requires more time and energy of the user. When one decides to share a post, it means that the user shows engagement on the level of ‘Distribution’. This step concerns a high degree of online engagement and a high threshold for the user. The latter is not because it requires more time or energy, but because the user addresses his or her own personal network for the matter. The highest degree of online engagement is ‘Evangelize’. This entails that the social media user creates a post about the matter himself and shares it with his network.

Social media and vigilante justice

As was stated in the introduction, vigilante justice is not a new concept. Due to the public nature of law enforcement, it is an easy topic for discussion. Waters (2012) states that “to the community, law enforcement can be fascinating and contentious. It involves drama, intrigue, and excitement that society finds captivating. The number of crime dramas on television and in theatres validate this. People tend to get involved".

Safe and accessible

With the development of social media, vigilante justice has gained a whole new and more dangerous dimension. Where engaging in retribution offline has a very high threshold and happens more in person, online vigilante justice is not only more easily executable, but one can also do it within the safety of one's own home. This results in a larger amount of people engaging in these acts, and in a much higher degree than they would offline. Anyone can post almost anything online, with little fear of repercussions (Waters, 2012).

The (anonymous) online environment can encourage more radical and inflammatory behaviour. People can hide behind a screen and even create fake accounts (Miller, 2016). They can use it as a platform to express their own strong opinions, or even to adapt a new identity that allows them to act outside of their normal behaviour and manners. Waters (2012) also states that it enables people to “participate in caustic and less ethical activities they otherwise would avoid. One of the dangerous aspects is the anonymity, which makes it harder to control these actions by the authorities”.

A cooling-off period where people can reconsider their reaction becomes optional due to social media.

Another difference with vigilante justice offline is that there used to be a smaller chance that people could invade the offender's private sphere. The law enforcement confidentiality provided protection that restricted the distribution of personal information, making the matter intangible. These protections seem to be ineffective within the web-society. Through use of the Internet, people can learn an individual's personal information and even contact them. Since this contact is immediately accessible due to social media, a cooling-off period where people can reconsider their reaction becomes optional. The outraged public can easily harass the offender online and create a threat to his private sphere (Nelson, 2016).

Metrical support and the pooling of like-minded

Another dangerous aspect of the social media environment is the metrical aspect of positive feedback you receive on there, such as 'likes'. One can ‘evangelize’ on a matter in a very radical way, and on a platform used by millions, so there is a great chance it will get some likes. The problem with the like-button is that it has no fixed semantic meaning, it is a 'phatic' sign. This entails that it can have several meanings for different people (Blommaert & Varis, 2015). The danger of this lies with the fact that people might press ‘like’ for various reasons. Some might be like-minded and others could be people who find the rant just highly amusing. The problem is that the poster might interpret these numeric metrics as support for a post that would be socially unacceptable in the offline sphere (Waters, 2012).

Social media is also a great tool for the pooling of like-minded others. Mutual support and understanding can spark the confidence of a social media user. With the ‘share-culture’ a post can gain attention rapidly and a vision can be propagated by many, creating a sort of mob mentality: “One small stimulus spurs a wide-scale reaction that feeds on itself and grows out of control. Incidents develop faster, reach farther, and spread more rapidly than anything society has dealt with before” (Waters, 2012).

Online vigilante justice and its interference with the law enforcement

In January 2013, a video appeared of a group of Belgian men who tackled and abused a man from Eindhoven. The police chose to share the video of the assault in order to find them, but the online public took over the case completely. Within a few hours the names, addresses and social media accounts of the men were revealed. The angry mob flooded their inboxes with hateful messages. The Belgian young adults were virtually pilloried. It is even rumoured some of them were followed to their homes (Verschuren, 2013). Eventually, the vigilante justice led to a reduction of sentence by the court, because it was such an extreme form of cyberbullying that they had to acknowledge it (Dumpert, 2013). This happened a few years ago, but the same kind of footage still makes its way to social media regularly, jeopardising the cases.

Mistrial and felony on felony

The interference of vigilante justice on social media begins when the law enforcement has to change the sentence perpetrators receive and acknowledge the punishment of the public. The problem that results from this is a shift within the justice system. When taking vigilante justice into consideration, its sends the message that people without legal authority can decide how and to what degree an offender must be punished, before the trial has even started. Bill Potts, the president of the Queensland Law Society, expressed concerns that social media commentary on a case can result in a mistrial (Nelson, 2016). Potts warns Facebook users that there is a chance that words expressed out of anger might influence potentional jurors. He is worried that the opinions expressed on cases on social media will impede justice. “Justice must be done in the courts and not on the internet”, Potts states (Nelson, 2016).

Another problem with vigilante justice on social media is that there is no clear boundary with regards to what can be tolerated and what not. Retribution mostly happens through the internet these days, but what stops people from entering the offender's offline sphere? To get back to the example presented in the introduction, people are promising each other money for giving - in this case - the teenager a taste of his own medicine. There is a very real chance that someone might take up the offer and take action. This scenario would lead to a whole new felony. However, according to Halt (n.d.) online vigilante justice of a certain degree can itself also be characterised as harressment, which already makes it a felony even if nothing happens beyond the internet. Cyberbullying is a criminal act when it happens in extreme forms. When it comes to online vigilante justice, this is usually the case.

Moreover, felonies are supposed to be assessed apart from each other, which would mean that the felony of harassment against the offender is supposed to be reviewed independently of the offender's felony (Nelson, 2016). In the case of the Belgian men however, the online retribution led to a reduction of their sentence. Online vigilante justice has the effect of a punishment, but according to laws on cyberbullying, it is also felony on its own. This means that the act of vigilante justice can't be seen as a legal type of punishment, as it is not a sentence ruled by a court of justice. These factors make the situation for jurors even more complex.

Impracticability of the equality principle in court

Vigilante justice also contradicts one of the 'General Principles of Law': the principle of equality. This principle entails that similar cases must be treated equally (, 2010). This doesn't exist with online vigilante justice. No matter what the crime was, the punishment will be the same if the public decides to take up the case: being virtually pilloried. It doesn't matter if it is a case about murder, abuse or theft, every offender gets punished with threats and other forms of online harassment. According to criminal law this is not righteous.

Not every case gets picked up by the online public, which causes unfair punishments.

Besides, online vigilante justice makes it impossible for law enforcers to treat the same kind of crimes equally. These days, an offender can plead for soothing circumstances, since online vigilante justice can feel as a punishment in itself. This is where the problem of equality comes into play. Not every case gets picked up by the online public, which causes unfair punishments. This has an effect in the long run as well, for example with (former) criminals who are trying to reintegrate into society. A criminal who has experienced vigilante justice will have a harder time reintegrating than other criminals, who are able to resume to society unnoticed. If a case goes viral, the criminal can be sentenced for life by the public, through acts of vigilante justice. The degree and length of the sentence is in this case based upon the media coverage and the way the public picks up on the case. Not every offender that makes it to the timelines gets picked up the same way, and not every offender reaches people's social media feeds.

The application of the legal system

According to statistics, the anonymous social media environment that enables acts of online vigilante justice, is not the only stimulus for the public to take the law into their own hands. The legal barometer of Jurofoon (2011) states that 80 percent of Dutch respondents is dissatisfied with the application of the legal system. One in three Dutchmen finds the sentences too soft. They claim the legal system is not always equal to - their views of - justice (, 2010).

In the case that society is dissatisfied by the legal system, they might feel that they should take justice into their own hands. When this happens before the legal trial, this is usually seen as ‘the criminal’s own fault.’ If the offender did not want people to be angry towards him/her, 'he/she should not have...'. Moreover, respondents state that every citizen is responsible for their own image. They state: 'when you do not want to be negativily discussed on a national level, you should just behave conform the laws' (Jurofoon, 2011). This seems like logical reasoning, but does it justify online vigilante justice?

The public does not have the proper tools to punish an offender legally. They can only get even by actions of the same character.

Online vigilante justice is driven by the principle of ‘an eye for an eye’, or ‘whatever you do, will be done to you.’ This is because the public does not have the proper tools to punish an offender legally. They can only get even by actions of the same character, which are a felonies in their own right. Moreover, the sense of what justice is, is relative. One might find a murderer should get a taste of his own medicine, where others want him imprisoned for life. In order to enact justice and to be able to punish offenders, a system of law and a proper execution of the system is necessary. Only then can we maintain control over the methods used and the reasonableness of the sentences.



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