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Introducing Vigilant Audiences

Introducing Vigilant Audiences Daniel Trottier, Rashid Gabdulhakov and Qian Huang
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Ever since the exposure of the Kitten Killer of Hangshou captured the imagination of online communities world-wide, vigilantism and digilantism has come to the fore as an emerging and poignant issue. In their book Introducing Vigilant Audiences Daniel Trottier and colleagues (and contributors) have produced an excellent and throughtful ‘must read’ for all who are studying vigilantism, or just interested in it.
Prof. David Wall, University of Leeds

This is a collection of cutting edge and thoughtful case studies of global digital vigilantism that advances this emerging and increasingly important field in useful and intriguing ways.
Prof. Michael Pfeifer, City University of New York

Read about the importance of this contribution on our .

This ground-breaking collection of essays examines the scope and consequences of digital vigilantism – a phenomenon emerging on a global scale, which sees digital audiences using social platforms to shape social and political life. Longstanding forms of moral scrutiny and justice seeking are disseminated through our contemporary media landscape, and researchers are increasingly recognising the significance of societal impacts effected by digital media.

The authors engage with a range of cross-disciplinary perspectives in order to explore the actions of a vigilant digital audience – denunciation, shaming, doxing – and to consider the role of the press and other public figures in supporting or contesting these activities. In turn, the volume illuminates several tensions underlying these justice seeking activities – from their capacity to reproduce categorical forms of discrimination, to the diverse motivations of the wider audiences who participate in vigilant denunciations.

This timely volume presents thoughtful case studies drawn both from high-profile Anglo-American contexts, and from developments in regions that have received less coverage in English-language scholarship. It is distinctive in its focus on the contested boundary between policing and entertainment, and on the various contexts in which the desire to seek retribution converges with the desire to consume entertainment.

Introducing Vigilant Audiences will be of great value to researchers and students of sociology, politics, criminology, critical security studies, and media and communication. It will be of further interest to those who wish to understand recent cases of citizen-led justice seeking in their global context.

Introducing Vigilant Audiences
Daniel Trottier, Rashid Gabdulhakov and Qian Huang | October 2020
360 pp. | 6.14" x 9.21" (234 x 156 mm)
ISBN Paperback: 9781783749027
ISBN Hardback: 9781783749034
ISBN Digital (PDF): 9781783749041
ISBN Digital ebook (epub): 9781783749058
ISBN Digital ebook (mobi): 9781783749065
ISBN Digital (XML): 9781783749072
DOI: 10.11647/OBP.0200
BIC Subject Codes: HPS (Social and political philosophy), JFD (Media studies), UD (Digital lifestyle); BISAC: SOC052000 (Social Science : Media Studies), COM060140 (COMPUTERS / Web / Social Media, POL010000 (POLITICAL SCIENCE / History & Theory), SOC026040 (SOCIAL SCIENCE / Sociology / Social Theory); OCLC Number: 1200851042.

Notes on Contributors

Introducing Vigilant Audiences
‘For the Greater Good?’ Vigilantism in Online Pop Culture Fandoms
Contesting the Vulgar Hanmai Performance from Kuaishou: Online Vigilantism toward Chinese Underclass Youths on Social Media Platforms
‘I don’t think that’s very funny’: Scrutiny of Comedy in the Digital Age
Criticism of Moral Policing in Russia: Controversies around Lev Protiv in Moscow
Far-Right Digital Vigilantism as Technical Mediation: Anti-Immigration Activism on YouTube
Empowerment, Social Distrust or Co-production of Security: A Case Study of Digital Vigilantism in Morocco
‘This Web Page Should Not Exist’: A Case Study of Online Shaming in Slovenia
‘Make them famous’: Digital Vigilantism and Virtuous Denunciation after Charlottesville
Doxing as Audience Vigilantism against Hate Speech
Citizens as Aides or Adversaries? Police Responses to Digital Vigilantism
More Eyes on Crime?: The Rhetoric of Mediated Mugshots


1. Introducing Vigilant Audiences
Daniel Trottier, Rashid Gabdulhakov and Qian Huang

The opening chapter introduces vigilant audiences as a topic of scholarly inquiry, and outlines the broader themes that are addressed in this volume. After contrasting recent events that highlight scholarly and societal concerns with mediated denunciation, it considers an overview of relevant literature that highlight some key definitional matters. It then explores the tension between global media repertoires with local political and cultural contexts, using the mediated scrutiny of luxury vehicles as an exemplary case. This background provides context for the four thematic sections that structure the following chapters. Finally, we highlight some ethical considerations that have practical bearing on our research.

2. For the Greater Good? Vigilantism in Online Pop Culture Fandoms
Simone Driessen

This chapter explores how combining fan- and surveillance studies offers tools to examine vigilant, sometimes toxic practices that fans engage in. It does so by examining different practices of how fandoms hijacked narratives surrounding the Harry Potter-spin off series Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them (2016–current). Drawing on content analyses of online materials about the franchise and the different controversies it instigated, this study reveals four different practices of how fans hijacked the narratives surrounding the franchise: First, it is highlighted how fans denounced the involvement of actor Johnny Depp and campaigned to get him removed from the franchise. Second, the fandom called out producer David Yates and author J. K. Rowling for not taking a stand against Depp’s involvement. Third, following Rowling’s lack of countering Depp’s inclusion, fans continued to hijack the franchise narrative by shaming the author. Fourth, this chapter exposes how these escalated situations surrounding the franchise also challenged the norms and values of the fandom. The chapter explores how digital vigilantism is empirically present in the fandom, by mapping the different online practices fans engaged in to hijack the narratives surrounding their favourite franchise – through applying an innovative, interdisciplinary lens, and surveillance studies. By critically examining fans’ practices on a micro-level, this chapter might offer a point of departure or inspiration to also understand these challenges on a macro- or societal level.

3. Contesting the Vulgar Hanmai Performance from Kuaishou: Online Vigilantism toward Chinese Underclass Youths on Social Media Platforms
Jiaxi Hou

Beyond targeting individuals, online vigilantism can comprise significant collective practices among categories of social groups and therefore profoundly be embedded in reshaping the structures of social positions. By tracing the rise and fall of a specific user-generated music videos, hanmai, and the social media platform facilitating its production and circulation, Kuaishou, this chapter explores how vigilant practices including denunciating, shaming, and humiliating are involved in the transitioning Chinese society’s class stratification process, in particular in the making of distinction between underclass and middle-class identities among younger generations in the digitally-mediated world. After two years of online ethnography, the study first argues that with the new affordable digital technologies, the Chinese underclass youths for the first time attempted to realize a collective underclassness in creating and interacting with hanmai videos, in which class differences were reinforced with rhetoric and affective denunciations. However, these non-vigilante denunciations transformed the underclass into subjects of a larger scale online vigilantism and, later, state-led surveillance. Middle-class Internet users endeavoured to distinguish from the underclass by condemning the aesthetic, moral, and technological vulgarity implied in hanmai videos. The state surveillance also reached the underclass user-generated content in order to pursue a positive rather than vulgar representation of the underclass. The technologically-mediated visibility of Chinese underclass youths in the form of hanmai videos transformed from empowering social recognition to triggering various disciplinary forces both from the middle-class audiences and state power in cooperation with social media platforms.

4. "I Don’t Think that’s Very Funny": Scrutiny of Comedy in the Digital Age
Isabel Vincent

This chapter focuses on examples of comedy practitioners engaging in behaviour online which was perceived by audiences to be offensive. The offensive actions or jokes in each case led to criticism online which caused audiences to engage in digital vigilantism directed at the comedy practitioners. In each case the reaction from audiences led to a negative effect on the practitioners’ career, though in some cases audiences also rallied around the practitioner in their defence. The primary issue in these cases is that comedy is inherently subjective, and relies on both the audience understanding the joke, and the practitioner being of appropriate agency to make fun of their target. In online spaces such as Twitter or YouTube it can be harder for audiences to differentiate between an individual, and a comedian playing as a fictional version of themselves, and as such there can be confusion regarding intent and agency. This confusion is exacerbated as some claims of intent occur after the publication of a joke and as such it is unclear if they are genuine, or a response to negative reactions from audiences. This chapter discusses the way that the cultural capital of comedy is changing, the responsibility of the practitioner, and the circumstances in which audiences become digital vigilantes.

5. Criticism of Moral Policing in Russia: Controversies around Lev Protiv in Moscow
Gilles Favarel-Garrigues

Since the beginning of the 2010s, vigilante groups have appeared in the streets and on the Internet in Russia. Acting in the name of civil society, these "activists” (aktivisty) patrol the streets in order to find badly parked vehicles, inspect shops in order to check whether they sell expired products or hunt and trap alleged paedophiles. This paper focuses on public debates about Russian vigilante groups, id est on controversial issues surrounding their activity. It considers who voices the public critique and what exactly is criticized. The discussions encompass issues such as legality and morality of vigilantes’ acts, their retributions, their social usefulness and their efficiency. But do vigilantes care about critique, and how does critique affect their activity? The theoretical framework of this paper is influenced by pragmatic sociology, particularly the analysis of controversies, which emphasizes the role of the audience in public disputes. As a case-study, this paper focuses on a particular group, named Lev Protiv. Founded in 2014 and based in Moscow, this vigilante group presents itself as a "social project”, whose mission is to patrol train and metro stations, commercial areas and public gardens, urging smokers and drinkers to respect the law.

6. Far-Right Digital Vigilantism as Technical Mediation: Anti-Immigration Activism on YouTube
Samuel Tanner, Valentine Crosset and Aurélie Campana

The present chapter analyses how far right activists, digital media platforms and audience interplay in the production and diffusion of anti-immigration activism through an Actor Network Theory approach (ANT). It considers societal vigilantism as a technical mediation and, following the ANT central notion of translation, examines the co-influence between humans and technical artefacts. We focus on one case study of a YouTube livestream of an influential figure of anti-immigration societal vigilantism, Lauren Southern, in what was referred to as the French Alps mission, in April 2018. That mission brought together anti-immigration activists, under the banner of Génération Identitaire, who organised a blockade to prevent migrants from crossing the border between Italy and France. Based on a microanalysis digital ethnography of a livestream video posted on her YouTube channel, on which Southern is live-documenting both her actions and those of her co-militants, as well as giving her perspective on the role of digital media and the actions she is involved with, we come to two main results. First, we show that YouTube supplies symbolic and emotional content to individuals who reject mainstream media for all sorts of reasons, but which criterion of assessment rests on emotion, beliefs and wishes rather than on a thorough fact-checking process (as traditionally executed by mainstream media). Secondly, our chapter contributes to the current debates about post-truth. It demonstrates how truth is not only resting on emotions and beliefs – rather than facts – but also on infrastructure that blends as series of human actions, such as sharing, clicking, and commenting, with non-human actants like algorithms and collaborative filtering, whose materiality and performativity affects the economy of information. The assemblage altogether contributes to turning "fake news” and harmful discourse into political canons whose availability is augmenting, thus bringing the risk of matching a growing number of "interpretative communities”.

7. Digital Vigilantism in Morocco: Co-Producing Security or Communicating Social Distrust?
Abderrahim Chalfaouat

The tectonic impact of the Internet has sparked its own social changes in Morocco. Broadly, the state gains geopolitical and economic profit while society generates communicative and socio-cultural benefit from the Internet. For society, online communication challenges the soaring levels of illiteracy, and combines with street mobilization to forge law changes or foreground cultural demands. A key social change is the increasing vigilantism against abhorrent conduct, which common citizens record, share and denounce online. This chapter explores the extent to which vigilantism co-produces security in Morocco. It locates social change within the theory of empowerment, since Moroccan vigilantes’ sense of defiance and cyber social control depends on rampant connectivity and the Arab Spring atmosphere. Relying on a limited case study, the chapter qualitatively analyses an event of classroom violence. It highlights its diverse facets and mediatised meanings, especially the ways national, local and administrative stakeholders, and family members interact with the impact of its viral circulation. The main finding is that networkedness empowers the Moroccan society to gradually sustain security and demonstrate distrust. Instead of mob justice, however, vigilantes forge a cultural pattern of recording misconduct, uploading content, creating online uproar and bringing wrongdoers to justice. Yet, the culture of impunity mars the public effort and reduces its expected social influence.

8. "This Web Page Should Not Exist": A Case Study on Online Shaming in Slovenia
Mojca M. Plesničar and Pika Šarf

As the number of migrants crossing Slovenia on their way towards central Europe rose dramatically in 2015, social media were commonly used to express fear and hatred towards the migrants. Zlovenija, a Tumblr page with a wordplay on "evil" and "Slovenia", collected and re-published individual Facebook posts, their authors’ names and profile pictures, thus exposing their brutality in an attempt to condemn such discourse. Some of the posts were even printed and disseminated across the capital. The authors of the Facebook posts could request to be removed from Zlovenija, as long as they deleted their original post and briefly explained why they changed their mind. Many did so. Their explanations, sincere or insincere, substituted the original posts and Zlovenija stopped actively posting in 2016, which also coincided with the end of the acute phase of the migrant crisis. The response of the public was quick, but far from uniform with some praising the page and others strongly condemning it. Zlovenija’s approach was controversial and it immediately raised questions of both its legality as well as its legitimacy. In this chapter, we aim to explore Zlovenija's repercussions for the Slovenian public. We thus firstly analyse the original posts published on Zlovenija, the explanations that substituted the original posts. We explore Zlovenija’s motivation and logic through an interview with the author(s) of Zlovenija, and its impact through an analysis of the response of the wider public online. We then juxtapose these findings to the legal framework of the phenomena and critically assess the assertion that Zlovenija was no better than the original wrongdoers it was trying to expose. In fact, we discuss how by exposing and denouncing the evil in the original posts Zlovenija motivated responsibility and fostered public debate; however, the method it used was extreme and its use seems tremendously problematic in a modern democratic society.

9. "Make Them famous": Digital Vigilantism and Virtuous Denunciation after Charlottesville
Tara Milbrandt

This chapter explores the socio-moral complexities of digital vigilantism through an interpretive sociological case-study of a social media campaign aimed at publicly identifying participants who were filmed and photographed during the widely publicised and violent white supremacist rally that transpired in the streets of Charlottesville, USA in August 2017. It highlights the constellation of circumstances that empowered this high-profile and controversial social media campaign to identify and expose rally participants, far and wide. It formulates the creative, rhetorical, and moral dimensions of this campaign through textual and visual analysis of the digital call-to-action and responses to it.  It emphasizes the simultaneously emboldening and dis-empowering possibilities of visual documentation in a digital media-infused public culture, where expressive conduct undertaken in one setting and time may come back to haunt actors later, elsewhere, and before unanticipated audiences. To understand the social significance of digital vigilantism within today’s digital media-infused landscape as revealed through this case, the reader is asked to consider what would have been different about Charlottesville 2017 without the social media campaign aimed at identifying and outing participants before a broader public? I argue that this coordinated digital media campaign helped to crystallise a broadly felt and united refusal of the terrain that was being sought by organisers, participants, and supporters of the Charlottesville rallies, namely, to legitimate the articulation of violent white supremacy in contemporary American public life as but one kind of "expression" amongst others. Utilizing the tools of digital media, it worked to deny the possibility for participants – present and future – to attend a rally associated with such legitimation anonymously, and thus without risk or consequence to their future selves. In doing so it helped to constitute opposition to what the rally represented on deeply socio-moral grounds, irreducible to legalistic definitions of protected forms of speech and assembly.

10. Doxing as Audience Vigilantism against Hate Speech
David M. Douglas

Doxing is the public release of personally identifiable information, and may be used as a tool for activism by removing the anonymity of individuals whose actions or stated beliefs harm others or undermine social cohesion. In this chapter I describe how doxing that deanomynises proponents of hate speech is a form of audience vigilantism. I argue that it is a defensible means of combating hate speech if it has the purpose of beginning a process of deradicalizing the identified individuals through reintegrative shaming. Such doxing must be motivated by a legitimate social need (in that they can be justified using premises and evidence acceptable to all in society), and must remain within socially tolerable bounds (in that it does not lead to physical harm, it is not indiscriminate, and is in response to injustices that are in principle recognisable to those who are not affected by it). I refer to several instances of doxing relating to proponents of hate speech to illustrate my argument and to demonstrate the importance of the legitimate social need and socially tolerable bounds criteria.

11. Citizens as Aides or Adversaries? Police Responses to Digital Vigilantism
Rianne Dekker and Albert Meijer

Social media have opened up new sources of information on crime to citizens which facilitates their participation in crime fighting. The labels of "do-it-yourself (DIY) policing" and "digital vigilantism" (or "digilantism") suggest that a normative line can be drawn between forms of participation that are accepted and unaccepted by law enforcement. This chapter studies how law enforcement authorities set boundaries on what digital contributions of citizens to public security are acceptable. This law enforcement perspective is largely missing in current research into online engagement with public security. Based on a series of round table discussions with approximately 150 European law enforcement practitioners, we were able to study how they discursively define the boundaries between acceptable and unacceptable forms of public engagement in law enforcement. Citizens are considered as aides to police efforts when they engage with cases relating to their local context and when they closely collaborate with law enforcement. When online engagement goes beyond this familiar model of co-production, citizens are more likely to be considered adversaries. This concerns involvement in cases outside of citizens’ own local contexts and when they do not collaborate with law enforcement or only in a later stage in order to be able to claim their own successes. This suggests that discursive boundaries are drawn based on the resemblance with the existing operating paradigm of "community policing".

12. More Eyes on Crime?: The Rhetoric of Mediated Mugshots
Sarah Young

The "Mugshot of the Day" (MotD) program, run by Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office (MCSO) in Phoenix, AZ, from 2011 to 2016, allowed the public to vote daily on a favorite mugshot which elevated the top photos to the Office’s leaderboard and often resulted in the increased visibility of female arrestees. I argue that by doing this, MCSO used the exigency of entertainment on participatory platforms to temporarily coalesce a group of digital vigilantes into being, in order to weaponise visibility. Making this claim is complicated, however, and requires not only that online mugshot consumers can be viewed as digital vigilantes, but also the belief that entertainment can facilitate this role and that there can be a relationship between the state and digital vigilantism (DV). Overall, this claim and discussion is beneficial because it not only identifies who digital vigilantes can target but it also contributes to evolving definitions of who can, and how one participates, in vigilantism in a digital world.