online-vigilantism-perils

A recent article in The Age discusses how an Australian working in Bangkok was wrongly identified as the Bangkok Bomber on social media after the CCTV footage of the terrorist was publicly released. The online vigilantes posted the immigration papers and the local address of Sunny Burns on social media identifying him as the man in the bombing footage. He was eventually interrogated by local police and released.

This incident follows the similar wrongful identification of an Indian student in the US by a group on Reddit after the Boston bombing, specifically to track down the bomber. The student, Sunil Tripathi, was missing at the time (he was eventually found dead having committed suicide) and his family has revealed the intense harassment they faced until the police cleared him. The incident led to a lot of debate on the perils of online vigilantism which have been discussed here and here.

In this briefing, we discuss three specific aspects related to online vigilantism.

Doxxing

Vigilante tactics involve Doxxing, which is the public release of someone’s personal information and contact details online. This took place in the case of Burns. While done with the best of intentions, it can lead to the targeting of the innocent with long lasting negative effects on their reputation. It can lead to the physical harassment of the person and his family as well, as happened to Tripathi’s family.

Social Media Platform Accountability

Information shared on social media can go viral very quickly, making it very difficult to retract or control. We think social media platforms should take responsibility to remove content that wrongfully accuses someone of serious crimes. One of the confidential activities carried out by OHPI involves working with social media platforms and the Police to promptly identify and remove content that aims to identify individuals, wrongfully accuse them of misdemeanours and encourage their harassment. Here’s an example of such an incident.

Assisting Police Investigation

Social media can be very useful for finding missing persons or tracking down offenders. Victoria Police often posts to Twitter and Facebook asking for people’s help. However, in such cases, if you have any information, you should directly approach the police rather than create alternative online forums to carry out investigative work. It is important that if you do engage in investigative work, you do so privately and hand over the results to the Police, as OHPI does, instead of releasing them publicly.

A UK article discusses how unauthorised actions of vigilantes can unwittingly interfere with covert police operations into which long-term effort and resources have been invested.

Please report any such activity to the platform provider, and also to OHPI’s online reporting tool Fight Against Hate under the category of cyberbullying.

Getting Help

If you or someone you know are the target of online vigilantism please follow the online safety steps here. If are you are receiving threats contact the Australian Cybercrime Online Reporting Network directly here.

To further understand the issues discussed in this Briefing, take a look at our publications on Cyberbullying and Serious Trolling

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