CFP: Watchful Citizens: Policing from Below and Digital Vigilantism
Université de Montréal, 2-3 November 2017
In Europe and America, political mobilizations have emboldened citizens to
monitor and harass individuals based on categories of suspicion, for
instance illegal aliens. These mobilizations in turn have spawned
counter-movements seeking to render perpetrators of hate- speech and
harassment visible and accountable. Depending on the cause defended and the
political context, governments may explicitly or implicitly support citizen
groups that publicize and denounce suspected wrongdoing by other citizens.
Digital media cultures facilitate the sharing of evidence of offensive
acts, but also the shaming of targeted individuals and a broader moralising
against criminal or otherwise undesirable populations. Visibility, as
manifest through the public and open distribution of a target’s personal
details, stands as a central feature of contemporary vigilante campaigns.
What is new with digital vigilantism? If the digital sphere is definitely a
crucial aspect of this visibility, one also has to consider a more profound
transformation in societal participation, or how the population relates to
and perceives its authorities when social, political, cultural, religious,
national and security issues are at stake. As shown in assessments of late
modernity, liberal and neo-liberal politics have deputized citizens by
rendering them responsible for their own security, social order and fate,
thus leading to a distributed regulatory network rather than strictly
top-down governance of society (Bayley & Shearing, 2001). Yet deputized
citizens are not only following their authorities’ recommendations; they
are also self-directed in what they consider the good march of society.
According to Walsh’s argument (Walsh, 2014), such a transformation in
societal participation led to a shift from a deputization to an
autonomization paradigm, referring to the voluntary, or self-appointed,
involvement of citizens in the regulatory gatekeeping network. This refers
to grassroots mobilization, rather than governments mobilising the public,
with groups of citizens spontaneously aligning themselves with authorities’
arms and objectives (Walsh, 2008). Autonomization also refers here to a
context in which an ideal-typical state claims to monopolize law
enforcement functions, in contrast to groups acting strictly autonomously,
or as challengers of state law enforcement institutions.
However, underlying these transformations should not lead to underestimate
historical continuities with classical forms of citizens’ involvement in
denunciation, law enforcement and vigilante justice. One of the most
recurrent forms of autonomization is vigilantism as a form of societal
participation. Even if it is formally unsolicited, vigilantism represents
an outgrowth of state activity” (2014: 249). According to Walsh, “while
operating without official authorization, the organizations do not perceive
their actions as overriding or transgressing the local order but construct
themselves as self-anointed guardians rescuing national sovereignty,
citizenship and the law’s moral sanctity, from cultural elites, moneyed
interests, inept bureaucrats and a sclerotic state” (2014: 249).
According to Favarel-Garrigues and Gayer, vigilantism may be defined as
“collective coercive practices undertaken by non-state actors in order to
enforce norms (social or judicial) and/or to take the law in their own
hands – a term that mostly refers to punishing, but also to societal
ideals. In targeting the offenders that are external to their community,
but also their own offenders, vigilantes are both involved in the fight
against crime and social control. Their activities are known because they
either are conducted in public, in the name of a community of reference, or
because the witnesses to more secretly conducted punishing expeditions
spread the information and nourish the group’s reputation”
(Favarel-Garrigues & Gayer, 2016: 17).
If pioneers’ work established a first definition of vigilantism based on
history (Brown, 1975; Abrahams, 1998; Johnston, 1996), more recent
sociological and anthropological works have focused on vigilante practices
and activities on the field (Favarel-Garrigues & Gayer, 2016; Pratten &
Sen, 2007). More specifically, and considering the recent developments in
media and communication, we want to focus on the impacts and interactions
between vigilantism and the digital sphere. On this matter, Daniel Trottier
defines digital vigilantism as “ a process where citizens are collectively
offended by other citizen activity, and respond through coordinated
retaliation on digital media platforms, including mobile devices and social
media platforms. The offending acts range from mild breaches of social
protocol to terrorist acts and participation in riots. These offensive acts
are not meant as a provocation in the context in which vigilantism is
situated. Therefore, the targets of digital vigilantism are typically
unaware of the conflict in which they have been enrolled” (Trottier, 2015:
218). Digital vigilantism refers, but is not limited, to a basic principle
of “naming and shaming”, or through a ‘weaponisation of visibility’, that
is sharing the target’s personal details by publishing/distributing them on
public sites (‘doxing’). According to Trottier: “The visibility produced
through digital vigilantism is unwanted (the target is typically not
soliciting publicity) intense (content like blog posts, photos and videos
evidence circulate to hundreds of thousands or even millions of users
within a few days) and enduring (the vigilantism campaign may be the first
item to appear when searching the individual’s name online, and may become
a cultural reference in its own right)” (Trottier, 2015: 219). He then
argues that: “the emergence of social, geolocated, ubiquitous media has led
to a dissolution to any such barrier, to the extent that digital media
activity can have lasting consequences in both a local and global context”
(Trottier, 2015: 220).
Digital vigilantism implies a paradigm shift with regard to the context in
which digital media are used, pointing to the end of a yet well-established
distinction between online activity and offline consequences (Trottier,
2015; 2016; Reagle, 2015). Digital communication comes with “context
collapse”, where the “lack of spatial, social, and temporal boundaries
makes it difficult to maintain distinct social contexts” (boyd, 2008: 34).
As Reagle puts it: “ Comment’s reactivity, shortness, and asynchronicity
mean that it is especially contextual but that its context also is easily
lost as it is forwarded and retweeted” (Reagle, 2015: 79).
The coming workshop, which will launch the International Center for
Comparative Criminology’s 2017-2018 scientific season, will focus on
digital vigilantism. Considering both the raising of the autonomization
paradigm and the digital sphere, we will address the impacts of such
dimensions on the practices, activities and dynamics of vigilantism, but
also how vigilantism and the autonomization of societal practices with
regard to gatekeeping and social control impacts vigilantism. As examples
of communications, we would welcome propositions addressing (but not
limited to) the following issues:
– How do vigilantes promote and enforce their norms and/or values in
practice using digital media?
– How do digital media help, transform and contribute to the coordination
of embodied activities in the context of vigilante activities?
– How do digital media contribute to the renegotiation and reassertion of
collective (ex: nationalist) identities in the context of vigilante
– How can scholarship contribute to a better understanding of the relation
between on- and offline in the context of vigilante activities?
– What link can we draw between digital vigilantism and the social,
political and economic discourses of the vigilantes?
– Aside from mediated visibility as social harm, what other outcomes might
targets or participants of digital vigilantism face in consequence?
– How can we (re)imagine relations between states (broadly defined to
include law enforcement agencies) and vigilant(e) citizens beyond
frameworks of contestation/substitution/
– How are digital vigilantism initiatives related to official
law-enforcement institutions (cooperation/challenge/
– How is mediated visibility understood by vigilantes (but also other
relevant social actors such as states, journalists and digital media
platforms) as a means to combat criminal and otherwise offensive acts?
– How are specific mediated acts such as online shaming and ‘doxing’ both
leveraged and rendered meaningful in the context of vigilante activities?
– How can we articulate social control (low crime) and societal control
(high crime) with regard to digital vigilantism?
– What do we know about the commercial dimension of digital vigilantism?
– How are digital vigilantism initiatives related to existing political
parties, social movements, associations, lobbies or private firms?
– How do the vigilantes communicate about their activity on the web? How do
they show their campaigns on Youtube? How do they edit the videos they post?
– What do vigilantes defend? Legal norms, moral prescriptions, own values
The workshop will take place at Université de Montréal, 2-3 November
2017. Proposals should include a title, a clear identification of the
author(s), as well as an affiliation and should be no longer than 500-600
words. Proposals may be grounded in different academic and disciplinary
perspectives including, but not limited to sociology, political science,
anthropology, criminology, media studies, history. They should be sent to
firstname.lastname@example.org by 22nd May 2017. Authors will receive an answer
by 1st July 2017.
Gilles Favarel- Garrigues (SciencesPo – CERI)
Daniel Trottier (Erasmus University Rotterdam)
Samuel Tanner (Université de Montréal – International Center for