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Saturday, January 25, 2014

Evaluating Online Vigilantism

Last week, Jamie Carillo posted a video to YouTube titled "A call to my childhood rapist teacher."  The remarkable video includes a three-minute phone call to Andrea Cardosa, then an assistant principal at Alhambra High School, who Carillo accused of sexually abusing her beginning when Carillo was twelve and continuing for several years.  During the phone call, Carillo asks: "Do you realize that you brainwashed me and that you manipulated me and that what you did was wrong?"  "Yes, and I regret it," Cardosa says, later adding, "I was just trying to help you."

Carillo explained in the video that it took her years to gather the courage to confront Cardosa, and by that time the statute of limitations had expired.  (Or so she thought -- see here for one explanation of why that may not be the case.)  Carillo decided to record the call and post the video when she realized that Cardosa was now an assistant principal because she wanted to keep her away from other children. Carillo's YouTube video went viral, and a second alleged victim, "Brianna," has since come forward with allegations that Cardosa abused her in a similar way. Cardosa resigned from her position hours after Carillo's video was posted.  As I'm writing this Cardosa has not been charged with a crime, but law enforcement has stated that an investigation is underway.  (Ongoing coverage is here.)

The posting of Carillo's video coincided with a fascinating article by Emily Bazelon about online anti-bullying activists, some of whom are members of Anonymous. I won't summarize the article -- because everyone should read it if they haven't already -- but among other things, the article describes the involvement of Anonymous in events surrounding the Steubenville rape case.  After hearing of a claim that other rapes had been covered up in Steubenville, an individual using the handle KYAnonymous "put out a call for evidence and soon received a video, which he posted on YouTube, of another football player talking for 12 minutes about the assault on the victim."  Bazelon explains:  "when the two teenagers were convicted last March, KYAnonymous . . . got credit in the online community for helping to prosecute the perpetrators in the court of public opinion."

Both Carillo and members of Anonymous such as KYAnonymous could be described as online vigilantes.  Miriam-Webster defines a vigilante as "a self-appointed doer of justice"; Oxford Dictionaries defines a vigilante as "a member of a self-appointed group of citizens who undertake law enforcement in their community without legal authority, typically because the legal agencies are thought to be inadequate."  Moreover, both Carillo and Anonymous allegedly broke the law in their vigilantism: Carillo by recording a phone call without permission in California, a state that requires the consent of both parties for recording; KYAnonymous by hacking into the football team's website and posting unproven accusations on a website.  Carillo's lawbreaking is if anything more straightforward; KYAnonymous has denied the allegations.  Other Anonymous members have freely acknowledged that they sometimes commit crimes.

Yet Carillo has been almost universally applauded for coming forward, with various sources praising her courage, while the reaction to KYAnonymous has been more mixed, to say nothing of Anonymous more generally.  There are obvious ways of distinguishing these particular situations, but I'm less interested in these specific instances than I am in thinking about vigilantism more generally.

In a follow up interview, Bazelon said of Anonymous: "I think each operation, or op, needs to be judged individually."  But that's not (necessarily) inconsistent with developing general principles for evaluating the social value of vigilantism.  When should we condone vigilantism, and when should we censure it?  Should it matter whether the vigilante broke the law?  And if breaking the law in the course of vigilantism isn't the test, then what is?

(cross-posted at nancyleong.com)


Posted by Nancy Leong on January 25, 2014 at 02:14 PM | Permalink


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Well, my Webster's Collegiate defines "vigilante" as one who organizes to suppress and punish crime summarily. And if the word is to have negative connotations, as it generally does, then this "punish" aspect should remain a part of the definition.

It is almost always wrong to act as "judge, jury and executioner." It is not always wrong to act as a policeman. For one thing, hardly anyone would be arrested for shoplifting if shopkeepers could not make citizens' arrests, and I see no reason why other felonies should generally demand more lenient treatment by the public.

Publicizing a crime, or acting as a vocal witness isn't even going this far (to the police power). Of course, when one makes a citizens' arrest or a public accusation, one best know that one is in the right, lest a false arrest or libel suit follow. And or course publicizing a crime generally doesn't justify engaging in illegal action oneself.

Posted by: David Pittelli | Jan 26, 2014 3:59:40 PM

"And my own take, at least based on the episodes I've looked at, is that it is almost always better to let the formal legal authorities take their course."

Yeah. The problem with going outside the law isn't that it's not necessary, because very occasionally it is, or that it's not justified, because it once in a while is. But those rare exceptions are just that, exceptions. Historically, it tends to go really wrong, really fast, because of human nature. It turns personal, emotions get involved, and innocent people end up getting hurt.

For ex, it wouldn't be that hard to post a carefully edited video of someone confessing to a horrific act, using words they really said but out of context and order, and then whip up anger, the kind of anger that keeps people from thinking straight. The Internet is a poor venue for this sort of thing precisely because of anonymity.

Posted by: HC68 | Jan 26, 2014 1:31:07 PM

Vigilantism is a complex phenomenon. Richard Maxwell Brown's excellent history of vigilantism in the United States, Strain of Violence, makes clear that vigilante episodes were often more about social control than law enforcement -- vigilance committees often formed in areas where there was in fact functioning official law enforcement, but the laws that were being enforced did not establish the particular society the vigilantes wanted. There are very few instances where vigilantes were in essence just a volunteer police department.

I don't know how well that history explains the events mentioned here. Carillo's video seems to be an effort at shaming, which I'm not sure I would classify as vigilantism, even if she violated a statutory privacy right in the course of doing so. The Anonymous website hack also seems more like vandalism than vigilantism. The key element of vigilantism, in my mind, is that it is an effort to enforce the law by breaking the law. And my own take, at least based on the episodes I've looked at, is that it is almost always better to let the formal legal authorities take their course.

Posted by: Bruce Boyden | Jan 26, 2014 1:15:10 PM

One footnote in the Bazelon story is a "vigilante" who was not sympathetic when a woman was targeted online with some nastiness. The lack of empathy shown is notable while the whole thing is a bit perverse. The woman put forth a successful effort to get Jane Austen on a British bank note. This led to her and a female MP to be subject to Twitter attacks involving wishing them to be raped etc. An update:


The story has a video of the MP being interviewed. A longer one:


Emily Bazelon has done excellent work providing complex commentary on issues of the sort expressed in the article, particularly good for realizing things are not black/white. Her book is also very good.

Posted by: Joe | Jan 26, 2014 1:00:47 PM

When the government records everything with neither consent nor notification, it's a terrifying attack on our civil liberties and we need to stop it at any cost.

When a private citizen records everything with neither consent nor notification, there's no problem, because something something rapist child molesters.

Posted by: DensityDuck | Jan 26, 2014 11:37:48 AM

Um - publicly calling someone a child molester is, in fact, extra-legal punishment. This particular offender was guilty and was willing to admit it.

But they had no opportunity to defend themselves, no council, no jury . . . nothing.

That it was justified does not mean it was not vigilantism.

Posted by: Lamont Cranston | Jan 26, 2014 11:00:53 AM

Actually, the original "vigilance committees" arose not when law enforcement was "considered inadequate" but in locations where it was actually non-existent or even in direct collaboration with criminal elements against the law-abiding citizenry, as in Arizona and California's Barbary Coast, among other locations. If you live in a rural area or decaying urban community where police response can be extendedly delayed or simply doesn't happen, it is easy to imagine similar impulses.

The internet, with its inherently diffuse and chaotic nature, is a virtual replica of that environment. But given that online activities can cause real-world harm, the same needs that inspired the real-world vigilantes are bound to provoke a similar response.

The question is whether these ad hoc enforcement actions are potentially any more harmful to the community than the official actions of an Administration that has, say, already militarized numerous government agencies and turned the Justice Department and IRS into little more than engines for harassing its enemies might be.

Posted by: Richard McEnroe | Jan 26, 2014 9:37:49 AM

Orin Kerr's:

" ... the patent silliness of all-party consent wiretapping statutes ...."

brings to mind that elected officials passing such laws may be more than a tad concerned with the wiretapping of their conversations without their consent. (I just read a report from 2012 that NSA allegedly listened in on a telephone conversation involving then Congresswoman Jane Harmon, that allegedly closed with a statement by her that the conversation did not take place. Granted, apparently neither party to the conversation gave consent but, as the Shadow used to say, "Who knows what eveil lurks in the minds of men [or women].")

Posted by: Shag from Brookline | Jan 26, 2014 9:24:12 AM

Any prosecutor who is dumb enough to prosecute one of these "online vigilantis" better not pick me for the jury! There is such a thing as jury nullification and it is far more legal than any vague anti-wire tapping law. I will say not guilty and make all the judges and lawyers mad.

Posted by: Jimbo | Jan 26, 2014 8:11:37 AM

Other sites today are writing and discussing Senator Schumer call for the Internal Revenue Service to Attack Tea Party groups. That is directly on point to this discussion.

When people with uniforms, badges, and guns act for or against people on any basis except the law, they stop being law enforcement and become accessories to the crime.

When politicians use the power of government to suppress political opposition to their faction, the are no longer members of a legitimate political organization - they have become Fascists (or NAZIs).

And the result, in this country, to legally protected thuggery and Fascism is vigilantism.

What people SHOULD be afraid of is that people like Schumer, judges who decide cases based on ideology, cops who commit gang rape (as in New Mexico) aren't smart enough to understand the certain result of their behavior.

Posted by: CiceroTheLatest | Jan 26, 2014 8:00:35 AM

The purpose of overly broad laws like the California statute being to allow selective prosecution and punishment of your political enemies.

Posted by: f1guyus | Jan 26, 2014 7:52:28 AM

I think the argument breaks down in light of the patent silliness of all-party consent wiretapping statutes such as California's, which is so broad that it might also make it a crime to retain e-mail stored in your inbox.

Posted by: Orin Kerr | Jan 25, 2014 4:10:41 PM

I think "lawbreaking" covers a lot of ground ... the laws as to taping conversations vary state to state, apparently given the mixed opinions on the proper line to draw. Recording a conversation, especially if you keep the result to yourself and "posting unproven accusations on a website" alone to me seem to different things. So, even beyond "vigilantism," the implications of the language used suggest some nuance is warranted.

Posted by: Joe | Jan 25, 2014 3:56:06 PM

(A) I share Wasserman's intuition that "vigilantism" is a poor descriptor for the behavior under discussion, particularly with respect to Carillo.

(B) I think the reason that Carillo's lawbreaking is applauded stems in large part from the heinousness of the underlying crime, but also because most of the public likely does not view unauthorized recording of phone calls to be immoral, regardless of what the law says.

Posted by: Curmudgeonly Ex-Clerk | Jan 25, 2014 3:15:32 PM

Is vigilantism the right term for this? We typically think of someone imposing extra-legal punishment (Charles Bronson in "Death Wish" or the Guardian Angels on NYC subways in the '70s and '80s). The examples here are expression--publicizing events, with the hopes that the formal legal system will be shaken into action.

Vigilantism carries a somewhat ambiguous connotation. Speech doesn't.

Posted by: Howard Wasserman | Jan 25, 2014 2:52:57 PM

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