Vigilante justice for racist remarks online

Twitter is divided over a popular Tumblr blog that encourages fans to expose internet racism and get the perpetrators fired. Is vigilante justice a good substitute for the real thing?

Until a few weeks ago, Chris Rincon worked at a car wash in Houston, Texas, using his wages to support his three-year-old son. Then he posted a link to a fake news article on Facebook about President Obama’s daughter, using a highly offensive racial slur. The comment cost him his job.

Rincon fell foul of a popular Tumblr blog called Racists Getting Fired, which has gained widespread attention in recent weeks. The aim is simple. Fans find incidents of online racism, expose the perpetrators on the blog and then bombard their employers until they are fired.

It’s proving to be a popular pastime. The blog amassed nearly 40,000 followers in its first few days, with 15,000 submissions in the first eight hours of its existence. And it appears to work. One page on the blog is devoted to the sullen apologies of those who have been caught, and responses from companies hastily denouncing former employees.

But as popular as it may be, it’s also had troubling consequences. In one case a woman was bombarded with death threats after fans of the blog were alerted to her Facebook account, which was riddled with racist comments. In fact, the account was a hoax created by her ex-boyfriend in order to get her fired.

Vigilante justice — the idea of ordinary citizens taking the law into their own hands — has long fascinated and appalled people in equal measure, spawning a host of troubled yet cherished superheroes along the way.

But in reality, vigilante justice is a dangerous game. The group Anonymous ostensibly claim to defend and protect democracy by using their hacking prowess to take down certain websites. But they have also caused considerable damage.

Last week, in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo terrorist attacks, the group succeeded in taking down a jihadist website, which had vowed to avenge the killings in an online video. The video quickly gained thousands of appreciative 'likes'. Yet critics have warned that taking down extremists’ websites would make them harder to monitor.

People power?

The internet is an increasingly important element in civil society, some say, yet some of its crevices are full of shocking, abhorrent language that often goes unchecked. If the authorities are unable or unwilling to track down and punish the culprits, then it is only right for members of the public to step in. There’s no excuse for racism.

That’s true, others reply, but what does hounding and harassing people really achieve? It does little to educate those with offensive views, let alone tackling structural, institutionalised racism. Racism is wrong, but nobody should be at the mercy of a group of unaccountable individuals who have decided to take justice into their own hands.

You Decide

  1. Is vigilante justice ever justified?
  2. What does the phrase ‘tyranny of the majority’ mean?

Activities

  1. Class debate: ‘This House believes that vigilantism is an acceptable form of justice.’
  2. Find five examples, either fictional or real, of when vigilante justice has worked, and when it has backfired.

Some People Say...

“You either die a hero, or you live long enough to see yourself become the villain.”

Batman

What do you think?

Q & A

Posting offensive comments online? What’s the worst that could happen?
A lot. UK law is increasingly cracking down on those who post racist and offensive comments online. It is an offence under the Communications Act to make grossly offensive, indecent, obscene, menacing or annoying phone calls and emails. Other acts also cover racially aggravated comments, and being charged under any of them could lead to prison sentences, hefty fines and community service orders.
Well no one’s caught me so far.
But the comments you make online could come back to haunt you: online data about you is stored indefinitely by search engines. It’s probably simpler to just not be nasty online. Anybody could come across it, from the target of your abuse to a future employer.

Word Watch

Tumblr
As of January 1, 2015, the microblogging platform hosts over 216.9 million blogs.
Racists Getting Fired
The blog was set up in the wake of the unrest in Ferguson after a black teenager was shot dead by a white policeman. Similarly popular online is the Twitter account ‘Yes You’re Racist’ which also sets out to expose racist comments.
Anonymous
The group has succeeded in hacking into the CIA’s website, Sony and The Church of Scientology, among others. During the Arab spring, members of the group hacked into and defaced Tunisian and Egyptian government sites. Members wear the Guy Fawkes masks from the film V for Vendetta.
Mob rule
The word 'mob' comes from the Latin 'mobile vulgus', meaning ‘the fickle crowd’.
Charlie Hebdo
In January this year Islamist terrorists launched an attack on the offices of the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, and elsewhere in Paris, killing 17 people including cartoonists, police officers and hostages.

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