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[ecrea] CFP: Watchful Citizens: Policing from Below and Digital Vigilantism

Thu Mar 09 14:26:52 GMT 2017

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


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


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:


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/complementarity?

- How are digital vigilantism initiatives related to official

law-enforcement institutions (cooperation/challenge/conflict)?

- 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


- 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 and interests?

Practical information

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 (samuel.tanner /at/ <mailto:(samuel.tanner /at/> 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

Comparative Criminology)

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