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Wednesday, July 13 • 13:46 - 15:15
“Not your personal army”: vigilantism as a rhetorical figure among citizens who solve crimes online

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Location: PSH (Professor Stuart Hall Building) - LG02, 
Goldsmiths, University of London, Building 2
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  • David Myles, Université de Montréal, Canada
  • Chantal Benoit-Barné, Université de Montréal, Canada
  • Florence Millerand, Université du Québec à Montréal, Canada


The recent increase in the use of the Internet, social media, and surveillance technologies among citizens contributes to redefining the roles of the latter in policing matters. According to some authors, citizens went from being passive consumers of police protection to active public safety co-producers (Bayley and Shearing, 1996; Williamson, 2008). Today, new forms of spontaneous collaboration among citizens in order to solve crimes by using online data and tools have emerged on the Internet (Huey et al., 2013). Researchers in the social sciences and humanities have often conceptualized these citizen initiatives as forms of online vigilantism or "digilantism" (Byrne, 2013). Johnston (1996) defines "vigilantism" as any crime control activities performed by a group of individuals who use or threaten to use force to restore order, and for whom this premeditated and voluntary commitment constitutes an exercise of citizenship. Online vigilantism would rely on a logic of shaming (Williams and Wall, 2007) and revenge (Sharp et al., 2008), and, for some authors, could even constitute a crime comparable to terrorism (Vander Ende, 2014). Yet, these crime-solving practices have seldom been studied empirically (Huey et al., 2013), and few citizens who fight crime online actually identify themselves as vigilantes (Wareham and Chua, 2004). Thus, the relevance of vigilantism used by researchers as a definitional tool to study citizen crime-solving practices should be questioned.


To explore whether vigilantism is indeed relevant to the study of citizen crime- solving practices, this research aims to document some of the investigative strategies used by citizens and to understand how these relate to vigilantism.


To do so, we studied a Reddit sub-forum entitled Reddit Bureau of Investigation (RBI). With nearly 30,000 members, the RBI’s main objective is to “solve crimes and mysteries”. A non-participant and exploratory observation phase was conducted within 121 discussion threads over a period of two months in 2014 and 2015.


Our first finding points out that the activities taking place within the RBI have little in common with the vigilante’s characteristics listed above. Indeed, among the investigative strategies that were documented, the use of force, vengeance, and shaming were almost never observed, while often being explicitly condemned. Our second finding points to the frequent mobilization of the "vigilante figure" among RBI members as a rhetorical argument for negative identity construction purposes. While the expressions "not your personal army" and "no witch hunts" were clearly publicized on the RBI homepage, the vigilante figure also transcended investigative and posting practices. Thus, the vigilante figure did not appear relevant as a definitional tool, but rather in its propensity to provide RBI members with a rhetorical object against which they could define who they are (not) and what they do (not).

Future Work:

Rather than applying the vigilante figure in order to define crime solving practices among citizens in a deductive fashion, future research should develop comprehensive models to understand the logic that underlies these specific practices. Future research should also document the collaborative processes on which these online citizen practices rely, as well as how citizens negotiate a criminal investigation ethic through interaction.


Bayley, D. H., & Shearing, C. D. (1996). The future of policing. Law and society review, 585-606.

Byrne, D. N. (2013). 419 Digilantes and the Frontier of Radical Justice Online.Radical History Review, 2013(117), 70-82.

Chua, C. E. H., & Wareham, J. (2004). Fighting internet auction fraud: An assessment and proposal. Computer, 37(10), 31-37.

Huey, L., Nhan, J., & Broll, R. (2012). ‘Uppity civilians’ and ‘cyber-vigilantes’: The role of the general public in policing cyber-crime.Criminology and Criminal Justice, 1748895812448086.

Johnston, L. (1996). What is vigilantism?. British Journal of Criminology, 36(2), 220-236.

Sharp, D., Atherton, S., & Williams, K. (2008). Civilian policing, legitimacy and vigilantism: Findings from three case studies in England and Wales.Policing & Society, 18(3), 245-257.

Wall, D. S., & Williams, M. (2007). Policing diversity in the digital age Maintaining order in virtual communities. Criminology and Criminal Justice,7(4), 391-415.

Williamson, T. (Ed.). (2008). The Handbook of Knowledge Based Policing: Current Conceptions and Future Directions. John Wiley & Sons. 

Wednesday July 13, 2016 13:46 - 15:15
PSH (Professor Stuart Hall Building) - LG02 Goldsmiths University, Building 2

Attendees (5)