A sword cuts both ways

Citizen journalism and vigilantism are two sides of the same coin

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In a recent piece for BuzzFeed, writer Charlie Warzel looked at what he calls the “mutation” of citizen journalism, and how this dream of a more democratic media has somehow turned into a vicious form of vigilantism — including incidents like the one in which a right-wing blogger tried to identify the victim in a controversial campus rape incident. But I think in his haste to condemn that kind of activity, Warzel overstates the case against citizen journalism.

There have always been attack-dog style bloggers, especially on the right, and I don’t think this kind of approach is any more virulent than it was five or 10 years ago, although it may get more attention thanks to Twitter. Also, it’s not as though citizen journalism was somehow bastardized and became vigilantism — they are opposite edges of the same sword. We can’t have one without enabling the other, and to the extent that we crack down on one we also cripple its alternative.

Are there examples of when bloggers and other amateur journalists lost their way or went too far in their pursuit of the capital T truth? Of course there are. One of the most infamous occurred after the bombings in Boston, when some members of a Reddit sub-forum tried to identify the alleged bombers and targeted an innocent man. But this kind of over-stepping isn’t confined to amateurs: journalists at Gawker have engaged in what some might call vigilantism by “doxxing” or publicly identifying children who posted racist remarks following Barack Obama’s re-election, or outing anonymous Reddit moderators for offensive behavior.

Who defines good?

Both professional and amateur journalists were also involved in identifying a man who posted fake Twitter alerts in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy. Were all of these incidents justified? That’s up to readers to decide for themselves. I happen to think that some or all of them overstepped the bounds of what we consider appropriate investigative behavior — and the right-wing blogger in question has definitely done so — but it is a grey area at best.

Is there a way to legislate or prevent those kinds of incidents without preventing more beneficial reporting by citizen journalists and bloggers? I can’t think of one.

It’s easy to focus on the negative aspects of social media\, but it has also been an incredibly powerful tool for good: Just think of the information that has come out of Egypt or Syria or Ukraine that would never have made it into the public eye, or the work of bloggers like Eliot “Brown Moses” Higgins and his fact-checking of government and anti-government propaganda. Think of what a formerly little-known blogger named Glenn Greenwald was able to accomplish, and how much that has expanded what we know about the security and intelligence establishment in the US and elsewhere.

How do we distinguish between what bloggers like Greenwald or Higgins do, and what bloggers like Chuck Johnson do? I honestly don’t know if there is a way. The same tools that enabled Andy Carvin during the Arab Spring or Brown Moses in Syria or Greenwald’s Snowden scoop can also be used for evil, but does that mean they aren’t valuable, or need to be restricted? No. It just means that most swords come with two sides.

7 Responses to “Citizen journalism and vigilantism are two sides of the same coin”

  1. say my name

    As for RFO Jeffersons comment; Seems like invoking the founding fathers and so forth is but an attempt at deflecting which is what the left does pretty good. I don’t believe he is able to decide for me the definition of (a true American) as he puts it. This is typical again: of the left to decide what is best for everybody.

  2. say my name

    I think I counted (right wing) three times used by this left wing and probably secular progressive hack. He is one in the same as mainstream (journalist); Brian Williams name comes to mind. I wonder if these people think citizens like myself do not notice the bias.

  3. J.A. Schwartz

    Thoughtful piece and much appreciated. Who defines “the truth” in the newsroom?
    Ideally, experienced, thoughtful, people whose moral concerns extend to readers, first, bylines second. Especially on stories that impact the wider community.

    I’m not sure “shock and awe” works in the military but it often backfires when the
    “be first with the story” beat is highly likely to morph into a poor editorial decision. Rushing to “obvious” conclusions or judgments too often means time and reputations pay the price of taking the time to check salient contacts and taking time to verify tips that can
    ruin reputations of others via well intended rush-to-publish news stories. What
    might have worked in the movies era of Hollywood’s Hildey Carter can bring grim results today. JAS

  4. Jonathan Markiles

    Why do you refer to a “controversial campus rape incident” in the above story. The entire uproar about the Rolling Stones article is due to the fact that to more and more reasonable observers, its seems that the rape incident reported on NEVER occurred and there was NO incident. Then you imply that the bloggers who overstep the line are conservative. Ironic, again when the uproar is caused by a “legitimate” journalist from a liberal publication seeming violating multiple journalistic best-practices in order to promote a particular social agenda.

      • RFO Jefferson

        Also, along with being based on fact, those “prejudices” are American. You think the Founding Fathers, as leading men of The Enlightenment, were conservative and right wing? The conservatives of that day were *for* the British. The conservatives a hundred years later tried to destroy America with the Civil War. Read your history. There’s a lot more to being a true American than accident of birthplace. Conservatives: The way things are good for me, anti-American. Liberals: The way things are good for everyone, American.