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Prall: Vigilantism in the internet age

BY JACOB PRALL | NOVEMBER 21, 2014 5:00 AM

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As of Nov. 16, the hacker group known as “Anonymous” had control of the official KKK Twitter account.

That almost sounds like a punch line. The Internet vigilantes have taken to the Internet as if it were the Wild West, dispensing justice as they see fit. One has to wonder though, are their actions infringing on civil liberties?

Anonymous claims to be fighting for freedom and equality. I get it; I’m totally for those two things. I actually think they’re pretty great. But to what end? Almost every fiber of my being supports the decision to disrupt the KKK’s outgoing messages. Almost every one, since a fiber or two are asking, “Who’s next?”

Now, the KKK has been threatening physical violence to the protesters in Ferguson, Missouri, as well as distributing fliers in St. Louis reassuring the populace that "the Klan is awake." When it comes to inciting terror, as of late our policy as a nation has been the restriction of rights granted by the First Amendment. And that really is what the KKK is today, a domestic organization focused on generating terror to discourage unity of races. This is all old news, though. The reaction of old news in new media is where this story lies.

Anonymous isn’t all that different from Batman. The group doesn’t have to face responsibility, it distributes vigilante justice, it has a secret identity; the only thing it’s missing is a cape and batarang. However, we can’t just trust the people behind these computer screens are all Bruce Waynes. Some of them might even be Jokers.

It is this power that has led to massive privacy invasions and leaked information. On one hand, you have hackers bringing down hate-group entities. On the other, you have hackers deliberately and cruelly putting celebrities through anguish and promoting misogyny.

This isn’t just about Anonymous, it is about a society that has long glorified vigilantism in popular culture. George Zimmerman, Anonymous, these disparate threads are woven together. Why do people ever feel the need to intervene? They either lack faith in their justice system or have beliefs that contradict civil order. I think both of them are extremely relevant here.

Our culture today is not without many flaws, but it is also mainstream to at the very least be cordial to those of different backgrounds. In pursuing the respectful treatment of targeted groups, however, you have to consider the risks of crossing lines and disestablishing the rights to expression. Does the KKK have the right to threaten people? Not really. Does Anonymous have the right to shut the Klan up? Not really. And so you could take one side or the other (though I think most of us would be with Anonymous), or you can take a third, objective look. Both parties are in the wrong. 

As the saying goes, two wrongs don’t make a right.


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