Academic journal article Journal of Theoretical & Philosophical Criminology

Understanding Cyber-Vigilantism: A Conceptual Framework

Academic journal article Journal of Theoretical & Philosophical Criminology

Understanding Cyber-Vigilantism: A Conceptual Framework

Article excerpt


The introduction and proliferation of the internet has created vast opportunities for advancement in areas such as entertainment, commerce, and communications. We are now more connected with each other and the world around us than ever before. This greater connectivity, however, does not come without limitations. Over the last few years, acts classified by the media as online vigilantism have begun to attract public attention.

This is not surprising, as the vigilante is a figure that often captures public imagination. There are numerous examples which have held media attention over the last century or so. In November of 1933, one of the largest public acts of vigilantism in American history occurred in Los Angeles, when two kidnappers were lynched with live radio coverage. Later, these individuals were pardoned by the Governor of California (Murphy, 2010). Another notable case occurred in 1981 and involved the death of Ken McElroy, who had participated in crimes ranging from rape and arson to multiple shootings. McElroy shot in front of 47 witnesses by a vigilante shortly after the sheriff drove out of town. Despite multiple witnesses, no one was ever charged in McElroy's murder (Sulzberger, 2010). An additional example mirrors the plot of the film Death Wish, which aired in 1983. One year later, Barnhard Goets opened fire on a group of youth who attempted to mug him on the subway. Despite an admission that his actions went beyond self-defense, Goets was acquitted on all counts and only served eight months for an unlicensed firearm (Johnson, 1987). With examples such as these, it could be argued that the vigilante has always been a popular figure. Despite this considerable public interest, scholarly research and scientific discourse on cyber-vigilantism has been limited.

While vigilante activity has fascinated some, it has become a very serious concern for others. Compounding this reality is the fact that vigilantism has been only sporadically examined over the last few decades within the criminological discipline. In this article, we develop a conceptual definition of cyber-vigilantism through guidance of the conceptual framework of past studies on vigilantism. In particular, we use the definition of cyber-vigilantism developed by Johnston (1996) as a basis for our analysis. We then expand on this definition through the introduction and analysis of numerous cases involving vigilante activity. In doing so, a definition of cyber-vigilantism emerges that we argue better applies on a conceptual basis to a wide range of online behaviors.

Vigilantism Defined

The term vigilante is of Spanish origin, meaning 'watchman' or 'guard'. It has its roots in the Latin word vigilans (Merriam-Webster, 2015). There have been numerous definitions of vigilantism developed over the years. More often than not the term is used very loosely or in a sensationalized manner, particularly by the media (Johnston, 1996). Even within academic circles, there is considerable disagreement regarding what constitutes vigilantism (Marx & Archer, 1976; Rosenbaum & Sederberg, 1976). In this section, various contested issues in the conceptualization of vigilantism are discussed.

Johnston (1996) developed what is likely the most thorough definition of vigilantism to date, and for this reason, his definition will be used as a guide. Johnston defines vigilantism as "a social movement giving rise to premeditated acts of force - or threatened force - by autonomous citizens" (p. 232). Vigilantism arises as a response to the breaking of norms by individuals and groups. In addition, vigilantes often seek to provide crime control, social control, and an assurance of security to themselves and those of the social order they seek to serve.

Six elements are necessary, according to Johnston (1996), for an act to be considered vigilantism. These elements serve to differentiate vigilantism from other acts that are often misleadingly given the vigilante classification. …

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