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[COMMENTARY] The Rise of Vigilantes On Twitter

Within the last month and a half, two men with high-profile Twitter accounts were exposed as grifters, each taking advantage of people who thought they were helping like-minded political allies. When their individual stories broke, catching their friends and followers completely off-guard, the reactions were intense, with many in such disbelief that they continued to support the accused despite evidence proving the stories true. HillReporter covered these stories because they mattered within the context of social media, but also because they had spilled over into the real world where people were being impacted in real ways, both emotionally and financially.

Preying on others isn’t exactly a brand new human behavior, obviously. It’s been around since the dawn of time. And it certainly isn’t a novelty online; the internet became a haven for opportunistic predators from the moment people could get a modem connected to their home PC. The anonymity provided by screens gave everyone the chance to be whoever they want to be and say whatever they want because there were zero consequences in their real lives. If you were sitting on AOL, anyone could send you a message with some foul opening line they’d never try in a real life situation. The internet can be used for so much good, but far too often, it’s used for so much bad.

No one is here to knock you for your consensual online naughty, but maybe don’t do it on Twitter where one screenshot of one DM conversation can literally end what was already a dubious political career. The problem is, peoples’ feels have been manipulated and pulled like taffy in a billion different directions over the last five years, and some have gotten addicted to that cycle of outrage that was the Trump Administration. With no real MAGA aggression to fight against (arguing with the lone weak trolls that still pop up occasionally is like dunking your ankles in the kiddie pool when you’ve been used to swimming in rough Pacific Ocean waters), it seems like liberal Twitter users are out there looking for a new fight. The problem is, they’re now fighting their own, and not always with the results they intended.

Once those two aforementioned accounts were exposed, conversations began in DM rooms regarding other high-profile Twitterers who were using their visibility to line their own pockets instead of contributing to the Greater Good. “Oh, you know who else is terrible?” someone might say, and then link to an account profiting from their digital photography. Or they’ll mention the one that’s jumped around in political loyalty while pretending to have a sick dog (or was it more than one dog? It’s hard to keep track of all the proud grifting going on) yet somehow had a house in Hawaii. Then there are the countless accounts that play nice in the DM rooms but publicly steal tweets as if that’s ever okay to do. If you’re not clever enough to bend the language to your will in an original way, find another way to stand out.

Some users got together, with the very best of intentions, and decided they wanted to be both a resource and a safe haven to warn others about the creeps and the bad actors in an effort to police their own. Is someone with a blue checkmark sending you nudes you don’t want? Is there a group effort to harass you? Has someone done wrong by The Resistance? This group wanted to be able to create the Twitter version of the Emergency Broadcast System, but essentially imploded soon after forming, because Twitter users were like, “Who are you and why are you acting like Twitter Safety?”

That group still exists but has lost a few members who saw the direction they were going and decided it wasn’t the right thing for them.

The issue with vigilantism is that it grows out of emotion. Betrayal is a big motivator for revenge. It’s one thing if a former political candidate was sending unsolicited nudes to staffers he wasn’t paying in full; it’s another if somebody you were sexting with ghosted you and has a new person. Nobody is going to care about your feelings the way you do, and it’s not okay to blow up someone’s life because you have the sads. There are legit reasons to go after someone, but you really need to be careful and vet every source before you go pointing any digital fingers anywhere.

It’s not our job to keep Twitter predator-free; that’s Twitter’s job. Yes, you can adopt the whole “See Something, Say Something” approach. Yes, you can warn your friends about a really gross predator. But ultimately, despite it being an imperfect system, we need to let the platform do the policing.

 

 



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