When the Internet Attacks: Cyber Vigilantes

Image credit: 

Vigilantism has grown softer since the days of Bernard Goetz -- infamous for perforating a group of would-be muggers on a Manhattan subway train in 1984 -- but the stick it carries is bigger than ever, and the crimes it punishes, much smaller. Given the choice between catching a bullet in the lung or being publicly shamed and harassed on the internet for years, well -- I'd probably still take the latter, but I'd have to think about it for a second. And stories like these are the reason why:

Dog Poop Girl

The last place you want to offend a lot of people in public is South Korea. That's a lesson that dog poop girl had to learn the hard way. In 2005, when her tiny lapdog decided to use the floor of a subway car to go number poo, fellow passengers demanded she clean up the mess. Someone even whipped out a tissue to make the job easier for her. When she refused, someone whipped out a camera phone. The ensuing fracas, in which she reportedly became belligerent, was caught on camera and distributed on the internet, and quickly became something of a national sensation. She was recognized within days, her identity was revealed, and every shred of personal information that could be gleaned about her was dissected online, in an extremely public sort of shaming. Thus branded with a digital scarlet letter, she quit her university, and has since published an apology.

The Case of the Stolen Sidekick

When Evan Guttman's friend left her Sidekick II in a New York City cab, they briefly held out hope that it would be returned by some kind stranger. After all, such things do happen in the Big Apple, despite international misconceptions about the temperament of New Yorkers. But such was not the case. Repeated texts sent to the lost phone were ignored, and Evan and his friend had almost given the thing up for lost when they realized that thanks to the way T-Mobile's Sidekicks store their information -- all emails, IMs, pictures etc are uploaded to the T-Mobile website -- they could track the thief's actions online. Soon they had emails from and pictures of the thief, a young woman from Queens named Sasha, and demanded that the phone be returned. (At this point, Guttman notes, it became stolen -- when the owner of a lost object demands its return but the finder keeps it anyway, the crime is called "petit larceny.")

guttman.jpgSo Guttman set up a webpage, posting a brief account of what happened, along with pictures of the girl and her family. Within days, he'd been linked to on Digg, Gizmodo and Slashdot, and he was fielding thousands of emails while the page received millions of views. His story had touched a national nerve, and people bitter about similar experiences of their own became invested in helping Guttman and his friend find justice, if not the stolen phone. Soon, the thief's MySpace page and email account were being bombarded with hate messages. Her address and phone number were uncovered, and people started driving by her house, shouting "thief!" and calling her family. Finally, Guttman got a message from someone claiming to be Sasha's brother, a military policeman, who issued a few veiled threats. This too was posted on Guttman's website, and soon the military brother was being shamed as well, by the general public as well as by fellow military. There are many more twists and turns to this fascinating little tale, but in the end the girl was arrested and Guttman got his friend's sidekick back -- though she had already bought a new one by that time. The story, covered in the New York Times and featured on 20/20 and MSNBC, has to be one of the most comprehensive and withering public shamings to date.

"Wow your a moron," the Swiped XBox Story

"If you have stolen merchandise, don't contact the person it was stolen from," cyber-vigilante Jesse McPherson wisely counsels. "It's just not smart." This is the tale of someone who did just that, and ended up looking like a moron.

May 29, 2008 - 6:36am
webby
submit to reddit