Citizen journalism and vigilantism are two sides of the same coin

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.