Community

Digilantes overstep the line

It’s a dreary Saturday evening when this Facebook post goes up on the East Victoria Park Crime Prevention Group.

“What’s he done?” one woman queries within minutes.

Another says: “If someone has actually done something wrong and you think the public needs a physical description for safety using someone’s skin colour is just fine. Reporting a black guy for riding a bmx slowly is outright disgusting.”

A man responds: “All good, I grabbed him on the way back thru and explained to him black guys aren’t allowed to ride towards/thru EVP. He knows now and has gone another way.”

The original poster soon clarifies that she allegedly saw the man pulling into driveways and looking into homes, which is a satisfactory enough answer for most members. But where is the evidence?

In 2019, Facebook crime reporting groups are still a relatively new form of media. There are no hard and fast rules about their governance; individual admins wield all power in their hands and guidelines range from group to group. As a result, questions of their ethics appear to be endless. For instance, where do we draw the line between looking out for our neighbourhood and intruding in the lives of others? What is prejudice and what is not?

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Created in July 2018, EVPCPG sets out its aims as follows:

“With so much crime in our area, we can not only rely on the police, we need to communicate together to look out for each other. This group is designed so that if anyone sees or hears anything suspicious, we can alert our neighbours by posting photos/comments/videos to this group.”

In simple terms, this group (like all others of its type) appears to fill the niche between what police report on and what they don’t. And residents can’t seem to live without it.

In EVPCPG, not a day goes by without one of the almost 1000 members (at the time of writing) reporting smashed car windows, strange faces peering into properties and arguments heard in alleyways. Crimes reported on range from simple observations of ‘suspicious’ individuals, to physical assaults on the street. 

Groups like these foster what we call digital vigilantism or ‘digilantism’. It is characterised by Monash University senior lecturer in criminology Lennon Y.C. Yang as “action taken by netizens (internet citizens, citizens actively involved in the online community) to track down and publish online information that might help to solve a crime or to identify the personal information of someone who has engaged in corrupt practices, non-compliance, or deviant behaviour”.

The intensity and frequency of posts in the group have given way to many residents announcing their intentions to leave the suburb. Screenshot: Eloise Parks.

This definition infers that digilantes have the best interests of their community at heart, and perhaps this is the case most of the time. But crime group members seem to always be running into trouble when race, class and over-vigilance come into play.

These types of debates are hardly new for these groups; after all, they almost always have a list of rules members must abide by in order to contribute, and with rules inevitably come conflict. EVPCPG administrators specify their intolerance for racism, unjustified assumptions, hate speech and bullying to name a few. Drama is bound to happen when people push these boundaries just that bit too far.

But in the other direction, it’s hard to push back against racism, classism and over-vigilance without the inevitable whiplash. It’s hardly surprising for one to identify a prejudiced comment and subsequently get called a ‘sensitive snowflake’. 

Curtin University Internet Studies researcher Dr Sky Croeser says the impact of these groups is “a blurring”. 

“There’s obviously a lot of times that people come together online to work together to make the world better in various ways, but I think that particularly when it’s focused on that frame of crime as opposed to thinking more generally about community safety and inclusion and keeping others safe, it tends to be quite damaging and not just in a way that’s limited to the internet.”

Graphic: Eloise Parks.

As a member of one of these groups, it’s arguable that the unspoken rule of ‘better safe than sorry’ when reporting potential risks plays a significant role in how communities function. Over-reporting may falsely alter members’ perception of their locality’s safety, leading to a reluctance to engage with their community and a sense of scepticism towards their neighbours.

East Victoria Park resident Rosemary Cunningham has lived in the area for 21 years and says she’s disappointed at the name these groups are creating for her beloved neighbourhood.

“I have found that it’s a fabulous place to live and I get really quite upset when the local community puts the community down,” Ms Cunningham says.

She says she’s only felt fear once while living here; when a man walking by her in bushland had a machete in his hand.

“I just smiled and said ‘good morning, how are you?’ and kept walking,” she says.

“And so did he.

“I sometimes feel like responding to posts and saying ‘maybe if you smiled and said hello to people you might have a different perception’.”

Ryan (not his real name) is one such person who’s felt the direct effects of digilantism. On a warm afternoon stroll with his children and dog, a neighbour saw him pause outside his home, bend down, then cross the street. The neighbour was sure he’d stolen his mail.

Upon gathering the footage from his CCTV camera, the neighbour immediately uploaded it to a community crime group. He then bundled his dog into the car and chased Ryan down the road, shouting and swearing as he went. In footage captured by Ryan, he offers to let the man check the pram for his mail but he is ignored, as the man skids and screeches away.

During this time the angry reactions and comments poured in online, despite the footage being largely obscured by shrubbery and the poor camera quality.

“What an a***hole!”

“Name and shame!”

“Which end of the street does he live on?”

The community at large didn’t just want to react; they wanted to fight back. Questions flew back and forth about which house was his, what his dog looked like and the accuser’s tense history with him.

Ryan, who wasn’t a member of the group, didn’t hear what had happened on the page until later when friends informed him and his wife.

Though no names were used, enough identifying features such as street names, descriptions of the children and of course the footage itself were enough for people to figure out who this man was.

The kicker? No mail had been stolen—Ryan had simply taken a small book out of his pocket, placed it in the base of the pram, then crossed the street to avoid his dog and the neighbour’s dog antagonising each other. 

“My wife is now concerned for her safety and that of our children,” Ryan says. “She will not walk up the street anymore.”

“She’s scared to go out with our kids alone due to the fear of retribution from the community because of the comments that were posted, and because of the very nature of the page.”

Hubert St in East Victoria Park is a frequent location for reports on the EVPCPG. Photo: Eloise Parks.

Ryan says he believes the man was holding a grudge due to a prior misunderstanding, and dragged the whole town into the drama with them. 

“If he thought I’d stolen from him, he should have gone to the police to have the matter dealt with. Instead he chose to incite a vigilante mob mentality directed towards my family.”

Cases like this echo so many others in recent times, most notably that of the tragic death of Elijah Doughty in 2016. James Purtill found that Kalgoorlie Facebook community pages had long been accused of fostering racism, but increased thefts in the area intensified the hostility in the weeks prior to his passing. Purtill argues the same type of mob mentality formed here—a congregation of fed-up residents looking for a scapegoat, with posters feeling all too safe behind the guise of a computer or phone screen. The consequences were greater than anyone expected.

The issue is far from confined to Australia; in fact, it arguably plays out in the United States to a much higher degree. The Kansas City Star investigated the topic in February 2017 following the local arrest of a 27-year-old black man due to an outstanding warrant stemming from a minor traffic offence. The arrest occurred after an image of him was posted on a neighbourhood watch group, flagging him as ‘suspicious’ while he was innocently waiting to collect his children from school.

The white accuser denied race played a part, stating that “eighty-nine percent” of her friends are African-American—but residents weren’t convinced. Funds were eventually raised to cover the man’s legal fees, but that money did nothing to tear down the reputation he had gained.

With police brutality a pressing issue on the black community in the United States, exemplified in recent years through the Black Lives Matter movement, false accusations such as these are all the more dangerous.

So what can be done?

Victoria Park Neighbourhood Watch administrator La Toya Galea is passionate about keeping her neighbourhood safe, having created her Facebook group in October 2018. She frequently updates it with safety tips and advice, more so than reports of potential crimes. As a criminology student, she is sceptical of unverified crime reports and places more emphasis on understanding why people may turn to crime in the first place.

“People see criminals and they go ‘they’re just criminals, the scum of the earth’, but I look at criminals in a different way,” Ms Galea says.

“They’re there for some particular reason; whether it be money, financial problems, they might not have a home, they’re desperate—they don’t think like we [people who have their own homes] think. 

“I like to remind people to remain kind when they’re speaking of others.”

Dr Croeser echoes these sentiments, saying looking at crime “within a framework of community solidarity and inclusion” is the way forward.

“For example if somebody says ‘there’s a homeless person in my area and they’ve been sleeping in front of the shops’, do you then direct people towards the police, or do you say ‘oh, well, it would be great if you could support the local shelter’?” she says.

She also emphasises the importance of encouraging residents to think more about making their community feel safe, and to engage with it in a positive way.

“There’s a lot of research that shows that well-used, vibrant public spaces are safer spaces for everybody,” she says.

Ms Cunningham sees hope in other spaces of the internet, pointing to groups that help us come together rather than divide further.

“I’m also a member of the Vic Park Community Group, and I was reading a post on there yesterday about a homeless person that people in the community obviously know, and they were expressing concern about him saying they hadn’t seen him for a while.

“I think that’s good. It would be nice to see a lot more positive stuff there rather than the negative stuff.”

As for Ryan, though the effects of the incident are still weighing on both him and his family, he’s finally starting to return to normality.

“I’m over it now, but every now and then I think about it. 

A blend of historic cottages and old brick flats makes Hubert St notable for its mixed demographics. Photo: Eloise Parks

“I’ve got so many good things going on in my life and every time I think .about this, it’s like a joke. I think about this guy and I’m just like, why is this even in my life? Why is this even part of what I’m thinking about from day to day?”

As for the management of these groups going ahead, like many of us he is unsure of what exactly needs to be done. But he does know one thing.

“A precedent needs to be set, so that people can realise that there are consequences to their actions, even on social media.”