(May 2003 - March 2007.) Tama's thoughts on the blogosphere, podcasting, popular culture, digital media and citizen journalism posted from a laptop computer somewhere in Perth's isolated, miniature, urban jungle ...

Citizen Justice Revisited ... Smarter Mobs?

Monday, April 10, 2006
You may recall a story last year about Thao Nguyen who was flashed on the New York subway and in retaliation pulled out her cameraphone and posted online the picture of the guy who exposed himself. While an immensely satisfying story in itself, it got more complicated when the image was run as the front page of the New York Daily News which, in effect, had a rather trial-by-media effect. In this particular case, Nguyen seemed well within her rights, but I was worried about the potential abuse of this style of vigilantism (especially in the era of photoshop) and explicated my fears in my post Citizen Justice or Opening Pandora's Box? in which I concluded:
Before getting too drawn into the story, lets look a few steps into the future. Pictures, as we all know, can easily be manipulated. Pictures tell 1000 words, but which thousand can be readily manipulated by whoever takes or contextualises the image. I'm not suggesting that Thao Nguyen did either of these things. But, if this becomes a trend and a cameraphone-enabled trial-by-Flickr gains a odd sort of credibility, the potential to abuse such a system is virtually limitless. What if after a nasty breakup photos that were taken with consent within the bounds of a relationship were re-contextualised and posted online as a form of revenge? What if a particularly effective photoshop effort was posted online? It's probably the case that either of these cases would be shown to be untrue give time, many people would probably never see such a clarification/retraction. Newspapers, if they pick up the story, have a nasty trend of giving accusations page one treatment and retractions two lines on the bottom of page forty-seven. So, while I commend Thao Nguyen for her quick thinking and wish her every luck in prosecuting the man who appears strongly to have abused her, I simply want to add a few words of warning to the digital ether and ask you to think about the ramifications of digital images becoming a form of citizen "justice". We need to be wary in such cases, or our new digital resources may indeed open a seductive but ultimately unjust hi-tech pandora's box.

Adding to the story, Boing Boing reported the other day that Dan Hoyt, the flasher in question, had been tried and was awaiting sentencing, but in an interview with The New York Metro seems entirely oblivious to any wrong he may have done. Boing Boing adds further:
On a more positive note, Thao Nguyen -- the woman who snapped an incriminating phonecam photo of Hoyt's wank in progress -- inspired a group of fans to start Hollabacknyc.com, a blog where women “holla back” at harassers by taking their pictures with phonecams, then posting them online.

Holla Back describes itself as:
Holla Back NYC empowers New Yorkers to Holla Back at street harassers. Whether you're commuting, lunching, partying, dancing, walking, chilling, drinking, or sunning, you have the right to feel safe, confident, and sexy, without being the object of some turd's fantasy. So stop walkin' on and Holla Back: Send us pics of street harassers!

While I fully support the idea of empowering women--indeed, anyone--who has been harrassed, abused and so on, I have reservations about the Holla Back blog or other such websites. They amount to a trial-by-media or, in this case, trial-by-blog and the potential for abuse is extremely high. Smart Mobs hits the nail on the head with this insight:
Clearly, phonecams plus Internet equals a whole new way for people to fight back -- and, from these early indicators, probably a whole new way for mobs to get ugly, too

As before, I fear that smart mobs and seemingly citizen justice can easily lead simply to mobs and abuse of a well-meant but entirely corruptable system which could lead to very real vilification and abuse.

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