Online Vigilantism: Using Internet sleuths to find the Moses Mabhida Stadium soccer hooligans

Spectators ripped out and set seats alight at the end of the match. Photo: Motshwari Mofokeng/African News Agency/ANA

When violence at the Moses Mabhida Stadium erupted, I like all soccer lovers groaned. Surely the Beautiful Game has not imported hooliganism as well?

As a long-suffering fan of second-placed Buccaneers or “The Deputy Champions” as we now call ourselves, I do relate to the anger and frustration. However apart from a profanity or two, which I am not allowed to use in this family column, I doubt I could be part of a rampage.

I am a devotee of technology determinism, which is a reductionist theory that aims to provide a causative link between technology and society’s character. In other words I believe that technology is firmly leading society by the mouse pointer! Thus as videos of the rampage went viral and even before the police asked for help, I started playing with reverse image search software such as Google and Tineye to try to identify the hooligans. When the PSL and police asked for help in identifying some suspects I felt vindication as a proactive member of society.

Alas, I did not get many “hits” from the grainy public posted videos but I did get some close comparisons. However, even to my naked eye the comparisons looked dubious at best. I abandoned my search as it was just an academic exercise. I wondered if this happened before?

Crowdsourcing has emerged as a pervasive Internet method to leverage the collective wisdom of the experts and enthusiasts to solve challenges facing humanity. It may be technical – how do I fix my leaking pool; business – how do I sell my product, or global – how do we remove plastic from the oceans. Crowdsourcing has morphed a new offshoot appropriately called crime-sourcing, which is just what the police requested in the aftermath of the soccer match.

This form of Internet sleuthing, when applied to crime, is also called Internet vigilantism where vigilante acts is taken online. The online vigilante combine their digital skills with vigilantism and become known as digilantis. Digilantism, is an area I am currently studying, hence this work.

An intriguing aside: The etymology of the word “vigilante” now seems to refer to people who take the law literally into their own hands, yet the word itself has roots not in touching, but merely watching which appropriately suits Social Media.

So, what can go wrong with a simple task of identifying folk through images? Plenty, it turns out. The 2013 Boston Marathon bombing inspired digilantism as outraged US citizens tried any and every means to identify the culprits.

The internet sleuths, waged through photo and video-graphic footage, and then tried to triangulate this with available eyewitness accounts. The noble goal was to find the Boston Bombers. The unintended tragic consequences was that they got the identification horribly wrong leaving innocent people fearing for their safety. So what went wrong? The problem was that the police scanner video of a was the best source of information. This now for a world class event the Boston Marathon!

Crowdsourcing has positive spinoffs. We now have crowd-sourced investigations. Finding a missing dog in the neighbourhood, trying to relocate a stolen or missing sentimental artefact, finding loved ones or even Airplanes that crashed, like the MH370. Now, in South Africa crowd-sourcing is being used to fight football hooliganism. What happens if we crowd-search an alleged rapist and we get it wrong? It has already happened in townships. Will one team’s fans use this as an opportunity to “out” other soccer teams fans because of fanatical hatred?

Consider in 2014, DigitalGlobe an American commercial vendor of space satellite imagery, launched a crowdsourcing campaign to allow concerned people to help look for the missing Malaysia Airlines flight MH370. They combed through satellite images for clues of its whereabouts. Over 500, 000 folk joined in the first week. They searched satellite images, tagging anything that looks suspicious. Each pixel on a computer screen represents half a meter on the ocean’s surface. Ultimately the doomed flight was not found but it demonstrated peoples willingness to be digilantes. #HelpFindDurbanBaby invoked similar digilantivism as the nation closed ranks to help find missing child, Siwaphiwe in March 2017.

Will we erroneously vilify a Kaiser Chiefs fan? Let’s accept that with highly polarised public events, crowd-sourced investigations will increase with or without our permission.

The pathway to the darknet is paved with good intentions. The Internet makes that journey just so much faster. My weekend experiment with video graphic image searches reminded me that if a police line-up is unreliable just much better will a poor non front facing video of an alleged culprit be?

One suspect was identified on Social Media as the Blue Robe Man because of the apparel he wore. This eventually proved wrong. I will not perpetuate his trauma by naming him. Another was called the White Hat Black Jacket Guy, another the Blue Duffel Bag Guy, and so on. With each suspect, a mad internet rush ensued to find their real identities. Some of these folk feared their lives. Read the story of the devastation wrecked on 22-year old Sunils Tripathi family. They were trying to find their son Sunil who disappeared during a bout of depression  through crowdsourcing. Instead they entered the perfect digital storm with him being mistakenly recognised as the bomber. Tripathi had committed suicide.

We have police because innocent people will regrettably always be wrongly accused. The police have processes and systems to vet a crime and a criminal through unemotional investigation using science, together with facts and clues. You and I as Social Media users and potential digilantes have a role to prevent fake news and spreading victimisation. Be a vigilant digilante but know when to defer to the cops.

Charlie Beckett called the Boston fiasco a “media literacy seminar” and hopes that “people are learning to be less stupid.” You don’t want to be the person who names a suspect who turns out to be innocent. Touché.

Dr Colin Thakur is a digital activist who is committed to the dream of “one person, one connected device.” He is the KZN e-Skills CoLab Director, located at the Durban University of Technology. His areas of research include e-democracy, Social media, and unstructured big data.