A weapon in our hands or to our heads?

Photo by Rodion Kutsaev

This blog post is written in support of my publication “In the Bullseye of Vigilantes: Mediated Vulnerabilities of Kyrgyz Labour Migrants in Russia” available in the Media and Communication thematic issue “Refugee Crises Disclosed: Intersections between Media, Communication and Forced Migration Processes”. In the featured paper, I focused on the appalling case of mediated vulnerabilities experienced by Kyrgyz labour migrants. While falling target to retaliation of host state vigilantes (i.e. citizens who take ‘justice’ into own hands), male migrants retaliate on fellow female compatriots for interactions with non-Kyrgyz men. In this case, digital media is used both by host state nationalists and by migrant vigilantes to harm their targets beyond physical assaults, through exposure to wide audiences. Consequently, these acts are rendered respective meaning in media reports and enter public discourses, which are not necessarily sympathetic with the targets.  

Connectivity versus alienation

My initial interest in the topic of media and migration was sparked during the 2015 ‘refugee crisis’ when good journalism was starved for, as media platforms once again demonstrated their enormous capacities in influencing opinions. Pursuing my master’s degree at the time, I decided to investigate the portrayal of refugees in traditional media. Media reports showed polarisation on the issue; fake stories flooded the discourse, and terminology surrounding the topic was confusing at best. Beyond this, social media demonstrated its dynamism in presenting ‘alternative facts’ and mobilising the masses over disinformation, demonisation of asylum seekers, and spreading stories on ‘rapefugees’…

While not working on the topic of migration directly, in my current research I look at cases where digital media is used by citizens to exercise social justice. I feel truly lucky to be working at the Department where colleagues carry out state of the art research on the role of digital media in the process of migration and integration in the host state. Having lived in five different countries, I find studies on technology and migration not only fascinating but crucial in the age of unprecedented global move. Digital technology has the capacity to both connect and alienate us from each other. Some communities and individuals take the important steps towards using new media for connectivity, while others instrumentalise these tools for the opposite purposes.

The anti-social ‘justice’

For the article in this thematic issue, I wrote on the case of Russia, where the ultra-right vigilante groups have been coordinating their activities online to retaliate on migrants and other targets such as alleged paedophiles (often confused with sexual minorities), alleged drug dealers, liberals, etc. Citizens organise themselves to deliver own version of justice, which implies subjective offence-taking and immediate punitive measures. Targets of vigilantes suffer embodied harms in the form of physical assaults and degrading acts of humiliation filmed on camera and disseminated online. Exposure, in this case, amplifies the harms and makes them long-lasting (p. 232). In Foucauldian terms, both the body and the soul of the target are being punished at once.

Having been subjected to such acts of mediated retaliation, most of the targets find themselves rather limited in options for seeking legal help. They fear a recurrence of retaliation, they want to erase their online presence, they lack capacities to produce counter-narratives and to deliver own version of the story, and they cannot rely on the police (p. 233). While governing the digital sphere is a Sisyphean toil to begin with; in Russia, strategic internet legislation has been instrumentalised to mute the critical voices. At the same time, until Moscow’s recent change of strategy and crackdown on the ultra-right groups, vigilante formations enjoyed immunity and their leaders were given the floor on national television.

Hand-in-hand with the threats coming from host state nationalists, vigilantism occurs within the targeted group. Self-proclaimed Kyrgyz ‘patriots’ found offence in Kyrgyz women for interactions with non-Kyrgyz men. In response to these ‘offences’, they kidnapped and assaulted them. The retaliation was filmed on cellphones and spread online. Just like in the case with host state vigilantes, targets found themselves limited in options for seeking legal help. Furthermore, exposure is not limited to digital media, episodes of denunciation re-enter the offline discourse through public statements and traditional media reporting, acquiring a new tier of meaning and further informing audience perceptions (pp. 236-237).

The power of reporting

While gathering the data, I conducted field interviews with various actors in Russia and Kyrgyzstan. So as not to endanger the targets, it was decided not to approach them; instead, I spoke with rights defenders, lawyers, law enforcement officers, researchers, vigilantes, and journalists. The study addresses the importance of targets’ privacy protection as media reports can further expose victims by revealing their real names and by displaying their photos. Reporters found themselves on the crossroad between ethics and the desire to spotlight the case and draw public attention to it. At times, the journalists were the only people the targets could rely on for legal advice and support (p. 236). The public, in its turn, largely expressed solidarity with vigilantes.   

Armed with ‘digital weapons’

The paper provides a discussion on how offline biases manifest in digitally mediated retaliation. Given that essentially anyone can find offence in virtually anything, we all are subjected to being both potential victims and potential perpetrators of digital vigilantism. However, does possession of ‘digital weapons’ in our pockets make us all latent murderers? Perhaps we are facing a debate similar to that surrounding gun control here. Although, in the case with guns, their sole use is rather straightforward. With digital media, the use is in the eye of the beholder, and opportunities for creating both benefits and harms are infinite.  

Featured article

Gabdulhakov, R. (2019). In the Bullseye of Vigilantes: Mediated Vulnerabilities of Kyrgyz Labour Migrants in Russia. Media and Communication, 7(2), 230-241. doi:10.17645/mac.v7i2.1927

Portrait of Rashid Gabdulhakov

Author

Rashid Gabdulhakov is a PhD Candidate at the Department of Media and Communication of Erasmus School of History Culture and Communication. Supervised by Dr. Daniel Trottier and Professor Susanne Janssen, Rashid is investigating vigilant behavior in digital space as part of the ‘Digital Vigilantism: Mapping the terrain and assessing societal impact’ Project funded by the Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research (NWO).