Digital Vigilantism in Russia

Mediated Citizen-Led Justice in the Context of Social Change & Social Harm

Mediated Citizen-Led Justice in the Context of Social Change & Social Harm

Digital vigilantes retaliate on fellow citizens by shaming and exposing their targets on social media for perceived violations of moral, legal and other boundaries. Participants utilise a variety of methods, from doxing to physical attacks and rely on the virtual audience for intensification of the impact of punitive measures. Unsolicited exposure on social media is characterised by permanence of the damages experienced by targets, as shameful content appears in search engines. Cases that get picked up by traditional media bring further publicity and play a significant role in rendering respective meaning to digital vigilantism by justifying or accusing either participants or their targets. The core objective of this research is to contribute to advancing theoretical boundaries of digital vigilantism as a platform for both social change and social harm. The phenomenon is taking place across divergent sociopolitical realities and approaches to governing platforms and regulating online self-expression.

As part of an international and interdisciplinary project supported by the Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research (NWO project number 276-45-004), this PhD research investigates the phenomenon of digital vigilantism in the context of the Russian Federation. The current literature is largely missing a contextual analysis of digitally mediated citizen-led justice in autocratic environments. This project aims to respond to this gap by investigating the case of Russia, where digital vigilantism is manifested in the environment of state-support of select participants and simultaneous suppression of other online self-expression. The notion of autonomy and other related definitional characteristics of digital vigilantism are challenged in Russia due to several critical contextual factors, including cases of state mobilisation of citizens and nuances of state control over traditional and digital media. Furthermore, vigilante practices in Russia have a spillover effect on other former-Soviet state both in terms of citizen’s copy initiatives and in terms of state approaches to regulation.

This research considers the process of emergence and decay of vigilante formations in Russia; it addresses methods and motives behind participation as well as greater societal impacts of citizen-led justice. The study considers the role of the ruling regimes, state structures, traditional media, social media platforms, citizen counter-forces, structural and social biases, and other processes, actors and voices in the manifestation of digital vigilantism and responses to it. This multi-method project relies on qualitative content analysis of traditional media coverage of cases and actors, as well as content analysis of media products generated by participants themselves. As cases that take place in Russia have greater cross-border impacts, the project’s fieldwork is performed in and beyond the country. Field studies imply semi-structured in-depth interviews with key stakeholders, such as participants, targets, policymakers, media professionals, rights defenders, NGO representatives, academics, lawyers, and law enforcement authorities.

To address a diverse set of nuances that inform digital vigilantism, the following primary and supportive research questions are addressed:

RQ: How are practices of digital vigilantism in Russia manifested through state-citizen and citizen-to-citizen relations?

  • SQ1: How is digital vigilantism in Russia informed by historically situated practices of outsourced, crowdsourced, and volunteered citizen-led justice, as well as denouncing, shaming, and moralising of citizens by fellow citizens?
  • SQ2: How is digital vigilantism framed and rendered meaningful by state-owned and independent Russian media?
  • SQ3: What are the drivers of emergence and decay of digital vigilantism initiatives in the Russian context?
  • SQ4: How is visibility (including mediated shaming, moralising, harassment, and embodied acts of retaliation) weaponised by participants?
  • SQ5: How is digital vigilantism experienced by targets in relation to social inequalities, (digital)divides, social frustrations and biases?

PhD Candidate


    • dr. (Daniel) D Trottier

      Daniel Trottier is an Associate Professor at the Department of Media and Communication of Erasmus University Rotterdam. His current research considers the use…
      dr. (Daniel) D Trottier
    • prof.dr. (Susanne) MSSE Janssen

      Susanne Janssen is full professor of Sociology of Media and Culture and research director of the Department of Media and Communication at the Erasmus School of…
      prof.dr. (Susanne) MSSE Janssen


    Academic articles

    1. Gabdulhakov, R., Trottier, D. (2020). Between ‘filter bubbles’ and community leaders: An exploratory study of Facebook groups for Russophones/Russians in the Netherlands. Global Diaspora and Media, 89-105.
    2. Huang, Q., Gabdulhakov, R., Trottier, D. (2020). Online scrutiny of people with nice cars: A comparative analysis of Chinese, Russian, and Anglo-American outrage. Global Media and China, 1-14.
    3. Gabdulhakov, R. (2020). (Con)trolling the Web: Social Media User Arrests, State-Supported Vigilantism and Citizen Counter-Forces in Russia. Global Crime, 1-23. doi:10.1080/17440572.2020.1719836
    4. Gabdulhakov, R. (2020). Heroes or Hooligans? Media Portrayal of StopXam (Stop a Douchebag) Vigilantes in Russia. Laboratorium: Russian Review of Social Research. 11(3), 16-45. doi: 10.25285/2078-1938-2019-11-3-16-45
    5. 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
    6. Akbari, A., & Gabdulhakov, R. (2019). Platform Surveillance and Resistance in Iran and Russia: The Case of Telegram. Surveillance & Society 17(1/2), 223-231. doi:10.24908/ss.v17i1/2.12928
    7. Gabdulhakov, R. (2018). Citizen-led justice in post-communist Russia: From comrades’ courts to dotcomrade vigilantism. Surveillance & Society, 16(3), 314-331. doi:10.24908/ss.v16i3.6952

    Publications meant for a broad audience

    1. Gabdulhakov, R. Digital vigilan…what? Why and how I study online citizen-led justice. (Blog). IBCoMagazine. (Available: 7 June 2020).
    2. Gabdulhakov, R. A weapon in our hands or to our heads? (Blog). ERMeCC PhD Club. (Available: 5 July 2019).
    3. Gabdulhakov, R. Citizen-led justice? (Blog). Surveillance & Society Journal.

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