Theorizing Chinese digital vigilantism: the mediated hybrid participatory surveillance and the collapse of contexts and fields


Digital vigilantism is the phenomenon of citizens weaponizing online visibility to retaliate against an individual when they are collectively offended by his/her offensive conduct or speech (Trottier, 2017). It is a common phenomenon on the Chinese Internet, with targets including rival fans, animal abusers, sex offenders, corrupt government officials, as well as unpatriotic civilians and celebrities. Previous research on this topic mostly focuses on the empirical implication of these cases, and do not provide sufficient theoretical explanation on the phenomenon. Therefore, by examining high-profile cases of digital vigilantism in China and discussing relevant theories and concepts, this paper intends to theorize digital vigilantism in China and its influence on Chinese society. 

This paper firstly argues that in the Chinese context, this phenomenon should be understood through the lens of surveillance. DV is a mediated hybrid participatory surveillance that bridges different types of surveillance in various aspects. In the process of information gathering, DV participants conduct both face-to-face and file-based surveillance, After the information collected, DV participants attack both the dividual and individual of the target. Such surveillance also differs from other traditional surveillance because the scrutiny and exclusion happen simultaneously in DV incidents, which merges the process and result of surveillance. 

The paper further discusses how this form of surveillance is complicated by the ubiquitous state power of the Chinese government. Firstly, the government's tight control over Internet infrastructures and law establishments makes Chinese DV activities mostly unorganized. Also, effective governmental propaganda on social values and norms makes many Chinese DV incidents align with the state’s interest. Empirical DV cases also demonstrate the government's effort to co-op this phenomenon, which makes Chinese DV participants tend to seek support from institutional power, which is especially typical in anti-corruption cases and cases targeting unpatriotic citizens.

A detailed theoretical analysis of the implication of normalizing such surveillance in China is provided lastly. The social implication of DV should be understood in two-fold. On the micro-level, it leads to context collapse (boyd, 2010) of punishment. The punishment imposed on the DV target is not limited in a specific context of his/her social life; instead, it transcends the boundaries and contexts of online-offline, work-life, public-private, etc. Meanwhile, on the macro-level, it leads to the collapse of autonomous fields of various social activities (Bourdieu, 1993) and the expanding impact of social capital. The logic of different fields is increasingly impacted by a combined force of (social) media logic, populist justice, and political power. The platform economy also boosts the possibility, intensifies the desire, and increases the impact of transforming social capital into other capital (e.g. economic, cultural, symbolic).