Lentis/Internet Witch Hunts

The Internet Witch Hunt is a phenomenon where mob psychology and scandals spreading on the Internet mobilizes hundreds of thousands, if not millions of users into harassing and targeting individuals or groups who holds unorthodox or unpopular views. This can sometimes spill into real life when victims’ personal information and families/employers get involved.


Salem Witch Trials and Its Relation to the Internet Witch HuntsEdit

The Salem Witch Trials was commonly referred to as one of the biggest fiascos in American legal history, and became a touchstone for times when a hysterical community is willing to presume those accused of a crime before proven innocent. Although the last hanging of an accused occurred in September of 1692, America has never stopped hunting “witches”; it has simply found different “witches” to pursue. Widespread fear that an evil faction of society will infect the masses has oftentimes led the country to continue to take part in “witch hunts”. [1]

Why People ParticipateEdit

Social media has evolved into a platform for advocating social justice, becoming a place for users to declare their political views and affiliations on, because social media has become a powerful tool for regular people to spread information about world events and politics faster than ever before. However, this can lead to the spread of misinformation due to publications without sources or verification. [2]

Thoughts and misconceptions that the public may consider when they are actively online are:

  • Netizens are often virtually anonymous, and thus, remain unaccountable for their rudeness and general actions online
  • They are at a distance from the target of their anger and tend to antagonize distant abstraction more easily than in-person interlocutors
  • It’s easier to be nasty in writing than in speech, hence the practice of leaving angry notes, such as the notes left onto the windshields of cars parked in saved parking spaces
  • Social media conversations do not happen in real-time, therefore netizens can write lengthy monologues, which tends to strengthen their arguments
  • The bad examples being set the media, teaching people the wrong ways to talk to each other, where the skills of good listening and conversation is fading [3]

Mob PsychologyEdit

Mob psychology is the concept that individuals can be influenced by their peers to think in a certain way. Studies have found that a group of like-minded individuals can collectively become more polarized in their opinions. This is because when an individual has their opinions reflected in their peers, those opinions are then strengthened. [4]

People also use the beliefs of those around them to judge whether certain actions are correct, a concept known as social proof. One famous example is Robert Cialdini’s Petrified Forest experiment, which showed visitors were more likely to steal petrified wood from Arizona’s Petrified Forest National Park when wood theft was normalized.

Vigilante JusticeEdit

A vigilante is a private citizen who takes on a law enforcement role without legal authority. When a vigilante or a group of vigilantes targets a criminal, this is called vigilante justice. Often taking the form of mobs, vigilantes rise due to a lack of faith that existing institutions, such as the justice system or police, will act in a satisfactory manner. [5]

Vigilantism on the InternetEdit

On the Internet, there is no overarching justice system, and so cyber vigilantism is rampant. Often, it is left to website owners and moderators to decide how to control the content that is hosted, and so sites will vary in quality of moderation. The Internet also particularly encourages vigilantism because of its inherent anonymous nature, making users more confident. The lack of structure combined with this anonymity highly encourages vigilantism. [6]

  • One way the Internet changes vigilantism is cyber crowdsourcing. The nature of the Internet means that many people can contribute to a single cause, such as tracking down personal information that can help solve a crime or facilitate persecution of an individual. As it is very easy for people to participate, this encourages mass efforts.
  • Vigilantism on the Internet can have further consequences than its physical counterpart as well. Ordinary citizens conducting cyber vigilantism are not usually formally trained in the justice system, so cyber vigilantism could cause more anarchy and chaos overall. The disorganized nature of the Internet means that movements are much harder to control and could have more unintended consequences in general. [7]

Methods of MobilizationEdit

Echo ChamberEdit

An echo chamber is an environment where someone encounters beliefs or opinions that tend to only coincide with their own, creating a situation where their existing views are reinforced with the exclusion of alternative ideas.[8] In these environments discontent or hatred of other groups beliefs can be amplified, potentially leading to targeting of those groups or individuals. Calls for action against the perceived offenders resonate with the members, instigating someone to attempt harm.[9]

Celebrity InfluenceEdit

Social media allows for an environment where fans can attach themselves to celebrities with an illusion of intimacy. The emotional connection the fans create allow themselves to be easily influenced by the suggestions of their favored celebrity.[10]

This influence is often used for beneficial outcomes. Such as Lady Gaga mobilizing her fans against the Don't Ask, Don't Tell policy[11] or The Vampire Diaries actor Ian Somerhalder's fund raising and petitions for environmental activism and animal rights through Twitter.[12] It is easy to determine how the same emotional connection can mobilize fans towards more malicious actions (See Demi Burnett below).

Tracking Users Through Technology and DataEdit

Finding personal information such as home addresses, phone numbers, and employers of a witch hunt target is not always difficult. What may take one person several days to discover, hunter groups of tens to thousands can discover in hours. The found data is often shared for comparison on forums, creating a thorough profile of the target.[13] One such example was a wrongly accused man thought to be part of the Boston bombing; the forum still exist on Reddit (r/findbostonbombers), but can only be accessed by invite.

Some common methods include:

  • Comparing user names across social media platforms
  • Following linked and shared postings across social media platforms
  • Reviewing all posted content of the target for potentially self leaked personal information
  • Requesting email addresses on less secure sites
  • Asking others on targets friends list for more information, often using deceptive motives
  • Using Facebook or similar platform to determine employers, city they live, and personal identifying information
  • Sites such as whitepages.com or peoplefinder.com can provide addresses, phone numbers, and known relations

Social Groups and ParticipantsEdit


Anonymous is a group of Internet vigilantes, known to mobilize through the messageboard 4chan. Anonymous has been involved in many famous examples of Internet vigilante movements, such as tracking down the owner of Dusty, a cat who was filmed being abused, and sending his details to the police. [14]

Law enforcementEdit

Law enforcement groups hold a relationship with Internet vigilantes similar to their relationship with normal vigilantes. As civilians lack formal training, they can be detrimental to legal investigations by attacking individuals who are misidentified as criminals, causing damage to innocent people and drawing attention away from the actual criminals. However, the crowdsourcing nature of cyber vigilantes can also help law enforcement reach potential criminals sooner. [15]

Examples of Witch HuntsEdit

Justine SaccoEdit

Justine Sacco was a PR executive for IAC who posted a Tweet shortly before boarding a flight to Africa that read: “Going to Africa. Hope I don't get AIDS. Just Kidding. I'm white!”. Afterwards, Sacco was fired and denounced by the media and celebrities, who encouraged their followers to do the same. [16]

Demi BurnettEdit

Demi Burnett was a contestant on Bachelor who received a hateful message. She posted a message to twitter and told her followers to “do your thing”. Followers found the offenders employer, posted negative yelp messages to establishment, and sent direct Facebook messages asking for the employer to punish the offender. The author of the hateful message was subsequently fired. Demi congratulated her followers for the results.[17]

Sunil TripathiEdit

Sunil Tripathi was a student at Brown University. On April 15, 2013, the annual Boston Marathon was the subject of a terrorist bombing. Sunil had disappeared a month before, and surveillance photos released by the police led Internet users to identify Sunil as a suspect. These users then spread rumors of Sunil’s possible involvement, leading to news vans staking out the Tripathis’ family home and reporters flooding them with calls. Ultimately, the witch hunt derailed the official hunt for the Boston bombing suspects, as the police were forced to release the photos of the actual suspects, causing them to commit further murders in order to escape investigation. [18]


As mentioned before, the Internet Witch Hunts were a result of widespread fear that an evil faction of society will infect the masses, such as the Salem Witch Trials debacle. This widespread fear developed into a behavioral nudge, where the behavior of society has never stopped hunting “witches” and had been reinforced with “positive” outcome, such as the justice of vigilantism on the Internet and activism. With that, various methods of witch hunt mobilizations emerged that strengthen these behavioral nudges.

Although these nudges led participants to believe that they are contributing to social justice, in reality, they are harassing and targeting individuals or groups, which can spill into real life when victims’ personal information and families/employers get involved. “Hunters” can track users through the use of technology and data. This describes manifest functions and latent functions, where the intended purpose has negative impacts. Rather than seeking justice and targeting others because of the influence others around them, participants should consider the X-Y Problem and research and dig in to what is actually causing the problem and why a particular person or group is being targeted, rather than just accepting the answer provided to them and formulating assumptions and opinions based on that answer.


  1. Schottenfeld, D. L. (2008). Witches and communists and internet sex offenders, oh my: Why it is time to call off the hunt. St. Thomas Law Review, 20(2), 359-386.
  2. https://dailycollegian.com/2019/09/the-rise-of-armchair-activism/
  3. https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/why-is-everyone-on-the-internet-so-angry/
  4. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/after-service/201705/the-science-behind-why-people-follow-the-crowd
  5. Radhakrishna, M. (2008). Crime of Vigilante Justice. Economic and Political Weekly, 43(2).
  6. Wehmhoener, Karl Allen, "Social norm or social harm: An exploratory study of Internet vigilantism" (2010). Graduate Theses and Dissertations. 11572.
  7. https://thenextweb.com/socialmedia/2017/09/29/consequences-online-vigilantism/
  8. https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/echo_chamber
  9. https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/10.1177/2056305119829859
  10. https://journal.transformativeworks.org/index.php/twc/article/download/346/277?inline=1
  11. https://ladygaga.fandom.com/wiki/Don%27t_Ask,_Don%27t_Tell
  12. https://twitter.com/is_foundation?lang=en
  13. Privacy, free expression and transparency: redefining their new boundaries in the digital age. Cannataci, Joseph A., Zhao, Bo., et al. Unesco Publishing.
  14. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/the-intersect/wp/2014/09/25/absolutely-everything-you-need-to-know-to-understand-4chan-the-internets-own-bogeyman/
  15. Silva, K. K. (2018). Vigilantism and cooperative criminal justice: is there a place for cybersecurity vigilantes in cybercrime fighting? International Review of Law, Computers & Technology, 32.
  16. https://www.nytimes.com/2015/02/15/magazine/how-one-stupid-tweet-ruined-justine-saccos-life.html
  17. https://thewhisp.mommyish.com/celebrity/celebrity-news/demi-burnetts-homophobic-bully-fired-job-bachelor-paradise/
  18. https://www.nytimes.com/2013/04/26/us/sunil-tripathi-student-at-brown-is-found-dead.html