‘Not your personal army!’ Investigating the organizing property of retributive vigilantism in a Reddit collective of websleuths

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This paper investigates a collective of websleuths called the Reddit Bureau of Investigation (RBI) that contains over 70,000 members. Websleuthing, or the investigative practices undertaken online by individuals who are not professional security providers, is an increasing trend. While conducting investigations on Reddit constitutes somewhat of a transgressive practice, the online platform’s history is intimately linked with websleuthing since the manhunt that followed the 2013 Boston attacks which received much criticism from its community. Thus, we seek to understand how the RBI organizes its investigative activities against an anti-vigilante backdrop. Drawing from organizational discourse theory, we analyze the discursive practices developed by RBI members to define and enforce the collective’s mission and participatory guidelines. Specifically, we focus on the figures (memes, metaphors, rules, affects, etc.) that RBI members invoke in interaction and on the role of Reddit’s affordances in the materialization of these discursive entities. Our analysis is threefold. First, we underline how figures associated with retributive vigilantism are invoked by moderators and their propension to circumscribe what (not) to do within the subreddit. Then, we analyze a series of controversial posts to identify the recurring discursive practices developed by users when asking the RBI for assistance. Finally, we explore the ambivalent rapport that RBI members maintain with the police. Overall, our analysis shows that members must overtly recognize police authority over criminal matters yet invoke the institution’s limitations to justify their involvement in the RBI, all the while rejecting any association with retributive vigilantism.

This content has been updated on 17 March 2022 at 12 h 21 min.