The Case of the Angry Digilante
Vigilantes on Instagram are the latest sign that our call-out culture may have reached a tipping point. Should brands participate or opt out?
On the sunny shores of Instagram teeming with coastal lifestyle bloggers and photos of hedgehogs, we’ve seen the rise of a new kind of influencer: the angry watchdog.
Meet the Instagram accounts criticizing wrongdoings in fashion, beauty, environment, art and travel with a vindictive sass previously reserved for the Twitter and Tumblr crowd. @diet_prada, @esteelaundry, @publiclandshateyou, @whos____who and @passengershaming have each built a following in the hundreds of thousands from social media posts that call people out on plagiarism, cultural appropriation, unethical practices or illegal behavior.
Internet vigilantism is as old as the internet itself. Social media vigilantism, though, is a slightly different animal. Whether you’re a brand, artist, designer, celebrity or mere tourist, a single call-out from an influential digilante could result in your inbox flooded with instant outrage, negative headlines, lost sponsorships, plummeting follower counts or worse — you’re cancelled.
Diet Prada is the canceler-in-chief, having amassed a cult following of 1.3 million “Upper East dieters” who #callitout through custom memes exposing bad behavior in the fashion industry. The account takes all offenders to task, from Kim Kardashian for lifting Comme de Garçons designs, to Gucci for selling balaclavas that resemble blackface. It was the first to break the story about Dolce & Gabbana co-founder Stefano Gabbana’s racist direct messages calling China “Ignorant Dirty Smelling Mafia,” which eventually forced the brand to cancel their upcoming Shanghai show IRL worth millions of dollars.
At first blush, online vigilantes like Diet Prada seem to follow the tenets of watchdog journalism. Like reporters, they seek out story ideas from the community, get tip-offs from followers sliding into their DMs, maintain an investigative attitude, vet their sources and become voices of dissent in the industries they watch.
But lately there’s a growing sentiment that they’re more like villains than vigilantes. “All that space to comment breeds a tendency to fester, versus actually making something,” says Virgil Abloh, founder of fashion house Off-White and one of Diet Prada’s frequent targets. Anonymous account @dietignorant was created exclusively to call out the legitimacy of Diet Prada’s calling out, in what can only be described as meta-vigilantism. Digilantes take aim at alleged wrongdoers and encourage retributive justice on social media. When their efforts lack the empathy needed to lead to something meaningful, they’re just perpetuating call-out culture.
Man Repeller editor Haley Nahman recently expressed her distaste for Diet Prada’s public-shaming, schadenfreude-fueling approach, and how the internet has become a hostile environment for genuine communication. As content creators and users, we feel pressured to perform our values online and resort to virtue signaling, concern trolling, privilege-splaining, shitposting and other internet-manufactured tactics to resolve disagreements. Makes you wonder if it would be just be easier for the digilante and their perps to meet for coffee and sort it out in person.
Where do we go from here? With great follower counts come great responsibility. Can digilantes really hold large institutions accountable and reinforce civility when the platforms they use are designed to incentivize mob rule, hot takes and a may-the-most-followed-win mindset?
The way we see it, they must choose between two very different goals: making people feel guilty or actually inspiring them to change their behavior. On the one hand, environmental activist Instagram account Public Lands Hate You routinely calls out and shames selfie-chasing influencers for ruining national parks. And then there is zero waste author and speaker Lindsey Miles, who prioritizes positivity over guilt for successful plastic-free living. “We want to feel good about the choices we make and actions we take. Guilt can lead us to think it’s-not-good-enough-so-why-bother-anyway.”
Brands and initiatives looking to effect long-term, meaningful change need to move beyond the fear and guilt propagated by call-out culture. Activist Bruce Friedrich’s change of heart is one such transformation story. For decades, he aggressively called out people for wearing, killing and eating animals, even hurling fake blood at fashion models who wore fur coats on the ramp. Once he realized that “making others feel bad about eating meat does not make them consume less of it,” he channeled his energies into establishing the Good Food Institute, which helps develop competitive, plant-based meat that’s just as good as the real thing.
Holding a town hall meeting with a heavily right-leaning media outlet was a bold move for democratic socialist Bernie Sanders. But here’s what he did not do: vilify his opponents, immediately discount their views or refuse to engage in productive discourse. In the words of Kingsley Shacklebolt, “You may not like him, Minister, but you can’t deny: Dumbledore’s got style.” Instagram’s angry digilantes would do well to heed Sanders’ approach. We can still critique others’ actions and hold them accountable, but the most effective arguments are more constructive than destructive, giving both parties the chance to reflect and redeem themselves despite their differences.