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Introducing Vigilant Audiences

Daniel Trottier
Rashid Gabdulhakov
Qian Huang

More Eyes on Crime?

The Rhetoric of Mediated Mugshots

Sarah Young

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1While it may not be typical for an arrestee to be photographed eating a sandwich, the booking photo described above illustrates a growing trend in the United States — the participatory online mugshot. While the publication of online mugshots may be more popular in America than elsewhere (Collier, 2014), these photos have been known to go viral and trend world-wide. Combining traditional uses of the mugshot for information management and classification purposes (Finn, 2009) with participatory digital technologies, online mugshots provide a space where the public can elevate the exposure of arrestees by making the images viral, as in the example of the North Carolina man above, who now and forever has the dubious association of having the bologna-sandwich mugshot. Proponents argue that increased mugshot visibility aids department transparency and provides more information for the community (Murray, 2015), but is justice and “more eyes on crime” the rhetoric that is extolled in online galleries? I argue no, especially in one prominent example of Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office’s former Mugshot of the Day (MotD) program from Arizona, USA.

2In 2011, controversial Joe “Sheriff Joe” Arpaio, the self-proclaimed “America’s toughest sheriff” (BBC News, 2017), launched the MotD program through the MCSO’s webpage. While Sheriff Joe’s base supporters and audience may predominately be in the desert southwest of the United States, where voters kept Arpaio in power as County Sheriff from 1993 to 2016 and whose “brand of politics made him the most popular politician in Arizona” (Kiefer, 2016), Arpaio and his policies have received world-wide notoriety. In the heyday of his popularity, Arpaio boasted of having two hundred TV interviews per month and thousands of articles written about him from all over the world (Santos, 2012) in places like England (BBC News, 2017) or Australia (Duffy, 2018). Some of his more famous American supporters and advocates of his justice policies range from actor Steven Seagal (Ohlheiser, 2014) to President Donald Trump (Hirschfeld Davis & Haberman, 2017).

3Run from 2011 to 2016, the Mugshot of the Day! site allowed the public, under the guise of a voting game, to view all the jail bookings for the last three days to elevate the visibility of their mugshot of choice to the leaderboard. The top eight mugshots were featured daily on the site’s main page, and the most popular shot of the day was featured at the top of the homepage and labelled, “Mugshot of the Day!” This program was justified by Sheriff Joe reportedly saying, “More eyes on arrestees may result in more leads to criminal investigators” (Hermann, 2011).

4While Arpaio had also used other extreme measures for attention and publicity to show his ‘tough’ stance on crime, such as when he created the US’ first female chain gang (Santos, 2012), required inmates to wear striped outfits issued with pink underwear, housed inmates in tents in the desert heat and fed inmates mouldy bologna (Kiefer, 2016), what is specific about this program is that MCSO was not just asking the public to be vigilante viewers of crime infotainment, and to watch the inmates from a distance, as in a quirky news report on Arpaio’s Tent City. Instead, he changed the participatory nature of the audience and created a space where the public could stay distant while also becoming up close and personal with those arrested.

5By looking at the MCSO’s MotD program, I argue that through the exigency of entertainment on participatory platforms, online mugshots temporarily coalesced a group of digital vigilantes into being, in order to weaponise visibility. This claim is not only an argument that the initial intention of the MotD (entertainment) does not disqualify it as a DV activity (due to the unwanted, intense and enduring visibility it produces), but it also contributes to evolving definitions of how one participates in vigilantism in a digital world, and who can do so. To support this argument, I will use the MSCO site in four ways: 1) argue that online mugshot consumers can be digital vigilantes, 2) argue that entertainment provides this link, 3) discuss the implications of these conclusions and 4) discuss what this means for other online mugshot platforms in a larger context.

The MCSO’s MotD Program Creates Digital Vigilantes

6Firstly, I will explain how those who interact with online mugshots, especially in the case of MCSO can be considered digital vigilantes. I argue they can be considered this because 1) online mugshots on the MCSO site call into being a group of people that temporarily coalesces 2) through participatory platforms to 3) shame and weaponise visibility against a target.

Individuals temporarily coalesce:

7According to Charland, one becomes a member of a collective through interaction with its discourse. Identification then is a rhetorical move. One is not always born into associations with others — one can choose to heed the call. There is not necessarily a subject that “would exist prior to and apart from the speech to be judged”, instead the discourse can call a subject into being (1987, p. 133). This is true for digital vigilantes as well. Digital vigilantes heed a call for participation and find themselves in the call for action. As Trottier discusses, these individuals do not have to have prior association and are often “unaffiliated with a formal organisation” (2017, p. 57).

8Particularly for MCSO, one became a member of the voting collective because they found themselves in the call to vote for the mugshot. To vote on one’s favourite mugshot of the day, the user did not have to register or otherwise be involved with the Sheriff’s Office or affiliated with any other organisation. One was able to look at the photos, click on their favourite image and tap the “vote” button next to the photo. Once they had voted and their selection was logged by the site, though, they became a member of the collective in that their vote joined with the other votes to work together to elevate the visibility of the photo.

Online mugshots utilise digital platforms to name and shame:

9Second, in digital vigilantism, the ability both to join the group and to carry out the actions of a digital vigilante are granted through digital, participatory platforms. Jenkins et al. describe participatory culture as a “mix of top-down and bottom-up forces” that alter the traditional roles of producer and consumer (2013, p. 11), and a participatory platform utilises the mix of top-down and bottom-up affordances that allow those at the “top” to provide the space for interaction, but engage the public to produce their own conversation. This follows Trottier’s comment that “DV is a product of digital media platforms and user-generated cultural practices” (2017, p. 57).

10In the case of MCSO, the members of the voting collective were only able to coalesce, and these members only able to vote, because they could heed the call for membership online on a participatory platform. Voters did not meet in a public square or in a physical location to target particular individuals; voters could just turn on their computers, navigate to the MCSO’s site and select their favourite mugshot with a click of the mouse.

Mugshot consumers weaponise visibility:

11One can coalesce for membership and use participatory platforms without being a digital vigilante though, so an important piece of the argument is that digital vigilantes can inflict some type of punishment on their targets. As Trottier (2017) describes, DV is a process where the coalesced groups “respond through coordinated retaliation” (2017, p. 56), implying that some type of harm results in the process.

12One punishment is shame. Shame works by showing others how someone has violated an accepted social norm (Karp, 1998), and while a person might feel fear when they are physically threatened, they might “feel shame when the social self is threatened” (ibid., p. 279). Shame causes feelings of embarrassment because a person believes someone has a low opinion of them, and this can range from close friends even to strangers (ibid., p. 280). As Rosedale concludes, the mugshot creates “a shame-filled expression captured by the photograph” (2014, p. 791). So, when someone’s mugshot is visible to the public, this can result in shame even if the person photographed does not even know who will be looking at the photo.

13One way that groups can use shame to harm targets is through weaponised visibility. According to Trottier, weaponised visibility makes “explicit use of targets’ personal information by rendering them visible to public scrutiny” (2017, p. 65). The more visible a target is, the more others can find out about their actions. This visibility can range from the name-and-shame tactic in which a target’s personal information is revealed, to drawing out child predators through shows like To Catch A Predator, in which volunteers pose as underage children to bait potential sex offenders (Smallridge et al., 2016), to, as I argue, voting on online mugshots. Even though in the case of MCSO these mugshots were uploaded first by a state entity, the public can turn these photos into weapons of visibility by drawing even more scrutiny to the images.

14Trottier (2017) outlines that there are three characteristics of weaponised visibility. It is unwanted, intense and enduring. Each of these facets creates a type of visibility that can bring shame and harm to a target. MCSO’s mugshots present the opportunity for a group’s members to capitalise on all three of these characteristics to weaponise visibility when voting on their favourite image.

15First, when visibility is weaponised, it is unwanted and “the target is typically not soliciting publicity” (ibid., p. 55). For the voting public on the MCSO site, the group could use visibility to harm their target because mugshots inherently represent an unwanted condition. Typically, a mugshot is a negative reminder of something bad, and the photos dehumanise the photographed (Lashmar, 2013). Rosedale also adds that the mugshot “includes an individual’s expression at an embarrassing moment. At the time the photograph is taken, the individual has been ‘deprived of most liberties’” (2014, p. 791). So, when interacting with any type of mugshot, the public was already engaging in making more visible an unwanted artefact.

  • 1 It is interesting to note that in dismissing the case, the courts referenced the 1904 case of Shaff (...)

16The unwanted nature of MCSO’s MotD program is especially apparent looking at one of the major cases testing the legalities of online mugshots. In this suit, the plaintiff unsuccessfully1 sued the county because he argued MCSO took his property, or more specifically, his “image, name, and fingerprints” without his permission and posted both his image, arrest details and personal information on their site, thus violating his Fourth Amendment right to be free from unreasonable seizures, Fifth Amendment right to private property, Eighth Amendment right to be free from cruel and unusual punishment and Ninth Amendment right to life, liberty and happiness (Campbell, 2013). One of the main complaints in the suit was that the mugshot was featured publicly, and that users could interact with it and re-publish it on other sites. As listed in the suit regarding MCSO and other entities reposting his photo, “many of these websites, including the County’s, permitted site visitors to vote on a ‘mugshot of the day’, and some even permitted viewers to make comments about images posted on the sites”. Clearly, for the plaintiff, visibility was unwanted.

17Second, visibility, when weaponised, is intense: “content like text, photos and videos can circulate to millions of users within a few days” (Trottier, 2017, p. 55). When voters engaged with the mugshots on the MotD site and elevated photos to the main page, they could increase the intensity of the photo’s circulation. No longer relegated to interior pages, once the photos had received enough votes, the images would move and be prominently featured on the site’s main page. Then, whenever a visitor clicked on the homepage, the user was greeted with one of eight photos. The magnitude of the intensity of the exposure is illustrated by the number of visitors to the MSCO site, and during the time period when the MotD program was running, then-Sheriff Arpaio boasted that this controversial program had a million hits a day and was “one of the most visible law enforcement sites on the Internet” (Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office, 2015a).

18Third, weaponised visibility is enduring because it can be a top search result or it can morph into its own cultural reference (Trottier, 2017, p. 55). For groups of voters on the MCSO site, voting on a particular photo could make the image more enduring. Once the photo had been elevated to the main page, it remained there for the rest of the day and, as mentioned, it would be the first images seen by site visitors. Although in the case of MCSO the images were removed after three days, thereby limiting the lasting characteristic of endurance for voters on the MCSO’s page, voters could still affect the endurance of the images. The most visible mugshots were often downloaded or screenshotted, and featured as content on other news or blogging sites (Stern, 2016) such as the Phoenix New Times, who weekly reviewed their own “Mugshots of the Week” based on MCSO’s photos (Hendley, 2015) and whose content is still online today. These images were also reposted in places such as tabloid news outlets, who picked up celebrities such as WNBA star Brittney Griner (TMZ, 2015) and private blogs like Maricopa County Mugshots (Maricopa County Mugshots, n.d.) which showcased screenshots of offenders.

19Overall, then, voters on the MotD program were able to join together to further shame particular targets, thereby weaponising visibility and acting as digital vigilantes. Before continuing, though, it is of note that, by nature of posting the mugshots online for a contest, MCSO was in a way participating in their own weaponisation of visibility against those who had been arrested, thereby strengthening the connection between the state, the public and digital vigilantism. Without these images have being posted, there would not be the chance to vote for the photos in the first place. Even further, MCSO was releasing booking date, full name, booking number, gender, birthdate, height, weight, hair and eye colour, race and arrest reason (Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office, 2015b), which further doxed the arrestees and created the possibility of new justice initiatives such as the silencing of protest and dissent (this point will be discussed later in the chapter.)

The Exigency of Entertainment

20The previous section detailed how the MCSO’s MotD program illustrated the similarities between the digital vigilantes and voters on the site. The following section will detail one significant difference: the exigency of the audience participation. I argue that both the call for participation on the “Mugshot of the Day!” page, together with a sample of the site’s ‘winners’, supports that entertainment, rather than detection of criminals or retribution, evoked participation on the site. This not only challenges Sheriff Joe’s supposed reason for creating the program but also adds complexity to the idea of the ‘vigilant audience’ who is traditionally conceptualised to coalesce for justice-seeking reasons.

Objects and Views Analysis

21To make this argument, it is important to understand how the page looked when users would land on the Office’s page. Were users greeted with rhetoric for identifying criminals for the sake of keeping the streets safer? Were they greeted with calls for retaliation to harm those photographed? I argue neither, users were greeted with the exigency of entertainment.


22To analyse the page, I used a content and views analysis as described by Hart-Davidson et al. (2007), which builds on the work of Rockley & Kostur (2003) and their ideas of content auditing. For the analysis, the “content” portion “is a straightforward list of the content types available on the site” (ibid., 17). The “views” portion “is a different view of content that complements what can be a rather static, product-focused inventory of text types” (ibid.), and instead, views are “a collection of content objects presented to the user in a coherent visual format” (ibid.). In a content and views analysis, a researcher examines a website to see how web content is managed and how content serves strategic goals. This was an effective strategy for this analysis because it offered a way to see what content MCSO allowed, how they let users navigate the space and if the content of the MotD page matched the supposed strategic goals of the office, which was to have more eyes on arrestees. Only the MotD page was used for the analysis because this was the relevant page that facilitated the interaction. For this analysis, while Hart-Davidson et al. stuck to genres in their study with content types like “news and announcements” and “policy statements”, this was smaller and focused on one page rather than the site, so I included more specific details of content like “photo of Sheriff Joe”.


23For content, there were several standard items on the page that ran across the whole site, such as the header element with the photo of Sheriff Joe, department name and image of Sheriff’s badge, and there was also the footer element, with the contact information, privacy statement and copyright information. The bulk of the content unique to the page was the photos of the mugshots and the different ways to search for the photo of your choice. The punctuation of the exclamation mark on the phrase “Mugshot of the Day!” was a particularly enthusiastic addition to the site.

24To view content on and off the page, there was little variation available. Users could use a menu to navigate around the site to other locations like “About MCSO” or “Victim Services”. Users could also use links to peruse specific offenses, and users could search the mugshots by first name, last name or booking number. Users could also click on “Contact Us” and “Privacy Statement”. It is of note that below these photos was the disclaimer, “Mugshots reflect the bookings within the last 3 days. Individuals booked prior to that time will not be displayed. PRE-TRIAL INMATES ARE INNOCENT UNTIL PROVEN GUILTY!” (Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office, Mugshots, 2015, emphasis in original). Table 12.1 provides a snapshot of the results.

Table 12.1: Results of the Content and Views Analysis for the MotD Page



• Photo of Sheriff Joe

• Menus

• Name of Department and tagline

• Links

• Image of Sheriff’s badge

• Search

• Name of other website pages

• Mugshot of the Day! image

• Categories of crimes

• Seven “Mugshot Leader Board” images

• Names and arrest dates of arrestees

• Disclaimer

• Contact Us

• Privacy Statement

• Copyright


25Although Sheriff Arpaio had claimed his mugshot program was about how “[m] ore eyes on arrestees may result in more leads to criminal investigators” (Hermann, 2011), this was not necessarily what was being communicated or displayed on the webpage. Offense-taking and punishment were not presented as the reason to vote. Instead, participants were greeted by the exigency of entertainment. According to a visual analysis of this page, the site was designed to facilitate the easy process of scanning, searching and voting for one’s favorite mugshot. Nowhere on this page was there a call to elevate the image of those you recognise from other crimes or details directing onlooker to report tips to the agency. There was a “Contact Us” link, but it was listed in the footer of the page and was an element that ran across the bottom of every page rather than an appeal for the public to identify particular individuals.

26Overall, then, the page was focused more on entertainment and letting the audience easily navigate the site to vote, rather than to enable them to assist with law enforcement duties. Thus, I argue that entertainment was the impetus for voter’s participation. To further back up this claim, I also looked at a sample of the mugshots that were being selected as the mugshot of the day.

Qualitative Content Analysis

27A look at the photos presents an opportunity to see who the voters picked to name and shame. This would help identify the outward manifestations of the rhetoric of the site. With a call for entertainment, who were voters selecting?


28To do this, I selected a random selection of images, and I chose a selection of 285 photos from the summer of 2015. To look at these photos, I conducted a visual, qualitative content analysis. According to Rose, content analysis for images involves “counting the frequency of certain visual elements in a clearly defined sample of images” (2007, p. 61), and then looking at these frequencies to make meaning. Each image was also categorised into only one category. By looking at these mugshots, a pattern emerged that participants were doing more than just keeping an eye out for criminals — I argue they were, for the most part, specifically targeting individuals for their appearance.

29Elo and Kyngas outline that the general goal of content analysis is to get a “condensed and broad description of the phenomenon, and the outcome of the analysis is concepts or categories describing the phenomenon” (2007, p. 108). For a greater level of confidence in the data, I also worked with a second coder to achieve intercoder reliability, as recommended by Geisler and Swarts (2019). Multiple coders were essential because as Krippendorff (1980), Geisler and Swarts (2019), and Rose (2007) underscore, qualitative content analysis is useful when it is both replicable and reliable. To be replicable and thus more reliable, more than one person should be able to conduct the same study and get similar results. According to Rose, similar results can be achieved with good coding description with codes “defined as fully as possible” (2007, p. 68). With well-defined categories, each coder could match their code to the description of the classification.

30With a second coder, I was able to achieve 270 agreements, which is approximately 95 % of simple intercoder agreement, or in other words, the “measure of the extent to which coders assign the same codes to the same set of data” (Geisler & Swarts, 2019, p. 155). In this study, the 5 % discrepancy arose most times when an image had more than one category trait, for example a subject had both an out-of-the-ordinary facial expression, but also body tattoos, and coders debated as to which code was more prominent. I was also able to get a 0.920 Kappa agreement as calculated by GraphPad (2014) which was rated as a “very good” strength of agreement.


31According to Schreier, “With qualitative content analysis, the coding frame itself can be the main result” (2014, p. 180), and after following the steps of analysis, Table 12.2 details the eleven categories emerged.

Table 12.2: Category Results for MotD Leaderboard


Coder 1

Coder 2

Attractive Female



Disheveled Female



Disheveled Male



Facial Expression












Other visual






Prominent Tattoo









32As shown in Table 12.2, nearly all the mugshots in this period fit into ten identifiable categories with only one “unknown” category that does not appear to correlate to visual characteristics. Looking at the data, the most frequently occurring category was images labelled “attractive female” by both coders. The remaining images were split between the ten other categories. To describe the other categories in alphabetical order: firstly, there were “dishevelled” female and male categories that featured individuals whose appearance might suggest a transient lifestyle. The “facial expression” category featured images where the arrestee wore an unusual expression, such as a wide smile or someone visibly crying. Those in the “hairstyle” category had hair that stood out as the main identifying feature, such as bright purple hair or hair styled straight up in the air, and the “injury” category featured individuals who had identifiably fresh injuries or bandages covering their face. The “name” category was an exception for the results in that the voting tended to be aimed at the arrestee’s name rather than their image; for instance, a male arrestee had a name that sounded like a sexual euphemism and a man with the same first, middle and last name appeared in this group. The “other” category featured those with something identifiable about the image that would make the photo stand out, such as an eye patch or face mask, but the difference was more of a one-off than an emerging pattern. Although this was the second-highest-scoring category, it was still significantly less frequent than the top category. The “pose” category featured individuals whose bodies were doing something out of the ordinary, such as a woman whose hands were placed under her chin reminiscent of a 1990’s-era professional glamour portrait, and the “prominent tattoo” category featured individuals who had visible face and upper-body tattoos (ones that could be seen in a mugshot profile). Finally, there was an “unknown” category that featured those individuals who were voted onto the leader board, but nothing stood out visually. These could have been individuals who had been featured in the news for exceptional crimes, but as this study looked only at the visual elements, nothing stood out in their appearance.


33While the exact reason someone voted cannot be determined, due to the anonymous nature of the voting process, the information above can at least provide evidence of a visual pattern. In conjunction with the content and views analysis of the site, and by looking at the results on the leader board, the emergent cluster of visual characteristics provides evidence that voters were not just elevating the criminals that post the greatest threats to the community. For instance, several of the “leading” offenders were arrested for lower-level issues like failure to pay fines or fees. Instead, the majority of those featured were attractive females, followed by the dishevelled, injured, tattooed, and unusually hairstyled. As local Phoenix reporter Ray Stern (2016, n.p.) anecdotally noted about the site, “Typically, the winners were the jail’s best-looking female inmates, though occasionally a man would win if he had the right facial tattoos or bizarre appearance”.

34This overwhelming majority of “winning” attractive females is also another important exploration unto itself in matters of gender, race and class, but for this chapter’s argument, these results fit in with work done on engaging in voyeurism as entertainment. The mugshots exist as screen bodies, and in a patriarchal world, as Wise comments, “[w] omen on screen are then the object of the voyeuristic gaze — they are seen as objects of pleasure, often as objects of desire” (2016, p. 16). Voters have singled out younger, attractive females to target with visibility in the name of entertainment, with the voters in control and those featured in the photos forced to sit passively by as others elevate and manipulate their digital exposure.

35Oddly enough though, too, this is not the first time Sheriff Joe has facilitated the increased visibility of arrested females. In July 2000, Arpaio started “Jail Cam” that streamed footage from inside the jail “where interested viewers world-wide could watch around the clock coverage of arrestees entering the jail in handcuffs, the booking process and life within the holding cells” (Lynch, 2004, p. 255). This became especially problematic in 2001 when as Lynch reports, “the camera inside the women’s holding cell became ‘misaligned’ and began broadcasting a view of the women’s toilet area” and claims were that “these images ended up being linked to several Internet pornography sites” (ibid., p. 258).

Implications of the Claims

36After reviewing the literature about vigilantism and comparing this to the MCSO’s MotD program, as well as examining the leader board, my main conclusion emerges: through the exigency of entertainment on participatory platforms, online mugshots can temporarily coalesce a group of digital vigilantes that weaponise visibility.

37With this conclusion, two main implications also emerge that need to be discussed. Firstly, entertainment can serve as the exigency for individuals to engage in digital vigilantism, and secondly, there can be a relationship between the state and the public when engaging in digital vigilantism.

Entertainment as exigency for acts of digital vigilantism:

38To begin this discussion, I argue that entertainment can serve as exigency for digital vigilantism. This has implications for 1) mugshots as well as 2) digital vigilantism and the audience.

39Firstly, this claim has implications for mugshots, because those who view mugshots have not typically been considered vigilantes. Starting in the 1800s, as the use of mugshots grew in popularity, they began to serve more constructed, supplementary spaces of entrainment. In order to build support for emerging law enforcement groups, some departments, such as the New York City police, began to post mugshots in their offices. Called “rogue’s galleries” where spectators could visit the lobby of the department and view displays of the photos, the spaces allowed onlookers to return the gaze of the images (Hall, 2009). They were “understood as a popular form of amusement and as an invitation to practice the art of detection as a personal safety strategy” (ibid., p. 65), and tourists flocked to these galleries (Gunning, 1995). Images of outlaws spread in time to wanted posters, bulletins, most-wanted lists published by the media such as the FBI’s ten-most-wanted list, then to television programs such as America’s Most Wanted. Audiences could consume the images as a pastime, whether seeking to identify criminals or enjoy a voyeuristic look into another’s life. In their leisure time, a viewer could inspect, consume, judge, speculate and mingle with the images, all while keeping distance.

40The early mugshot viewer was theorised, then, as more of a spectator rather than a participant in interaction with the photo. Interaction was limited to more passive defiance. Hall (2009, p. 8) uses Caldwell’s (1995) work and calls the historical mugshot consumer a “vigilante viewer” or one that stands up to the images and the fear they can produce, in order to return the gaze and gain satisfaction that their life is more productive than the photographed. As Hall notes, they did not want “a live encounter with the outlaw” and instead were more interested to “see ‘what a real outlaw looks like’” (2009, p. 7). They would also rather have relinquished control of catching and punishing the outlaw to the authorities, often cheerleading law enforcement to do so.

41In a change of paradigm, though, the participatory platform transforms what was called the ‘vigilante viewer’ into a more active participant: the ‘digital vigilante’. Whereas vigilante viewers were relegated to being passive participants, viewing the photos at a distance, those who interact with mugshots online can actually harm the individual featured by elevating the images and weaponising visibility. Although the mugshot-consuming digital vigilante might still not want the live encounter, they can now at least engage with the platform and punish the target, whether they know it or even view the target as a ‘target’.

42Secondly, this conclusion also has implications for digital vigilantism and what it means to be an audience. As discussed, DV’s “point of departure is moral outrage or a general sense of offence taking” (Trottier, 2017, p. 57), but in another paradigm shift, entertainment does not fit that description. DV as entertainment doesn’t fully fit with the motivations of outrage or offense. Instead of seeking retaliation or punishment, participation is invited by MCSO seemingly for entertainment purposes (even if the pleasure derived from participation comes from schadenfreude or the voyeuristic ability to objectify the accused.) This interpretation also emphasises the power structure of mugshots and the one-sidedness of the entertainment. Although Makinen and Koskela comment that surveillance as entertainment “is increasingly understood in terms of hedonism, pleasure and amusement” (2014, p. 189), especially in the context of mugshots, this pleasure is most likely absent from those featured in the mugshots, and instead experienced by those among the audience who are ‘punching down’, a term Linton discusses in her chapter in this volume. Overall, though, even though entertainment may seem more light-hearted than more aggressive forms of doxing or ‘naming and shaming’, it still produces similar results — a watching but participatory audience and a group of those being watched, with the latter assemblage being filled with shame resulting from the weaponisation of visibility.

43It may be easier to argue, then, that those who participate in the MCSO’s MotD program are just not digital vigilantes, because the call to unite them is more about entertainment and less about retaliation for perceived wrongs. However, I also argue that just because the group might not be called into existence by the allure of retribution, this does not mean that the consequences are different. Those voting on the mugshots are still able to weaponise visibility, even if it is under the guise of entertainment rather than an attempt to right perceived wrongs. Even if entertainment, not retribution, motivated the call for engagement, the fact that users elevated the visibility of individuals still resulted in consequences for the individual being elevated.

44While it may be controversial to make this claim, the idea of intention in digital vigilantism at least warrants debate, which hopefully spurs discussions about the types and degrees of digital vigilantism, or stimulates a debate about terminology that would cover the phenomenology of using entertainment as the exigence of the weaponisation of visibility. It also effectually causes one to be alert for other cases in which entertainment provides the exigency for digital vigilantism, such as the work of Driessen and Linton in other chapters of this book.

The state/public/private partnership:

  • 2 I would argue that Johnston himself could revisit his own argument to see how the resistance or ske (...)

45My second implication is that if MCSO created groups of digital vigilantes through their participatory platforms under the guise of entertainment, then this means the state and the public do have some connections with digital vigilantism. This claim also has implications because vigilantism has traditionally separated the state and public. As Johnston has argued, vigilantism is carried out by “autonomous citizens” (1996, p. 232) expressly without state authority or support.2 However, my conclusion supports Trottier’s comments that “[w] hile states may not willingly support vigilantism, recent trends in policing are indicative of nodal governance between government, law enforcement, private industry and the general public” (2017, p. 64). This point also calls for more research and debate as to the degree that these entities could and should be connected.

46It is also important to add that for the MCSO and other mugshot-posting agencies, not only does the state provide the space and participatory platform for the public to engage with mugshots, but it also contributes to a triangular relationship between the state, the public and private industry that results in unwanted, intense and enduring visibility.

47While some municipalities require open access to their public records, and other jurisdictions allow for the release of information only through Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests (Birchall, 2016; Martin, 2014; Rosedale, 2014; Shephard, 2014), when state agencies like MCSO post the photos onto their official sites, anyone can screen-scrape mugshots. Unless posting agencies write their own software to stop screen-scraping, as the Charleston, SC sheriff’s office has done (Duffin & Fountain, 2018), others can use these photos for their own ends (Rostron, 2013).

48A search of online mugshots reveals how unwanted this is because, in addition to the aforementioned lawsuit discussed above, outside of the MCSO illustration, there are many other examples of lawsuits where those featured on these mugshots pages sued the publisher (Hartzog & Selinger, 2015; Martin, 2014; Rosedale, 2014; Rostron, 2013) or where those photographed attend “expungement clinics” to learn how to get mugshots and associated arrest information taken offline (Lageson, 2016, p. 26). As stated previously, mugshots are inherently an unwanted reminder of a past indiscretion.

49The intensity of this relationship is also increased by the triangular relationship. The number of reposts can be in the thousands, and as Kravets (2011, n.p.) reports, one website owner hosting four million mugshots “‘screen-scrapes’ mugshots at a rate of 1500 per day”. These images can travel to other sites, too, and for any given site, mugshots are often just downloaded from one site to another (Vasigh, 2013).

50These corporate sites also increase the intensity of online mugshots by allowing for easier searching. Because commercial site providers want to promote their sites, so that they can appear among the top results in any number of locations and searches, they use search-engine optimisation, tag photos in certain ways or pay to appear among the top results of a Google search (Lageson, 2014; Rostron, 2013; Vasigh, 2013). Also, as Vasigh (2013) brings out, there is a difference between mugshots that are available through routine Google searches versus those that take more targeted effort to uncover through specific departmental jurisdictions. One may not know the arresting agency and specific details of an offense to give to law enforcement agencies, but someone “may find an arrestee’s mug shot accidently when he or she is not seeking to obtain it but is merely searching online” (ibid., p. 289). Summing up this intensity, Lageson notes:

[Y] our coworker, first date, or the parents of your kid’s new friend at school can all stumble on this information, as a simple arrest — one that might not even lead to charges — appears online, accompanied by a booking photo. This photo and arrest record might be re-posted to a Facebook page, a community blog, on a newspaper police blotter. These data are also purchased in bulk by private companies, whose sites are often paid top results in a Google search (2014, p. 24).

51The state / public / private relationship is also enduring. Because online mugshots can be posted by any number of hosts, the photos can seemingly multiply on many sites with few ways to stop the reproduction. This is another notable difference to law enforcement sites. As Vasigh (2013, p. 286) notes, “Most sheriff’s offices usually delete mug shots of individuals who are not convicted”, but this is not necessarily true of other web publishers. Some commercial websites place the burden on the individual and require the mugshotted person to notify them that they were not convicted, before the photo will be removed. Often the sites also charge for removing the photos, and fees could be any amount — for instance, the site tried to charge $199.99 to remove a mugshot (Rostron, 2013) and the site Unpublisharrest. com was charging $399 (incidentally, both came under the scrutiny of law enforcement themselves for these practices, but this is not always the case.) This is especially problematic because, as one individual interviewed at an expungement clinic stated, “We are here today to try to clear our record. Let’s just imagine that I am successful. There is like 3,000 services out there” (2016, p. 26). So even if one could afford a $400 fee once, there could be seemingly no end to the number of fees one would have to pay. While some states ban charging fees for removal (Vasigh, 2013), other states do not, and the practice still proliferates.

52Overall, then, not only do the state and the public have a relationship in relation to online mugshots, there is a third connection with private industries who also use these photos to name and shame in their own ways (which also warrants more examination).


53Throughout this chapter, I’ve argued that through the exigency of entertainment on participatory platforms, online mugshots temporarily coalesce a group of digital vigilantes to weaponise visibility. While I used the example of MCSO’s MotD program to illustrate this, the conclusions also reveal the need for more research in three areas.

54Firstly, while other sites are not necessarily built on “Mugshot of the Day!” voting platforms, being able to post reactions such as Facebook’s like, love, haha, wow, sad and angry emojis allows mugshot consumers the ability to increase the visibility of the photographs on other platforms. Visibility has also allowed mugshots on platforms like Facebook to go culturally viral too, with a significant amount of exposure. More recently, there was “Neck Guy”, who became a meme due to the circulation on Facebook of his unusually thick neck in his mugshot (Caldwell, 2018), and one of the most notable, visible mugshots was the example of 2014’s “hot mugshot guy” or “hot felon”, Jeremy Meeks, who was singled out for his model-like appearance. Meeks’ mugshot posted by the Stockton Police Department on their Facebook page had over 56,000 likes and 16,400 comments in the first 48 hours of posting, with a repost of the photo by a news station garnering 301,000 likes and 65,000 comments in another twenty hours (Caldwell, 2017). User interaction was so strong that the photo also became a meme, spurring the hashtag #FelonCrushFriday, and Google identified “Jeremy Meeks” as the top trending search on 20 June 2014.

55Secondly, the conclusions also indicate the need for additional research about who is targeted when dealing with images and the justice system. For MCSO, the department developed a contest around images in which the public could participate, and at least in half the cases, the public chose to highlight attractive female bodies. The other votes also targeted those who looked out of the ordinary. This is a point worthy of future attention for studies of gender, justice and culture.

56Finally, this also invites more discussion of who can be doxed, who can do the doxing and what motivates the doxing. It might seem more acceptable for the state to share mugshots for safety reasons, but when the same information is shared by state or private entities for purposes of entertainment, the rhetorical situation and justifications seemingly change, too. These photos can even become larger tools for public suppression, as is particularly evident in recent examples involving hate groups. Caroline Sinders and Joan Donovan (2018) note that in August 2018, the Berkeley, CA police department tweeted mugshots of counter-protestors at a far-right gathering. This, in essence, served as a silencing device for protests because it added an additional layer of consequence for those arrested, as “[b] y placing the arrested in public view, these far-right groups are able to target and harass those awaiting trial” (ibid., n.p.) and intimidate future protesters. With power in the hands of the state to place the personal information of others onto participatory platforms, it is increasingly important to interrogate the power structures and power diffusions that call for and allow citizens both to carry out and to be a victim of naming and shaming.

57While it may be difficult to pinpoint exactly why someone chose to vote for a particular person, it was helpful to analyze both the calls for voting as well as the images that received the most votes, in order at least to provide a snapshot of how the call for participation was framed and what the resulting participation looked like. Overall, the research into these photos ultimately leads me to conclude that through the exigency of entertainment on participatory platforms, online mugshots temporarily coalesce a group of digital vigilantes to weaponise visibility. Thus, the state can play a part in digital vigilantism, ultimately contributing to ever-evolving definitions of vigilantism in a digital world.



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1 It is interesting to note that in dismissing the case, the courts referenced the 1904 case of Shaffer v. United States, which concluded that mugshots can be used as law enforcement sees fit because “it would be [a] matter of regret to have its use unduly restricted upon any fanciful theory or constitutional privilege” (Campbell, 2013).

2 I would argue that Johnston himself could revisit his own argument to see how the resistance or skepticism against law enforcement is, in itself, a motivating factor in vigilante actions, thus establishing at least some rhetorical exigency and relationship between the state and the public.


A Marie Skłodowska-Curie LEaDing Fellows postdoc at Erasmus University in Rotterdam, The Netherlands. She researches surveillance, technical communication, information and rhetoric especially in the law enforcement and investigation context. She previously worked as a lecturer at the School of Information at the University of Arizona and spent over eleven years contracted as an investigator for the US government.


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