Racism in International Context: Nigerian “Scam Baiters”

As I’ve written about here before, the contours of racism in a global, networked society are changing. Old forms of overt racism now exist alongside emergent new forms of cyber racism.   One of those new forms of cyber racism is the phenomena of white Americans pursuing Nigerian email scammers, a practice known as “scam baiting.”  If you’re not familiar with this practice, there have been a couple of stories in the news recently that shed a some light on this new form of vigilantism.   Here’s a brief description from a recent piece at CNN/Money.com:

These self-described Web vigilantes go after alleged e-mail scammers claiming to be Nigerian princes, U.S. soldiers in Iraq or Chinese businessmen. They say they need your help (i.e. your money) to access fake multi-million dollar accounts or palaces full of gold. Most people recognize these e-mails for what they are and delete them without replying, but enough victims actually fall for these scams to keep them coming. And then there are the scambaiters who answer the e-mails and feign genuine interest in sending money, as a ploy to send the scammers on a wild goose chase.  Mike Sodini, a firearms importer and owner of the Web site ebolamonkeyman.com, says he started scambaiting in 2001, when he worked at an Internet real estate marketing firm that got inundated with scam e-mails. Sodini started writing back out of curiosity “to see how the operation would go” and he said it soon became a hit with his co-workers, who would gather around his computer to read his farcical dialogue. “I started it to make my friends laugh and see what was going on,” he says. “I didn’t have a motive of, ‘Let’s get these guys.”

Sodini and other “scam baiters” like “Rover,” a scam baiter since the 1990s who owns the scambaiting site 419eater.com, get alleged scammers to make fools of themselves by posing in photos and holding signs with offensive statements. He says he would get them to do this by claiming it was “for tax purposes,” which was a ruse, since he never intended to send them money. He says he’d also convince them to make numerous trips to airports and Western Unions, lured by the promise of money packages that never arrived.

These photos are called “trophies” in the parlance of the scam baiters, and in many ways are reminiscent of the photographs of lynchings that were once popular in the U.S.   The radio show This American Life did an episode about the men (yes, they’re all men) who do this. Perhaps not surprisingly, neither the CNN/Money.com report nor the This American Life episode mention race as even a factor at play in, if not an underlying motive for, these transnational vigilantes.  Certainly none of the reporting that’s been done about this to date mentions any similarity with lynching photography.

My colleague at John Jay-CUNY, Dara N. Byrne, is doing some really interesting work on this phenomenon.  Combining the concept of “vigilante” with the digital era, she examines a range of what she calls “digilantism.”    Dara presented a paper called, “Digilante Culture: The Rhetorical Performance of Justice and Punishment on the Wild Wild Web,” at the eastern regional sociology meetings (ESS) in Boston on a panel I helped organize.  Here’s the abstract:

This paper focuses on the rhetorical performance of justice and punishment in digilante culture. Digilantism is the term I use to refer to the growing practice amongst some netizens, mostly based in the United States and the United Kingdom, who mete out extrajudicial punishment to cyber-criminals such as scammers, hackers, and pedophiles. Although digilantism is a growing internet subculture, short of legal research on cyber-crime, little attention has been paid to the rhetorical, cultural, and socio-historical dimension of this widely practiced do-it-yourself form of justice. The paucity of digital media research is particularly surprising given the explosion of popular and scholarly rhetoric on cyber-terrorism, digital surveillance, and internet security and safety. The purpose of my paper then is to address this gap by developing a typology of digilante justice. I focus on responses to real cyber-crimes on a range of sites, including Nigerian 419 and Russian romance scam-baiting sites, pedophile watchdog sites, and texasborderwatch discussion groups.

So, in trying to understand ‘racism in an international context’ as we’ve been doing here this week, one of the things to keep in mind is that the international context has changed with the digital era.  While in the early days of the digital era, there was much speculation by respected sociologists that nation-states would lose control because the Internet, along with globalization, would undermine sovereignty.   More recently, however, other scholars have argued that it is an illusion to think that we are living in a borderless world and that nation-states do still matter very much, despite trends of globalization and the Internet.   The rise of scam baiters and this particular expression of cross-border digilantism – with its echoes of lynching photography – point out one of the ways that old forms of overt racism are re-mixed with new forms of racism in our globally networked society.