When online harassment is perceived as justified

Blackwell, L., Chen, T., Schoenebeck, S., & Lampe, C. (2018). When online harassment is perceived as justified. In Proceedings of the International AAAI Conference on Web and Social Media (Vol. 12, No. 1).

Link: https://doi.org/10.1609/icwsm.v12i1.15036

Open access: Yes

Notes: This study discusses the concept of retributive justice on social media—that is, when harassment is seen as an appropriate response to others’ acts of violence. Interestingly, authors frame retributive justice as a fourth wave of content regulation, where users take control of what they deem is ‘good’ behaviour on digital platforms. Indeed, the findings of this study “show that online harassment is perceived to be more justified and more deserved, but not more appropriate, when the target has committed some offense” (p. 29). In this context, they suggest two possible implications for platforms. First, platforms ought to promote bystander action, as it discourages harassment. Second, platforms should promote restorative justice, prioritizing society’s well-being.

Abstract: Most models of criminal justice seek to identify and punish offenders. However, these models break down in online environments, where offenders can hide behind anonymity and lagging legal systems. As a result, people turn to their own moral codes to sanction perceived offenses. Unfortunately, this vigilante justice is motivated by retribution, often resulting in personal attacks, public shaming, and doxing— behaviors known as online harassment. We conducted two online experiments (n=160; n=432) to test the relationship between retribution and the perception of online harassment as appropriate, justified, and deserved. Study 1 tested attitudes about online harassment when directed toward a woman who has stolen from an elderly couple. Study 2 tested the effects of social conformity and bystander intervention. We find that people believe online harassment is more deserved and more justified—but not more appropriate—when the target has committed some offense. Promisingly, we find that exposure to a bystander intervention reduces this perception. We discuss alternative approaches and designs for responding to harassment online.

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