Destructive Crowds: New Threats to Online Reputation and Privacy

Document Type


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online reputation


This talk was given at Yale University's Symposium on Reputation Economies in Cyberspace, December 8, 2007. See url below for a link to the presentation.


This conference explores the role of crowds in establishing online reputations. My talk will address the malevolent side of that story—how online crowds can destroy the privacy and reputations of individuals, particularly women. Social networking sites and blogs have recently become breeding grounds for anonymous groups that attack women with lies, threats of sexual violence, and damaging photographs. In response, some women have gone offline or assumed gender-neutral pseudonyms. Because search engines reproduce the attacks, the online reputations of targeted women are repeatedly battered. These destructive groups update a pattern from the past. From the anti-immigrant mobs of the nineteenth century to the Ku Klux Klan, anonymous groups have come together to inflict harm. According to social psychology literature, several conditions accelerate dangerous group behavior while other conditions defuse the dangerousness of crowds. Unfortunately, Web 2.0 technologies provide all of the accelerants of mob behavior but very few of its inhibitors. For instance, social networking sites, message boards, and chat rooms foster a feeling of closeness among people with shared negative views. Group members’ views, in turn, tend to polarize, leading to greater hostility and more aggressive behavior. Individuals who feel anonymous do and say things online that they would never seriously entertain doing and saying offline because they sense that their conduct will have no consequences. A site operator’s decision to keep up damaging posts encourages destructive group behavior. Online mobs also have little reason to fear that their victims will retaliate against them. The factors that slow down mobs are largely absent on the Web. Studies show that group leaders and authority figures play a critical role in controlling a group’s destructive behavior. But site operators, often viewed as wielding authority, have little incentive to discourage hostility because they enjoy statutory immunity for others’ postings. Posters may not fear getting caught if they have hidden their identity with pseudonyms or anonymizing technologies. Because cyberspace has a way of making us feel that people are “informational artifacts,” destructive groups will not view their victims as persons with whom they should empathize or whom they need. And online groups face little problems organizing due to the Internet’s efficiency in gathering together individuals. It is true that the mobs of prior centuries inflicted physical harm whereas the harm here is primarily economic and emotional. But in an age when identity and reputation are bound up in the Internet, the harm to online reputation and privacy is potent. Employers review Google results in making interviewing and hiring decisions. Threats, lies, and the disclosure of private facts discourage women from blogging in their own names. Women lose opportunities to establish online identities that would enhance their careers and attract clients. Destructive online groups prevent the Web from becoming an inclusive environment. Disappointingly, this phenomenon throws us back to the nineteenth century, when women wrote under gender-neutral pseudonyms to avoid discrimination. Our inclination to make abusive private collaborations a public policy concern implicitly depends on whether private mechanisms will rein in the abuses of these groups. The social psychological literature, however, gives us little reason to expect self-correction of this serious problem.


Science and Technology Law