Seeking Justice on the Web: How News Media and Social Norms Drive the Practice of Cyber Vigilantism

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Seeking Justice on the Web: How News Media and Social Norms Drive the Practice of Cyber Vigilantism

Principal investigator: Dr Stella CHIA (Department of Media and Communication)

Cyber vigilantism, in particular crowdsourced vigilantism, has received more attention in recent years. Crowdsourced vigilantism is defined as a mediated search process whereby people take the initiatives to collaboratively track down some individuals and disclose information about them. Usually, it starts when there is public outrage at societal wrongs, such as cruelty to animals, and is seen as a mean to reinstate justice. Individuals who are mobilised to engage in the cyber search do not necessarily know each other. While the practice is considered useful and effective by many people, it also inflicts undesirable outcomes like the invasion of privacy, mistaken identity, and cyberbullying.

Dr Stella CHIA of CityU’s Department of Media and Communication has conducted a research study to investigate the public’s opinions regarding crowdsourced vigilantism. Data collected from 800 adults in Taiwan were analysed to determine whether people’s evaluations and reactions are subject to media and social influences, as some existing communication models and behavioural theories suggested. The details are presented in the article Seeking Justice on the Web: How News Media and Social Norms Drive the Practice of Cyber Vigilantism, published in the journal Social Science Computer Review.

As explained in the paper, media influence concerns the effects of news coverage on individuals’ evaluation of crowdsourced vigilantism, while social influence refers to people’s tendency to conform to what others think or do about the practice. Both could explain people’s responses to crowdsourced vigilantism and are likely to interact with each other and jointly affect individuals’ attitudes and consequent behaviours, including adoption, protection, and regulation. Adoption means initiating or participating in an episode of crowdsourced vigilantism; Protection refers to the actions that individuals take to remove or avoid leaving personal records online to protect private information from being traced or disclosed; Regulation indicates individuals’ support for the government’s media restrictions, which help prevent them and others from becoming the victims of crowdsourced vigilantism.

The author opined that the public primarily learns about new technologies and practices through press reports. Thus, their evaluations on the emerging practice of crowdsourced vigilantism should subject to their exposure to relevant news coverage. As reported in previous research papers, people tend to transform news salience into news importance, so the attributes that appear more often in news coverage are more likely to dominate audiences’ judgments of news issues. In addition, news exposures may also affect people’s understanding of what others think and do. It was also expected that exposure to news reports that are favourable and unfavourable of crowdsourced vigilantism is likely to cultivate and weaken perceptions of social approval, respectively. Moreover, the perceived prevalence and social approval of crowdsourced vigilantism probably associate with the perceived usefulness of the practice, which would in turn affect people’s intention to practise crowdsourced vigilantism. The perceived prevalence and harmfulness of the practice also related to people’s intention to engage in privacy protection and their support for the government’s restrictions of the practice.

A web-based survey was conducted to test the hypotheses. Respondents were required to report how often they were exposed to news coverage of crowdsourced vigilantism and the respective percentage of the coverage that highlighted the practice’s benefits and shortcomings. Next, they were asked to evaluate the usefulness of crowdsourced vigilantism and estimate how frequently the practice was performed in Taiwan. In addition, they were asked to estimate the percentage of Internet users in Taiwan who had practised crowdsourced vigilantism and who found it beneficial. Finally, they indicated how likely they would engage in the three types of aforementioned behavioural reactions.

The results showed that people’s receptions of and reactions to crowdsourced vigilantism are subject to media influence and social influence. The respondents mainly learned about this controversial practice from news reports. They reported seeing more coverage that described the practice as detrimental rather than beneficial, though the opposite was observed in previous research studies. Their answers indicated that greater exposure to news reports that covered crowdsourced vigilantism favourably would lead them to develop more positive attitudes and stronger intention to participate in the practice. On the other hand, exposure to unfavourable news coverage would result in greater motivation to take privacy protection behaviour and support governmental regulation.

In addition to the direct influence, there was an indirect influence of news exposure on people’s evaluations of crowdsourced vigilantism, and the indirect influence was found to be mediated by individuals’ perceived prevalence and perceived social approval of crowdsourced vigilantism separately. Respondents who encountered more news coverage about crowdsourced vigilantism were more likely to believe that it was widely and frequently practised in Taiwan, but the perceived prevalence led them to consider the practice destructive rather than beneficial. Moreover, the respondents gauged social approval of crowdsourced vigilantism based on the press reports favouring the practice but not those that deprecated.

Individuals’ attitudes and perceptions of social views had significant impacts on their behavioural reactions to crowdsourced vigilantism. Respondents who found crowdsourced vigilantism more useful reported a greater intention to engage in the practice. However, knowing that the practice would create harms to society did not prevent them from adopting the practice. There was no direct association between perceived social acceptance and intention to conduct crowdsourced vigilantism. As predicted, concerns about the adverse effects of crowdsourced vigilantism led the respondents to protect their privacy. Respondents who perceived a greater prevalence of crowdsourced vigilantism were more likely to consider the practice harmful. The perceived harmfulness would motivate people to protect their privacy. In addition, respondents who found crowdsourced vigilantism more harmful were more likely to be supportive of regulation.

The study is one of the earliest efforts to examine public opinion concerning crowdsourced vigilantism. It leads to a better understanding of crowdsourced vigilantism, which not only helps advise policymaking but also suggests future research direction.

Achievements and publication

Chia, S. C. (2020). Seeking Justice on the Web: How News Media and Social Norms Drive the Practice of Cyber Vigilantism. Social Science Computer Review, 38(6), 655-672. https://doi.org/10.1177/0894439319842190