Morally Motivated Networked Harassment as Normative Reinforcement

Marwick, Alice E.
Social Media and Society

While online harassment is recognized as a significant problem, most scholarship focuses on descriptions of harassment and its effects. We lack explanations of why people engage in online harassment beyond simple bias or dislike. This article puts forth an explanatory model where networked harassment on social media functions as a mechanism to enforce social order. Drawing from examples of networked harassment taken from qualitative interviews with people who have experienced harassment (n = 28) and Trust & Safety workers at social platforms (n = 9), the article builds on Brady, Crockett, and Bavel’s model of moral contagion to explore how moral outrage is used to justify networked harassment on social media. In morally motivated networked harassment, a member of a social network or online community accuses a target of violating their network’s norms, triggering moral outrage. Network members send harassing messages to the target, reinforcing their adherence to the norm and signaling network membership. Frequently, harassment results in the accused self-censoring and thus regulates speech on social media. Neither platforms nor legal regulations protect against this form of harassment. This model explains why people participate in networked harassment and suggests possible interventions to decrease its prevalence.