Bringing online harassers to justice

NSF Grant will fund four-year study on better ways to curb online harassment 

Online harassment usually originates from deviants operating in dark corners of
the internet. But research shows that, more and more, anyone online is capable
of becoming a troll.

That means all of us, with the right prompts – such as revenge – can end up
wielding the same weapons against others that have been used against us: Name-
calling, flaming, doxing, impersonation, sexual harassment, physical threats and

Sarita Schoenebeck

Efforts to curb this expanding cancer have not been effective because they approach the problem with the wrong tools, says Sarita Schoenebeck, assistant
professor of information at the University of Michigan School of Information (UMSI). Instead, applying theories of justice may be a more effective antidote.

Schoenebeck and UMSI associate professor of information Cliff Lampe have been awarded a $909,213 National Science Foundation grant for their four-year study, “Drawing from Theories of Justice to Respond to Online Harassment.” Schoenebeck is principal investigator.

This wide-ranging study will “investigate the role that principles of justice can play in responding to online harassment in order to promote perceptions of fairness, and reduce the likelihood of future harassment by the offender and by community members,” as the proposal describes.

Cliff Lampe

In order to accomplish this broad goal, researchers have laid out six main objectives. They will:

  • Map current site policies and practices to theories of justice;
  • Investigate how internet users assess and respond to an online offense based on characteristics of the site, offender, post and community;
  • Develop and evaluate interventions that promote perceptions of fairness in how people respond to online harassment;
  • Develop and evaluate restorative justice interventions that reduce online harassment;
  • Provide a public-facing interactive tool that trains internet users to identify and improve their own orientations toward retribution; and
  • Educate high school and college students about theories, methods and opportunities in computing through a robust set of case studies in online harassment.

Previous work at UMSI shows that community-centered approaches to addressing harassment, such as enabling bystander support, can shape norms around appropriate behavior, according to Schoenebeck.

But few sites have adopted such approaches. Instead, they fall back on the more
expected criminal justice model of identifying and then punishing individual

“Unfortunately, the criminal justice approach has largely been borrowed from
offline practices and has not translated well to online environments,” the
proposal states.

This is because harassers can hide behind anonymous identities and short-lived
content, and because few norms or laws exist to guide response to online

Finally, there is no effective judicial system for punishing offenders because
physical world consequences don’t work in online contexts.

Schoenebeck says the research will employ the help of several UMSI students.
Those who are interested can contact the researchers at

Posted August 21, 2018