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Drawing from Theories of Justice to Respond to Online Harassment

Today, almost half of internet users in the U.S. are victims of online harassment, and emerging research suggests that everybody is capable of becoming a troll. Though the state of the art is improving, most online platforms have failed to effectively curb harassing behaviors, and many experts believe the problem is getting worse. Online harassment correlates with a variety of negative outcomes including poor health, relationships and job security as well as the degradation of civil discourse, justice and general welfare.

Prior work shows that community-centered approaches to addressing harassment, such as enabling bystander support, can shape norms around appropriate behavior. Instead, most sites rely on an implicit criminal justice model that requires identifying and punishing individual offenders. Unfortunately, the criminal justice approach has largely been borrowed from offline practices and has not translated well to online environments. As a result, people may turn to their own moral codes to sanction bad behavior, including behaviors like shaming and doxxing. Unfortunately this kind of vigilante justice can be inconsistent and motivated by vengeance. At its extreme, vigilante justice has resulted in disproportionate and inconsistent punishments including rape threats, death threats and threats to family members. On a more quotidian level, but equally important, it leads to name calling, personal attacks, false accusations, public shaming and doxxing.

The project has six primary objectives:

  1. To map current site policies and practices to theories of justice
  2. To investigate how internet users assess and respond to an online offense based on characteristics of the site, offender, post and community
  3. To develop and evaluate interventions that promote perceptions of fairness in how people respond to online harassment
  4. To develop and evaluate restorative justice interventions that reduce online harassment
  5. To provide a public-facing interactive tool that trains internet users to identify and improve their own orientations toward retribution
  6. To educate high school and college students about theories, methods and opportunities in computing through a robust set of case studies in online harassment
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The amount of the award is $909,213 for UMSI for the project period. The grant is funded by the National Science Foundation.