A truism it may be, the information age, as it has come to be known, has brought about changes of unprecedented proportions to societies all over the world. Through the commercialization of the synthesis between artificial intelligence, the internet, and modern developments in engineering, ‘smart’ technology has been harnessed by the common man, presenting strands of opportunity never seen before. From the tweaking of subatomic particles, to the manipulation of natural atmospheric processes, there is a sense that we find ourselves in a new era of endless possibilities. Arguably, the technologies of the digital era are as seminal as any other from throughout history. Key social institutions like health, education, and law, have all benefited in a plethora of ways from the growing capacities of modern technology. While this may all be true, we still find ourselves very much within the eye of the storm, and there have been calls from some quarters to keep a tighter hold on the reins. As Hynes (2017) indicates, there is no reason to approach these new technologies from a determinists’ standpoint. It is society; the developers, the engineers, the scientists, and indeed the consumers, who decide in which direction these advancements are taken. We must therefore be mindful of new developments, paying close attention to the canaries in the digital coalmine.
Although the benefits of modern technology are undeniable, sinister behaviour has so too flourished, and this is evident in the proliferation of cybercrime and online acts of transgression. Online crime is fast becoming one of the foremost contemporary issues of our time, and there are no reasons why it should not be as rigorously investigated as crime within the real world. Given that 48 per cent of the world’s population are now online, 70 per cent of the world’s youths among them, we have reason enough to legitimize such endeavours (ITU, 2017). When engaging with the negative aspects of the digital world, it is imperative that a holistic analysis be conducted, involving both the technology, and the individuals who use them. One of the arguments that this essay will try to make is that there is connection between online crime and the way that users interact with these technologies. By applying a number of the most notable sociological theories on deviance to various cybercrimes, this essay will explore the ways in which online acts of transgression are protected, enhanced, and rewarded by the current digital paradigm.
Virtual World or Real World?
Before analysing any cybercrime sociologically, the true essence of the online world must first be discerned. There is little use in applying the theories of the physical world to the digital world without first establishing whether they are in fact part of the same realm. Wojak (2012, p.159) believes that ‘actions performed within virtual worlds are really still actions performed in the real world by a real person…with real-word consequences and effects.’ Such a perspective would appear to be supported by Verne (2014, p.821) who claims that any human interaction…that takes place online, although virtual, is still real. If these views are to be accepted, any human activity that takes place online can legitimately be scrutinized from a sociological perspective. Specifically, it is through human interaction with the online world as a socially constructed space that the most acute sociological insights are revealed.
Humans interact with different spaces in different ways. This is because certain cultural norms and rules have been applied to these socially constructed spaces. Humans learn these rules through the process of socialization, which subsequently influences how they interact with any given space, as defined by the particular culture. Consider the online world as a space. Individuals are likely to interact with this space very differently to how they’d interact with a church, or a nightclub, for example. However, given that the behaviour of individuals within a space is guided by the codes of conduct that they have adopted through their culture, how do individuals interact within a transnational, multi-cultural, and virtual space?
Online Deviance & Design
In an environment where there are a plethora of global perspectives, cultures, and beliefs, interlinked and engaged within an ever-shrinking time-space compression, it can be difficult to determine what kind of behaviour should be considered deviant. Deviance itself is subject to myriad interpretations. It may refer to statistical anomalies; simply doing something that very few people do (Share et al, 2011), although generally, deviance is more commonly associated with negative connotations. This interpretation is reflected by Share et al (2011, p.234) who expand upon their earlier definition by describing deviance as an ‘act that arouses public disapproval.’ Macionis and Plummer (2012, p.582) on the other hand, recognize the subjectivity involved in classifying deviance by stating that it ‘involves the recognised violation of cultural norms.’ However, as outlined at an earlier point within this essay, the online world is not subject to one, single culture. Although online manifestations of crime may be approached from a culture-by-culture basis in relation to the perpetrator, there may be a universal actor influencing acts of transgression undertaken online. According to Bijker et al (1987), human behaviour can be analysed through their interactions with physical technology. This leads one to investigate whether the literal design of information and communication technologies (ICT) in some way influences interactive online behaviour.
The investigation here is concerned with several features related to ICT, namely; the user interface, the design of software, the artificial intelligence, and the precise construction of technologies like the internet. This essay does not propose that a psychological phenomenon occurs when users engage with computer software or the internet. Instead, it may simply be the case that the characteristics listed above are very consciously harnessed by the individual when they engage in cybercrime. It is the characteristics of the cyber features that may need re-evaluating if cybercrime or acts of online transgression are to be combatted. As it stands, these features serve to protect online crime, and in fact, reward them, and to illustrate this, several notable sociological theories will be applied to several examples of negative online behaviour. For the purposes of this essay, the sociological theories that will be used will be drawn from the positivist approach to deviance. The examples of deviance that will be referred to will be online harassment, and economic cybercrime.
The first example of online deviance to be investigated will be harassment, and to observe how those who partake in online harassment are both protected, and rewarded, by cyber features, we will use several interpretations of control theory. Cyberbullying, in particular, has emerged as one of the most concerning developments within the discourse of contemporary child protection, with Grania Long, chief executive officer of the ISPCC, calling ‘online protection of children…the child protection issue of our time’ (ISPCC annual report, 2017). Other forms of online harassment are less targeted at a specific individual, with the act of trolling firmly established as a cultural norm on interactive websites (Coleman, 2012). Trolling, described by the Oxford dictionary as ‘a deliberately offensive or provocative online post,’ can range from the wholly arbitrary, to the vehemently discriminatory.
Control theory is primarily concerned with conformity, rather than deviance, with proponents of this school of thought arguing that deviance occurs when there is the absence of what causes conformity (Thio, 2010). To understand how those who engage in online harassment are protected by digital systems, we will utilize the approaches of both Travis Hirschi, and John Braithwaite, while also looking at theories of formal deterrence. Retribution is a fundamental component within control theory, whereby individuals are deterred from engaging in an act of deviance for fear of the punishment that would consequentially be inflicted upon them.
Hirschi suggests that the degree to which an individual is connected to society influences whether they become involved in deviant behaviour. The more social capital that an individual has, the less likely it is that that individual will engage in transgressive behaviour (Scriver, 2017). Many social media sites, for example, fail to stomp-out online harassment or intolerance. Given the sheer scale of online social interactions, and the fact that a deviant can conceal their identity through fake profiles, the risks associated with Hirschi’s theory do not apply to online deviants. Ramalingam & Chinnaiah (2017) remark upon the ease with which fake online profiles can be created, while also detailing the damage such users can inflict upon others; from identity theft, to sexual harassment.
Similarly, John Braithwaite’s ‘shaming’ approach (Thio, 2010) is rendered null and void. This interpretation suggests that individuals conform for fear of facing social exclusion. Yet again, those who create fake profiles are immune from such social deterrence. Key to Braithwaite’s approach is the notion that the collective public act as a judiciary system. Were someone to commit a crime that violates a deep cultural value, that individual would face the scorn or shame of the public. According to this theory, fear of this scenario is what maintains conformity. However, this communal form of social control appears to be under threat in an increasingly fragmented and digital reality. Wellman et al (2003) speculate as to what place the internet might have amid a less community-centred society. With greater movement towards ‘network individualism,’ people are less likely to engage in acts of solidarity. Parallel to this is the continued depletion of the family institution as a pillar of informal social control. When such a transition is considered within the context of Braithwaite’s theory, it would seem as though this shift away from social collectivism is a possible reason for the perpetuation of transgressive phenomena such as trolling. Under the protection of anonymous profile systems, there is no threat of any looming shame to bear down upon them.
In addition to the protection offered to them by anonymous profiling, certain contemporary social media designs contain features that reward transgressive behaviour. To best illustrate this, Burgess and Aker’s differential reinforcement theory can be applied. Thio (2010, p.25) explains how this theory is used to describe those who ‘are motivated to continue behaving in a certain way if [they] have been rewarded for doing so.’ Considered within the context of online harassment, the ‘like’ facility on Facebook presents itself as a good example. This facility allows a user to interact with a feature on the website by ‘liking’ it, so to speak, which is intended to represent their favour or support toward the feature in question. Hogan (2010, cited in Eranki & Lonkila, 2015) draws attention to the relationship between the ‘like’ and the ‘exhibition’ put-on by certain users in their pursuit of likes. This is a defining characteristic of internet trolling, where comments are often intended to illicit outrage, rather than any positive emotions. The ‘like’ button in this regard presents an opportunity to reward a troll for their inventiveness, or humour, however unethical their comment might have been. The more likes a troll receives for outrageous commentary, the more he or she will continue to embark upon such behaviour.
The surge in cybercrime in recent years has been the source of mounting fears for private businesses and governments alike. The Norton Cybercrime Report (2012) found that two-out-of-three adults had experienced cybercrime in their lifetime, while ‘close to half of online adults had fallen victim to attacks such as malware, viruses, hacking, scams, fraud, & theft.’ This variety in potential cybercrimes is reflected by the diversity of cybercriminals committing these crimes. Jewkes and Yar (2010, p.94) seek to quash the popular portrayal of cybercriminals as the ‘socially inept’ hacker (Taylor, 1999, p.59) by acknowledging that cybercrime is not ‘above the capabilities of normal folk.’ Thus, it is not simply the anonymity of those who engage in cybercrime that maintains their evasiveness, but also; the difficulty in labeling any one type of person.
Relative to real world crime; the ‘Comprehensive Study on Cybercrime’ report (2013, p.17), conducted by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, found that certain cybercrimes were more common than other ‘conventional’ crimes, such as burglary, robbery, and car theft. In Ireland, similar fears exist among senior business executives, with 36% claiming that ‘cybercrime is the biggest risk facing Irish businesses in the future’ (PwC, 2016, p.1). To illustrate the ways in which cybercrime is both protected and rewarded by the make-up of digital technologies, we will draw upon the anomie-strain theory.
The anomie-strain theories, associated most with Robert Merton (Thio, 2010), relate to cultural goals, and the institutional means through which they are achieved. Merton believed that for some individuals, there was a ‘strain’ between the means that are unavailable to them, and the goals they wish to achieve. The online world, then, presents a very useful outlet for cybercriminals to achieve their goals through ‘innovative’ means. Firstly, when used correctly, cybercriminals are protected in the same way that those who wish to conceal their identity on social media sites are protected. For those embroiled in drug trafficking, for example, the interconnectivity and borderless nature of the internet has been advantageous (Scriver, 2017). As further outlined by Scriver (2017), ‘opportunities for trans-national crime have increased at a faster rate than technologies used to detect them.’ Though clearly not the fault of any one actor in particular, the intricacies of the internet provide criminals with many possible points of exploitation.
The rewards for such activities would depend on the motivation for engaging in them. These range from the obvious; such as financial rewards; to the politically motivated. Kupferschmidt (2017) provides an example of the latter, drawing attention to the widely-held belief that the result of the 2016 United States presidential election was largely influenced by online activities. Although cybercriminals engage in what may be considered high-risk behaviour to achieve their goals, the enormous depth of the virtual world means that these deviants have many points of escape, are more often rewarded than punished for their illicit behaviour.
The purposes of these observations were to attempt to illustrate the ways in which the current digital paradigm seems to protect and reward negative online behaviour. In combating such behaviour, it may be the case that, as Garland (cited in Chriss, 2007, p.105) acknowledges, ‘only the mainstream processes of socialization…are able to promote proper conduct on a consistent and regular basis.’ Perhaps the current digital paradigm serves to provide too many opportunities for transgressive behaviour, particularly when there appears to be only rewards, and no punishment, for doing so. The question then remains: where should our attentions be drawn; the person, or the platform?
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Dara Kerins is currently an undergraduate student on the Bachelor of Sciences (Applied Social Sciences) Degree Programme at the National University of Ireland Galway