When Online Harassment Is Perceived as Justified


  • Lindsay Blackwell University of Michigan School of Information
  • Tianying Chen University of Michigan School of Information
  • Sarita Schoenebeck University of Michigan School of Information
  • Cliff Lampe University of Michigan School of Information




online harassment, social media, online communities, retributive justice, vigilante justice, cyberbullying


Most models of criminal justice seek to identify and punish offenders. However, these models break down in online environments, where offenders can hide behind anonymity and lagging legal systems. As a result, people turn to their own moral codes to sanction perceived offenses. Unfortunately, this vigilante justice is motivated by retribution, often resulting in personal attacks, public shaming, and doxing— behaviors known as online harassment. We conducted two online experiments (n=160; n=432) to test the relationship between retribution and the perception of online harassment as appropriate, justified, and deserved. Study 1 tested attitudes about online harassment when directed toward a woman who has stolen from an elderly couple. Study 2 tested the effects of social conformity and bystander intervention. We find that people believe online harassment is more deserved and more justified—but not more appropriate—when the target has committed some offense. Promisingly, we find that exposure to a bystander intervention reduces this perception. We discuss alternative approaches and designs for responding to harassment online.




How to Cite

Blackwell, L., Chen, T., Schoenebeck, S., & Lampe, C. (2018). When Online Harassment Is Perceived as Justified. Proceedings of the International AAAI Conference on Web and Social Media, 12(1). https://doi.org/10.1609/icwsm.v12i1.15036