Group Polarization and Internet Shaming


I’ve discussed Internet shaming in a series of posts, most recently in a post about a shaming incident carried out against a business. The post sparked a thought-provoking discussion in the comments. Adam wrote: “What exactly is ‘mob justice’ on the internet? A crowd of people waving web browsers? Angry bloggers complaining about poor service?”

My concern with Internet shaming is that it often spirals out of control. It goes too far. Consider the case of the “dog poop girl” from Korea, who was shamed extensively over the Internet for not cleaning up her dog’s poop on a subway train. I argued that the blogosphere can turn into “a cyber-posse, tracking down norm violators and branding them with digital scarlet letters.”

Internet shaming is problematic for its permanence, but it is also problematic for its viciousness and extremism. One explanation for why Internet shaming can turn into a form of mob justice is a phenomenon known as group polarization. In a recent post at the Chicago Law Faculty Blog, Cass Sunstein writes:

One of the most interesting findings in modern social science involves group polarization — the process by which like-minded people go to extremes. More technically, deliberating groups tend to end up in a more extreme position in line with their predeliberation tendencies. . . .

It is useful to distinguish between two different kinds of polarization: planned and spontaneous. Some people act as “polarization entrepreneurs”: they attempt to create communities of like-minded people, and they are aware that these communities will not only harden positions but also move them to a more extreme point. . . .

But sometimes — and I think this is more interesting — polarization arises spontaneously, through entirely voluntary choices, without the slightest kind of planning. Consider, for example, people’s reading patterns, which suggest a kind of self-sorting into liberal and conservative networks. (See Or consider the blogosphere itself, where empirical evidence is starting to show a similar kind of spontaneous sorting and (in all likelihood) polarization.

Is this a problem? On the one hand, spontaneous polarization can lead people to more extreme positions, not because those positions are right, but simply because of limited information exchange and social dynamics. On the other hand, spontaneous polarization can increase what Heather Gerken has called “second-order diversity,” in the form of a larger overall stock of social arguments and perspectives. . . .

For an interesting discussion of group polarization and the blogosphere, which quotes from Sunstein’s work, click here.

Related Posts:

1. Solove, Seeking Justice Against Bad Businesses – Blogosphere Style

2. Solove, Of Privacy and Poop: Norm Enforcement Via the Blogosphere

3. Solove, Internet Shaming Redux: The Case of the Stolen Cell Phone

4. Solove, Fox News and Vigilante Justice Gone Bad (PrawfsBlawg)

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2 Responses

  1. I think there’s an important different between PriceRite Camera and dog-poop girl. In the case of a store whose bad policies cause an uproar, well, you wrote the policies. In the case where your employee goes over the line, well, you hired the employee. Odds are good you background checked them, made them pee in a jar, and go through all sorts of other indignities. And odds are good you have policies to control their behavior. If threatening a customer is a violation of those policies, then PRC could have fired the employee. If its not, then it ought to be. And announcing that the employee had been fired would (probably) close the firestorm.

    But what about Sony? Has the internet community gone too far there?

    I believe that the corporate vs personal nature changes what’s an appropriate response.