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Group Polarization

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, Of Privacy and Poop: Norm Enforcement Via the Blogosphere

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

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

Originally posted at Concurring Opinions


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This post was authored by Professor Daniel J. Solove, who through TeachPrivacy develops computer-based privacy training, data security training, HIPAA training, and many other forms of awareness training on privacy and security topics. Professor Solove also posts at his blog at LinkedIn. His blog has more than 1 million followers.

Professor Solove is the organizer, along with Paul Schwartz, of the Privacy + Security Forum and International Privacy + Security Forum, annual events designed for seasoned professionals.

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