Online Firestorms

Online Firestorms

project period: 2014-2020
with Lea Stahel

Wenn im Web die Wut hochkocht (PDF, 425 KB)

The power of traditional media to publicly scandalize factual or alleged norm violations has been long acknowledged. With the rising influence of social media in the public arena, however, the traditional media as the gatekeeper for scandalization have weakened. The role of enforcing social control has shifted to social media. We expect that particularly social media facilitate new forms of collective social control. This recent development has been vividly brought into public consciousness by the online phenomena of « Shitstorms ». The corresponding scientific term « Online Firestorms » describe a great amount of critical, emotional, and potentially harassing comments and outrage, disseminated via online social networks, blogs, and news commentary functions. They were observed as mainly addressing public persons, organizations, and institutions. Beyond this topic’s regular occurrence and debates in the media, it is, however, largely unexplored in academic literature. In several projects, we investigate (a) why online users participate in online firestorms. Here, we found that among participators in online firestorms against organizations, posting emotional-hostile comments is closely associated with judging the particular organization as morally illegitimate. The underlying theoretical reasoning draws on organizational legitimacy and moral psychology. We also investigate (b) what social features cause individuals to be particularly often targeted by harassment on social media platforms. The results show that among public figures, it is mainly those with more celebrity capital being more often harassed. We explain this finding with the logic of the attention economy.