Study Finds Broad Support for Online Vigilantism (in Some Cases)

When the mayhem-making group LulzSec targeted Rupert Murdoch's Rupert Murdoch's Sun newspaper, its activity received broad approval from commenters on a broad selection of websites.

That's NYU journalism department webmaster Tim Libert's finding from an analysis of 2,838 comments on CNN, MSNBC, The New York Times, Wired, The Register and ZDNET. Libert focused on three news events: the arrest of a LulzSec leader, the announcement that the group was disbanding, and its hack of the Sun, a newspaper in the Murdoch empire.

Libert freely admits that comments are not a perfect proxy for overall public sentiment, but they are the forum through which a reader community tries to make sense of a given event. "[I]t felt as if I were watching the extant social fabric of the Internet attempt to assimilate and collectively understand this new force," Libert wrote.

Libert found that with the first two news events -- which focused more on LulzSec's targeting of everyday people -- commenters registered disapproval of the group's actions. But, for the final event, in which LulzSec took over the Sun's webpage among other things, sentiment turned positive. Among the mainstream sites, 85 percent of people registered approval or strong approval of the Sun hack. At the tech specialist sites, there was a greater percentage of strong approval (41 percent) but the overall support (77 percent) was lower. (The details of his methodology are available.)

This should be surprising, Libert notes. "Given that LulzSec's activities are considered criminal in nearly all jurisdictions globally, and in the views of many, outright terrorism, it would be surprising if they had any support at all," he said.

Of course, one big reason that the Sun hack may have received such support is that the Sun was embroiled in a hacking scheme of its own. People may have been cheering the Sun getting a taste of its own medicine more than a generalized attack on power. Still, it's an interesting finding. When people felt a corporate power "deserved" to be hacked, they approved when it happened, legality be damned.

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