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

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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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Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is the deputy editor of TheAtlantic.com, where he also oversees the Technology Channel. He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer has called Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at Wired.com, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science Web site in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.

He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).

Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.

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