Social Media Victimization: Theories and Impacts of Cyberpunishment
by Jessica Emami
(Lanham: Lexington Books, 2023) 90 pp.

Reviewed by: Prof. Joseph Morrison Skelly, College of Mount Saint Vincent

Social media today performs many functions. It can serve as a personalized communications network, an electronic town square, or a global trading floor of ideas. A small number of malicious posts, however, can transform it into a cyber weapon wielded to silence critics and punish enemies, a Twitter stoning like something out of the Taliban’s Afghanistan or an episode of electronic ethnic cleansing from the ISIS caliphate. With a few keystrokes, bad actors can de-platform their selected targets, exile them into a cyber desert, or hurl them into an online hellscape. Jessica Emami analyzes these vindictive features of the virtual ecosphere in her innovative, incisive study, Social Media Victimization: Theories and Impacts of Cyberpunishment. A sociologist by training and an expert on the social-psychological dimensions of online technology, she is well qualified to explore the ominous phenomenon of effacing opponents in cyberspace, which she and other scholars describe as a new form of “social death” (ix, 1, 4).  This spiteful trend has gained traction in the Middle East and Africa, as the readers of this journal are aware, where Dr. Emami traces its origins back to the Ayatollah Khomeini’s 1989 fatwa against Salman Rushdie, which she labels “the first modern cancellation” (1). Perhaps it is no coincidence that the man who tried to murder him in 2022, Hadi Matar, was radicalized while watching online videos of Rushdie and learned about his appearance at a public event in Chautauqua, New York via a tweet.

In recent years “online media has become a veritable global jungle,” Dr. Emami observes, where everyone “escalates arguments, sparring on newsfeeds with others, and pursuing the firing or humiliation of those with whom they disagree or whom they believe are immoral” (xvi). Her timely book “addresses the ways these escalations begin and manifest in a cascade of punishing actions by users against another” (xvi), paying close attention to “the negative ramifications of punishing others online for something they have said or done that has been perceived as a moral wrong” (3-4). Its effective analytical framework comprises three important sociological theories. The Quest for Significance Theory (QST), formulated by Ernest Becker and Arie Kruglianski et al., asserts that “individuals have the fundamental desire to matter, to feel significant and worthy of respect” (6). Terror Management Theory postulates that the awareness human beings have of their own mortality generates an existential fear that “is the source of our constant strive to seek meaning for our lives, in other words, to become immortal” (7). The third paradigm, a synthesis of the first two designed by Randall G. Rogan, “posits that underlying both TMT and QST is the singular motivation of craving significance, but more crucially, craving acknowledgment, something QST and TMT scholars have not focused on adequately” (7). Thus, in the quasi-real virtual world, as Jessica Emami astutely argues, “human beings turn to social media groups not only to spread their own beliefs and ideas before they die but also to seek acknowledgment and affirmation in the here and now from members of their own affinity groups” (7). Alas, these common needs can quickly deviate into darkness, for “when members of online social groups fall into conflict with others, they frequently express animus and engage in escalating social conflict, often posting more frequently in response to opposition, humiliation, and invective. The conflicting views frequently spiral into a chain of mutual punishment justified by our desire to defend against the annihilation of our worldview and thereby ourselves” (7-8).

Cyberpunishment meted out online can take various forms, all of them vicious. Emami complements her theoretical scaffolding with a useful definition from the U.S. Department of Justice, which has identified “five basic groups of internet cyber misbehavior that overlap and carry legal consequences: cyberbullying, cyber threats, cyber stalking, cyber harassment, and cyber extortion” (2). Some of these forms of abuse can serve as precursors to terrorism, a link she develops in a compelling chapter of interest to scholars of the Middle East and Africa entitled “Instilling Terror On- and Offline.” Its starting point is “how the offline real physical world and the online virtual world interact and affect one another, often in ways we cannot control that lead to devastating consequences” (23). After all, “these parallel worlds always have a reciprocal relationship, and what occurs online has direct impact on the quality of our physical lives” (23). Her case study on the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) reinforces her findings. The terror group filmed and posted numerous acts of punishment, including the torture of a downed Jordanian air force pilot. “These surreal, grotesque videos were planned for the purpose of terrorizing the public, attracting violent recruits, and gaining acknowledgment and followers,” Emami writes. (30). “The actions of ISIS harken back to the era of medieval torture, but its leaders understood that digital technology and social media were completely consonant with advancing their medieval worldview. They saw absolutely no conflict with using ultramodern technology to advance ancient battles because it is so conducive to enabling their barbaric brand to go viral, and so fulfilling of their need and desire to be acknowledged as a significant player on the world stage” (30).

Dr. Emami grasps that in many respects the social media space in the Middle East, Africa, and beyond is a cyberbattlefield, where state and non-state adversaries generate support for their causes, gather intelligence, wage psychological warfare, engage in digital single combat, and rehearse terrorist acts. Her pathbreaking volume complements similar research on these topics, including David Faris’ Dissent and Revolution in a Digital Age: Social Media, Blogging and Activism in Egypt (I.B. Tauris, 2013), Malcom Nance and Chris Sampson’s Hacking ISIS: How to Destroy the Cyber Jihad (Skyhorse, 2017), and Zeynep Tufekci’s Twitter and Tear Gas: The Power and Fragility of Networked Protest (Yale University Press, 2018). Social Media Victimization: Theories and Impacts of Cyberpunishment amplifies the themes of these studies in meaningful ways, especially by providing a conceptual apparatus for assessing one poisonous element of the online conflict zone: social media-driven cyberpunishment.

One of the primary drivers of virtual persecution is the insidious nature of contemporary social media technology, according to Emami. In an insightful passage in the book’s concluding chapter, she points out that “the current generation of text- and visual-media-based social platforms such as Facebook and Twitter promote online conflict due to the limited and one-dimensional ways their software aggregate users and distribute feeds among friends and strangers alike. On these platforms, people who do not know one another gather around single issues or interests and get into written ‘conversation’ about deeply held views. This spells a recipe for interpersonal misunderstanding and conflict” (73). Speed is another problem. The “swiftness with which information travels means that calls to target others occur very quickly” (73). The cumulative effect of cyber technology can be disorienting. “Over the last 40 years, electronic media have gradually displaced our sense of space and place by dispersing the public and private, and the ‘back stage’ from the ‘front stage.’ Online users not only sometimes lose control of who gets to see private information about them, but social media enables deceptively-minded users to also create completely false personae that could be used to punish or extort others” (73). Add false flag operations to some of the tactics deployed during cyber skirmishing, in other words.

Since the impulse to punish others is, alas, a part of human nature across time, interpreting social media victimization within a historical context proves useful. In his eloquent Foreword to the book, Randall G. Rogan writes that “Using social media to declare another person ‘persona non grata’ is the contemporary form of the centuries-old practice of shunning” (ix). He warns, however, that “Though the practice of shunning negates and isolates the individual, the ubiquitous presence of social media can have a significant and profound impact on a person’s life and livelihood beyond their immediate community” (ix). Dr. Emami effectively draws upon the work of Kristy Hess and Lisa Waller when she likens cyber shaming to the arresting, techno-feudal concept of “the digital pillory” (23-24). During a recent webinar about the book sponsored by the Association for the Study of the Middle East and Africa, Alexander Joffe, host of the podcast This Week in the Ancient Near East, suggested that it may be helpful to connect the anxiety induced by “twenty-first century social media technology” to prior historical “periods of intense, rapid dislocation,” such as the Industrial Revolution.[1]       

Just as a range of strategies exists to counter domestic and international terrorism, an array of measures is available to thwart cyberpunishment. Dr. Emami’s useful discussion of some of these options – “the cautious expansion of laws governing defamation and invasion of privacy,” “a middle way” between “a laissez faire policy with the online world or an authoritarian approach that promotes internet censorship,” and a reliance on civil law rather than criminal law (16) – expands the scope of her study, especially the imperative “to find a balance between freedom of expression and destroying lives and communities” (16-17).Future research into meaningful ways to mitigate punishment in the virtual universe would be welcome. Dr. Emami’s superb book, meanwhile, is an ideal platform for exploring many of the contested spaces of the social media domain. Highly recommended for sociologists, scholars, specialists, and the general public alike, it illuminates a path forward out of the shadowy corners of the cybersphere.

View the webinar Dr. Emami led about her book HERE.

[1]Jessica Emami, “Social Media Victimization – Theories and Impacts of Cyberpunishment,” Association for the Study of the Middle East and Africa Webinar, April 27, 2023, https://www.asmeascholars.or/emami, accessed May 25, 2023.