Moralistic Ransomware and Digital Vendettas

On the perils and possible responses to online moralistic ransomware attacks

Ian Leslie, the author of a book on constructive disagreement and how infrequent it is in our modern lives, recently published a great post on 'moralistic ransomware attacks', the likes of which you're surely familiar with: an individual or institution is suddenly embroiled in a ginned-up controversy overnight, and some sort of motivated party is asserting themselves as the purveyors of the solution that they can use to 'make things right'.

Mary McCarthy famously wrote that "If somebody points a gun at you and says, 'Kill your friend or I will kill you,' he is tempting you and that is all." When anyone being piled onto immediately recants or says what is being demanded of them by the crowd, they are being tempted into paying off their hecklers in order to avoid public controversy. How much better would it be, Leslie asks, if institutional leaders were prepared for this sort of pseudo-event, and could use every attempted dunking as an opportunity to reassert their actual values? He envisions a sort of 'ethical scenario planning' to this effect.

Yet after reading his article, and considering his proximate example involving the Royal Society, I was struck by how few tools we collectively have for dispersing or mitigating this sort of online crowd action. In the streets, homeowners or shopkeepers are entitled to the protection of police if a mob forms at their door; online, when the crowd gathers shouting for your embarrassment, about the best you can hope for is for an opposing crowd to crop up and fight against the original one - which obviously raises your 'controversy' visibility still higher, which is about the last thing most brands want, or for the whole thing to just go away... which is the outcome the moral ransomers are counting on your willingness to pay for.

When the knights and mooks gather, the only outcome is your controversy becoming another battlefront in their internet of beefs. We have not yet developed the mechanisms that will advance us from this wilderness of digital vendettas into the sun of a digital civil society. Nonetheless, Leslie's suggestions for rehearsing and mastering the challenges of a pile-on can make the perils of the current Internet a bit less costly, and less confusing.