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Crime, technology and society by Angus Bancroft
Emotional structures of cybercrime markets

Emotional structures of cybercrime markets

Illicit markets face problems with valuation, coordination and cooperation (Beckert and Wehinger, 2012) and cannot rely on institutions of of law and state to fix these problems for them. Therefore they turn to other mechanisms – interpersonal trust, reliance on corrupt state and policing actors for enforcement, and sometimes complex dispute resolution systems in digital settings. With my colleagues Maja Sawicka and Irene Rafanell we are examining the role of emotional regulation in managing members. Studies in criminology have been dominated by those experienced by victims and communities, unsurprisingly. Fear of crime is a significant feature of how people live their lives in real and virtual spaces, and the psychological costs of crime victimisation are significant personally and at a population level.

But what of how emotions structure offender behaviour? Emotions are critical to boundary setting, offender motive and the regulation of their behaviour during the criminal activity. Emotions both enable and place limits on offending, setting boundaries that will not be crossed. For offenders, emotions can manifest in offenders in terms of the thrills and effervescence of the ‘crime moment’, the seductions of transgression (Katz, 1988) and the emotional rewards of status performance (Holt, 2020). I am defining emotions here as a partly involuntary mental state attaching to and justifying action and experience.

Emotions are also critical to how technology is designed and used. Digital technology affordances invite and promote particular behaviours, emotional engagements and performance, including in illicit contexts (Goldsmith and Wall, 2019). Affordances are behavioural features of the technology which invoke emotional responses. The emotional structure of illicit contexts also acts as an affordance, inviting and promoting particular behaviours and functioning to increase the coordination and effectiveness of the cybercriminal cooperation. There is a balance and sometimes a tension between affordances that are seductive (immediate, stimulating) and those that promote a calculative rationality (comparative, reviewing). An anonymous message board and a review site encourage different performances.

Increasingly cybercriminal activity consists of coordinated activity among disparate networks of individuals using a range of digital infrastructures and market systems to create and support revenue generating opportunities. These networks must regulate their members without easy access to in person modes of coercion, persuasion or trust building, and where retaliation against bad actors is difficult or impossible. Collective emotional regulation plays a critical part both in creating an incentive/reward structure, channeling and giving valence to communication, and signalling hierarchy. Therefore these dynamics can be studied through discourse analysis of cybercriminal interactions.


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