At the current moment there is growing concern about the role of digital systems in creating and furthering ‘harm’ across a range of domains (Powell, Stratton, and Cameron 2018). What harm means is often taken as read, or left to subjective claims. There is, or should be, fundamental disagreement as to what these harms are and how to assess and address them (Aldridge, Stevens, and Barratt 2018; Martin 2018). Often it is taken as read that people reposting COVID origin theories is a harm without showing any harmful effect. The concept has a tendency to expand and it needs to be confined. I characterise it as activity that has an objectively negative effect on human wellbeing and liberty.

There are identifiable vectors. Complex networked systems facilitate existing criminal activity and create new vectors for disinformation and exploitation that are not easily predicted and which do not avail themselves of technologically determined securitised resolutions (Henry and Flynn 2020). Geopolitical turbulence adds to intersecting harms that derive from the coming together of digital systems, online communities and markets, convergences between crime types and criminal actors, extremist ideologies and authoritarian states (Lavorgna 2023; Picarelli 2006).

There is a sense of these developments as having effects beyond the reach of human intention, for example, tendencies built into the digitised illicit drug market system that may mean more risky drug distribution patterns emerge (Bancroft 2023). Along with that we are facing a novel reorganisation of criminal activity along principles in line with the digital economy such as the rise of the ‘crimfluencer’ and the use of app-based data driven labour models by romance fraud organisations, shoplifters and ransomware gangs (Meland, Bayoumy, and Sindre 2020).

Alongside novelty we also see well known human motivations recurring in these spaces, whether status competition (Holt 2020), transgressive thrills (Abbink and Sadrieh 2009), self-justification (Offei et al. 2022) and economic gain (Moeller, Munksgaard, and Demant 2017). Researchers have unprecedented access to internal and external communications (Vu et al. 2021) where they can look in detail at practices such as altercasting or identity imposition (Dickinson and Wang 2023), governance (Pereda and Décary-Hetu 2023), geographical patterning (Demant et al. 2018), and risk management (Bilgrei 2019), and also apply theoretically informed framings such as gender (Fleetwood, Aldridge, and Chatwin 2020) and low resource bricolage (Rai 2019). Underlying these disparate changes is the concept of the hybrid, used to describe new technosocial formations of criminal activity and governance that combine the human and the non-human (Brown 2006), online and offline action (Roks, Leukfeldt, and Densley 2021), and different technological systems operating on countervailing principles (Moeller 2022; Tzanetakis and South 2023).

The approach I take is interdisciplinary grey zone criminology. My first point is that rather than taking place predominantly in digital ‘black spots’, cybercrime works along with the digital reordering of societies (Smith 2016). The grey zone mixes the self-interested and the ideological, the harmful and the beneficial (Munksgaard and Demant 2016). For example, Telegram is used by the Russian FSB as a mass propaganda vector but also provides valuable space for dissidents and refugees, for harm reduction advice and mutual support (Sawicka, Rafanell, and Bancroft 2022). Second, these times present a challenge for existing criminological frameworks and policing operations. They demand new methodological and theoretical approaches that can integrate insights from zemiology, data science, interactionist sociology, cyberpsychology, design informatics, and other spheres of thought.

I want to take these threats seriously but move us past the current tendency to discursive doomscrolling, and provide a framework for analysing them in human scale terms, drawing on a range of work that has sought to reframe technologically enabled harms as having a complex multi-layered reality that involves but is not reducible to specific system affordances (Wood 2021).  I propose the following features are significant in these systems, which I set out here. First, they have scaleability. Digital systems allow for a rapid growth in numbers and lower barriers to new entrants, for example, through crime as a service and the use of AI (Kramer et al. 2023). They have transferability and reciprocity between zones, for example, white supremacist ideologies are in fact highly adaptable discursive constructs which are easily transferred to local geopolitical contexts (Allchorn 2020). They have mutually reinforcing effects – systems encourage, legitimate and reward harmful action through methods such as meme cultures and celebration of particular cases (Kingdon 2021). Finally they are tangible – digital ubiquity means this activity involves and effects people in their homes, at work, and at play.


Abbink, Klaus, and Abdolkarim Sadrieh. 2009. ‘The Pleasure of Being Nasty’. Economics Letters 105(3):306–8.

Aldridge, Judith, Alex Stevens, and Monica J. Barratt. 2018. ‘Will Growth in Cryptomarket Drug Buying Increase the Harms of Illicit Drugs?’ Addiction 113(5):789–96. doi: 10.1111/add.13899.

Allchorn, William. 2020. ‘Cumulative Extremism and the Online Space: Reciprocal Radicalisation Effects Between the Extreme Right and Radical Islamists in the UK’. Pp. 37–62 in Digital Extremisms: Readings in Violence, Radicalisation and Extremism in the Online Space, Palgrave Studies in Cybercrime and Cybersecurity, edited by M. Littler and B. Lee. Cham: Springer International Publishing.

Bancroft, Angus. 2019a. ‘Research in Fractured Digital Spaces’. International Journal of Drug Policy 73:288–92. doi: 10.1016/j.drugpo.2019.05.007.

Bancroft, Angus. 2019b. The Darknet and Smarter Crime: Methods for Investigating Criminal Entrepreneurs and the Illicit Drug Economy. Springer Nature.

Bancroft, Angus. 2023. ‘“Waiting for the Delivery Man”: Temporalities of Addiction, Withdrawal, and the Pleasures of Drug Time in a Darknet Cryptomarket’. Pp. 61–72 in Digital Transformations of Illicit Drug Markets: Reconfiguration and Continuity, Emerald Studies in Death and Culture, edited by M. Tzanetakis and N. South. Emerald Publishing Limited.

Bilgrei, Ola Røed. 2019. ‘Community-Consumerism: Negotiating Risk in Online Drug Communities’. Sociology of Health & Illness 41(5):852–66. doi: 10.1111/1467-9566.12864.

Brown, Sheila. 2006. ‘The Criminology of Hybrids: Rethinking Crime and Law in Technosocial Networks’. Theoretical Criminology 10(2):223–44. doi: 10.1177/1362480606063140.

Demant, Jakob, Rasmus Munksgaard, David Décary-Hétu, and Judith Aldridge. 2018. ‘Going Local on a Global Platform: A Critical Analysis of the Transformative Potential of Cryptomarkets for Organized Illicit Drug Crime’. International Criminal Justice Review 28(3):255–74. doi: 10.1177/1057567718769719.

Dickinson, Timothy, and Fangzhou Wang. 2023. ‘Neutralizations, Altercasting, and Online Romance Fraud Victimizations’. CrimRxiv.

Fleetwood, Jennifer, Judith Aldridge, and Caroline Chatwin. 2020. ‘Gendering Research on Online Illegal Drug Markets’. Addiction Research & Theory 28(6):457–66. doi: 10.1080/16066359.2020.1722806.

Henry, Nicola, and Asher Flynn. 2020. ‘Image-Based Sexual Abuse: A Feminist Criminological Approach’. Pp. 1109–30 in The Palgrave Handbook of International Cybercrime and Cyberdeviance, edited by T. J. Holt and A. M. Bossler. Cham: Springer International Publishing.

Holt, Thomas J. 2020. ‘Computer Hacking and the Hacker Subculture’. Pp. 725–42 in The Palgrave Handbook of International Cybercrime and Cyberdeviance, edited by T. J. Holt and A. M. Bossler. Cham: Springer International Publishing.

Kingdon, Ashton. 2021. ‘The Meme Is the Method: Examining the Power of the Image Within Extremist Propaganda’. Pp. 301–22 in Researching Cybercrimes: Methodologies, Ethics, and Critical Approaches, edited by A. Lavorgna and T. J. Holt. Cham: Springer International Publishing.

Kramer, Jo-Anne, Arjan A. J. Blokland, Edward R. Kleemans, and Melvin R. J. Soudijn. 2023. ‘Money Laundering as a Service: Investigating Business-like Behavior in Money Laundering Networks in the Netherlands’. Trends in Organized Crime. doi: 10.1007/s12117-022-09475-w.

Lavorgna, Anita. 2023. ‘Unpacking the Political-Criminal Nexus in State-Cybercrimes: A Macro-Level Typology’. Trends in Organized Crime. doi: 10.1007/s12117-023-09486-1.

Martin, James. 2018. ‘Cryptomarkets, Systemic Violence and the’gentrification Hypothesis’’. Addiction 113(5):797–98.

Meland, Per Håkon, Yara Fareed Fahmy Bayoumy, and Guttorm Sindre. 2020. ‘The Ransomware-as-a-Service Economy within the Darknet’. Computers & Security 92:101762. doi: 10.1016/j.cose.2020.101762.

Moeller, Kim. 2022. ‘Hybrid Governance in Online Drug Distribution’. Contemporary Drug Problems 49(4):491–504. doi: 10.1177/00914509221101212.

Moeller, Kim, Rasmus Munksgaard, and Jakob Demant. 2017. ‘Flow My FE the Vendor Said: Exploring Violent and Fraudulent Resource Exchanges on Cryptomarkets for Illicit Drugs’. American Behavioral Scientist early online(v). doi: 10.1177/0002764217734269.

Munksgaard, Rasmus, and Jakob Demant. 2016. ‘Mixing Politics and Crime–the Prevalence and Decline of Political Discourse on the Cryptomarket’. International Journal of Drug Policy 35:77–83. doi:

Offei, Martin, Francis Kofi Andoh-Baidoo, Emmanuel W. Ayaburi, and David Asamoah. 2022. ‘How Do Individuals Justify and Rationalize Their Criminal Behaviors in Online Romance Fraud?’ Information Systems Frontiers 24(2):475–91. doi: 10.1007/s10796-020-10051-2.

Pereda, Valentin, and David Décary-Hetu. 2023. ‘Illegal Market Governance and Organized Crime Groups’ Resilience: A Study of The Sinaloa Cartel’. The British Journal of Criminology azad027. doi: 10.1093/bjc/azad027.

Picarelli, John T. 2006. ‘The Turbulent Nexus Of Transnational Organised Crime And Terrorism: A Theory of Malevolent International Relations’. Global Crime 7(1):1–24. doi: 10.1080/17440570600650125.

Powell, Anastasia, Gregory Stratton, and Robin Cameron. 2018. Digital Criminology: Crime and Justice in Digital Society. Routledge.

Rai, Amit S. 2019. Jugaad Time: Ecologies of Everyday Hacking in India. Duke University Press.

Roks, Robert A., E. Rutger Leukfeldt, and James A. Densley. 2021. ‘The Hybridization of Street Offending in the Netherlands’. The British Journal of Criminology 61(4):926–45. doi: 10.1093/bjc/azaa091.

Sawicka, Maja, Irene Rafanell, and Angus Bancroft. 2022. ‘Digital Localisation in an Illicit Market Space: Interactional Creation of a Psychedelic Assemblage in a Darknet Community of Exchange’. International Journal of Drug Policy 100:103514. doi: 10.1016/j.drugpo.2021.103514.

Smith, Benjamin T. 2016. ‘Public Drug Policy and Grey Zone Pacts in Mexico, 1920–1980’. Pp. 33–51 in Drug Policies and the Politics of Drugs in the Americas, edited by B. C. Labate, C. Cavnar, and T. Rodrigues. Cham: Springer International Publishing.

Stevens, Alex. 2020. ‘Critical Realism and the “Ontological Politics of Drug Policy”’. International Journal of Drug Policy 102723. doi: 10.1016/j.drugpo.2020.102723.

Tzanetakis, Meropi, and Nigel South. 2023. ‘Introduction: The Digital Transformations of Illicit Drug Markets as a Process of Reconfiguration and Continuity’. Pp. 1–12 in Digital Transformations of Illicit Drug Markets: Reconfiguration and Continuity, Emerald Studies in Death and Culture, edited by M. Tzanetakis and N. South. Emerald Publishing Limited.

Vu, Anh V., Lydia Wilson, Yi Ting Chua, Ilia Shumailov, and Ross Anderson. 2021. ‘ExtremeBB: Enabling Large-Scale Research into Extremism, the Manosphere and Their Correlation by Online Forum Data’. ArXiv Preprint ArXiv:2111.04479. doi: 10.48550/arXiv.2111.04479.

Wood, Mark A. 2021. ‘Rethinking How Technologies Harm’. The British Journal of Criminology 61(3):627–47. doi: 10.1093/bjc/azaa074.