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.
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