Digital Punishment: The Production and Consequences of Online Crime Reporting

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Digital Punishment: The Production and Consequences of Online Crime Reporting

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This dissertation is a mixed methods study of the production, dissemination and effects of digital crime reporting, such as mug shot websites, crime blogs, Facebook crime watch pages, and Twitter crime update accounts. These websites post arrest records and booking photos before individuals are charged or convicted, but they remain online indefinitely. This dissertation asks big questions about data privacy, criminal justice and punishment through three qualitative studies: 1) the murky world of citizen journalism within the specific context of crime news; 2) the sociolegal framework of case law in this area and how social actors interpret this law, and; 3) the empirical effects of these records for those who appear on the websites, speaking to broader social, civic, and psychological consequences. At its core, this study argues that the internet has elevated crime and punishment to the center of daily life, routine activities, and American culture more than ever before. Within this framework, I make three concrete arguments: First, I argue that these websites operate as a new form of social control strategies by fostering a fear of crime and publicizing transgressions. Importantly, publishers are non-state actors who engage in a meaning-making process by focusing on crime and therefore feeling they have a direct impact on crime. Second, I argue that the ambiguity around the legality of these sites produces new forms of consciousness around our rights to public information and freedom of speech. Finally, I argue these sites constitute novel forms of punishment in the widespread nature of the reporting, in heightening the variety and levels of crimes publicly punishable, and by permanently archiving these punishment symbols in digital spaces. Empirically, I find digital criminal histories are characterized by their scope, breadth, availability, and permanence. These websites post arrest records, full names, and booking photos before individuals are charged with or convicted of a crime, yet they remain online indefinitely. These websites are often produced by amateurs who use crime as a method to address broader social issues. These sites appeal to consumers by providing access to real-time crime information allowing them to feel they have an active role in crime prevention without directly interacting with the criminal justice system. There are consequences to these practices, particularly in the spread of erroneous and dismissed records. While criminal history data changes rapidly at the jurisdictional level, there does not exist a system to ensure corresponding updates are made online. These crime websites thus constitute a new form of punishment: They culminate in a curated and searchable online history, which is often unknown to the website subject until they face consequences of these records. These records communicate powerful signals of guilt by attaching a criminal label to millions of arrestees, simultaneously introducing a host of social and psychological consequences.


University of Minnesota Ph.D. dissertation. July 2015. Major: Sociology. Advisor: Christopher Uggen. 1 computer file (PDF); v, 175 pages.

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Lageson, Sarah. (2015). Digital Punishment: The Production and Consequences of Online Crime Reporting. Retrieved from the University Digital Conservancy,

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