The Shame Game: Why Mob Justice Doesn’t Work

Your average webmaster/blogger/administrator isn’t a copyright law expert. When they discover plagiarism of their hard work, they’re often very lost on exactly how to handle it. So, they turn to their colleagues for advice, colleagues who are often just as ill-informed, and hatch ineffective schemes that do more harm than good.

The most common of these schemes is to shame the plagiarist into submission, usually by calling as much attention to the theft as possible.

Though several bloggers have reported a great deal of success with that tactic, it typically is one of the worst ways of handling plagiarism matters. It’s destructive, counter-productive and often plays into the hands of the worst plagiarists.

To make matters worse, as someone who has used shame in the past (and still does to some degree), I can say safely I’ve never closed a case because of it.

Why Shame Can Work

Shame, when it does work, does so because people don’t want to be associated with the word “plagiarist”. Plagiarism has been called suicide for aspiring authors and most people, even those actively engaging in the activity, will do what they can to avoid it.

In the blogosphere, the threat of shame is much more intense than in the regular Internet. Word goes around blogging circles almost instantly and search engines like Technorati lists new posts immediately. One call of plagiarism and, next thing you know, a virtual mob is beating down the plagiarist’s door, posting comments, sending email and basically pounding him/her into submission.

Though brutal, it can be a very effective way of shutting down a plagiarist.

The Problems With Shame

The problem with this approach is that its exactly what many plagiarists want. Many of those who steal aren’t worried about their reputations and are only interested in getting traffic to their site. If that’s the case, then mob justice plays right into their hands, driving countless visitors to their door. These visitors will improve their ranking and, quite possibly, click advertisements along the way, even if by accident.

Also, since Google and other search engines make no distinction between “good” links and “bad” links, all of these links pointing to the plagiarist count toward his or her pagerank and can actually go to great lengths to improve them in the search engines.

(Note: It is possible to use the rel=”nofollow” tag in the link to prevent Google from indexing it. Most blogging software, however, does not do this automatically. Thanks to Sebastian for reminding me of that fact.)

But even worse than actually helping the plagiarist is the fact that mobs tend to take things too far in their pursuit of a plagiarist. They often leave threatening messages, harass the accused or make libelous remarks regarding him or her. While plagiarism is definitely a civil and potentially a criminal offence, it does not warrant this kind of behavior and can land well-meaning people in jail.

Also, in the event of a public confrontation, many simply turn the tables on their accusers by saying that they wrote the work originally and that the accuser, and legitimate owner, is the thief. Though this is usually very easily disproven, it still casts a shadow of doubt on the creator’s veracity, even if only a faint one.

Besides, with the anonymity of the Internet, most people who are shamed into submitting simply change their name and move on elsewhere, starting over the whole cycle. There is no permanent scarlet letter to be doled out, nothing lasting to be gained.

In the end, there are just too many ways that mob justice can turn out badly. Though it’s tempting to blow the whistle on a thief and let the masses clobber him, there’s much better ways to handle this.

The Best Approach

Think about it, if someone broke into your house and you saw him later on the street. Would you tell everyone around that he’s a thief and let them tear him limb from limb? Of course not. If you knew who had done it, you would go to the police and let them handle it. Only the most foolish souls would try to handle it themselves and no civilized person would turn it over to a mob.

Plagiarism works the same way.

Your best weapons in dealing with plagiarism are a good cease and desist letter, a solid DMCA notice, good tact when handling administrators and the ability to do some old-fashioned detective work. The ability to track people, locate their hosts and work to get the site shut down is much more effective in the long run than the ability to drum up a mob on command.

This isn’t to say that shame doesn’t have its uses. If you can break through the veil of the Internet and do it in a way that doesn’t attract a mob or promote the plagiarist, it can apply some added pressure and serve as an extra deterrent.

An example of this Sebastian, linked above, who uses custom shame pages with all of the pertinent information regarding the plagiarizing business. The goal of the page is to outrank the thief’s site in search engines in order to push them into relenting. Though I don’t completely agree with his tactics, they are very effective.

However, Sebastian’s case is also somewhat unique in that A) His content, search engine information, is usually only stolen by businesses, which are easy to get information and value their brand name very highly and B) He’s a search engine expert who can quickly get the ranking that he needs to make it work. Others will find this process both very difficult and painstakingly slow as they put up with both anonymous individuals and a lack of search engine clout.

However, the main point of this type of shaming isn’t to stop existing plagiarism but to deter future plagiarists. It lets people know you’re serious about stopping plagiarism and that you’ve done so successfully in the past. If plagiarists see that, they are much less likely to steal.

One of the best ways to do that is to publicly showcase those who have been caught before, highlighting carefully what happened to them. Much like ancient civilizations impaled captured soldiers outside the gates of town, it’s a move that gives people cause to think before they launch an attack.

Sure, not everyone heeds the warning, but you’d be amazed how many people do.

[tags]Plagiarism, Copyright Infringement, Content Theft, Blogging[/tags]

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