Behaviour and responsibility in an online environment: Anders Breivik, London riots and music downloading


Online Information Review

ISSN: 1468-4527

Article publication date: 27 September 2011


Gorman, G.E. and Pauleen, D.J. (2011), "Behaviour and responsibility in an online environment: Anders Breivik, London riots and music downloading", Online Information Review, Vol. 35 No. 5.



Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2011, Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Behaviour and responsibility in an online environment: Anders Breivik, London riots and music downloading

Article Type: Editorial From: Online Information Review, Volume 35, Issue 5

What is happening online, and who or what is responsible? Can we talk about “right” and “wrong” in the online world of social media? One is motivated to ask these questions by events in July-August 2011: the murders by Anders Breivik in Norway, and the youth riots and looting across the UK.

Both of these events have a common thread: the use of information in an online environment. When Anders Breivik was committing his crimes in Norway – during the actual event itself, young people and their parents were communicating via mobile phones; it has also been reported that Breivik honed his “skills” by playing video or online war games. And in Britain it was reported that those involved in civil unrest used social media to marshal their “forces”; at the same time, others used the same media as a means of apprehending those responsible for looting.

These examples highlight how online information can be used for good or ill. What many once heralded as the democracy of the internet has become in some ways unacceptable, or at least has created a great sense of ambivalence about the technology (Montgomery, 2009) that allows such dysfunctional behaviour to flourish.

Of course we have been aware of these issues for some time, and many investigations have helped us understand the nature, depth and breadth of the problem. In The GoodPlay Project, for example, Carrie James and her colleagues present evidence of the extent to which young people lack any sense of ethical responsibility for their actions and reactions in the online environment (James, 2010). While we understand the state of play and can report the evidence clearly, there has been little reflection on why the current situation exists. Part of the reason for this may the trans-disciplinary nature of such reflection. Is it the task of information scientists, technologists, ethicists, sociologists, or all of these to seek answers? Do we seek answers in the family, the school, government or society at large?

One result of not knowing the answers to these questions is the kind of embarrassing knee-jerk reaction from politicians and others – Prime Minister Cameron, for instance, suggesting that social media be prevented from allowing people to distribute information about such socially unacceptable behaviour as rioting and looting. One cannot not blame politicians or citizens for such responses, for we are all in a state of confusion about what to do or what should be done. As Altschuller and Benbunan-Foch (2009) have suggested in their research on music downloading:

  • […] as technology evolves, it creates discrepancies between the way things are and the way the law expects them to be, leaving society in a muddle, trying to reconcile the two.

Indeed, music downloading, music piracy or music file sharing (depending on one’s perspective) is a kind of microcosm of the broad questions that the events of mid-2011 are forcing us to ask. Why do people engage in such anti-social or illegal behaviour? What motivates them, why do not they have a stronger sense of responsibility for their actions? Why do people download music without respect for the creators or distributors?

In this issue of Online Information Review Beekhuyzen et al. go underground to provide an ethnographic account of the music file-sharing community using actor network theory to understand the motivation of “music pirates”. In their work there are implications for legitimate file-sharing communities as well as policy formulation on file sharing. Second, Dongwon Lee and colleagues also investigate music-sharing behaviour, but this time “above ground” in Korean social network service sites (SNSs). SNSs provide an avenue for marketing and sales of music as long as the sites focus on improving the users’ experience. Third, Nan Zhang explores the role that Web 2.0 plays in the diffusion of rock music in niche cultures, in this case in China. Here there are implications for the diffusion of music via online forums as well as innovative marketing and sales strategies for music and other cultural items.

These papers do not provide answers to the major questions being asked about responsibility for online behaviour. Perhaps even The Shadow does not know the answers ( But they do add to our knowledge of what is happening in the online environment.

G.E. Gorman, David J. Pauleen


Altschuller, S. and Benbunan-Foch, R. (2009), “Is music downloading the new prohibition? What students reveal through an ethical dilemma”, Ethics and Information Technology, Vol. 11 No. 1, pp. 49–56

James, C. (2010), “The GoodPlay Project”, Social Good Summit 2010, available at:

Montgomery, K.C. (2009), Generation Digital: Politics, Commerce, and Childhood in the Age of the Internet, MIT Press, Cambridge, MA