The single most important issue in cyber psychology

Black number 1 on yellow background. Photo: Sarah Murray via Creative Commons.

One. Photo: Sarah Murray via Creative Commons.

In the fifth of our cyberpsychology roundtable discussions, the authors decide on what they feel is the singular most important issue online.


What do you consider to be the single most important issue in cyber psychology today?


Patricia Wallace, the author of The Psychology of The Internet

John Suler, the author of The Psychology of the Digital Age

Kent Norman, the author of Cyberpsychology

Raphael Cohen-Almagor, the author of Confronting the Internet’s Dark Side

Patricia Wallace:

Trust – and the loss of it – looms large for cyberpsychology.  For intimate human relationships and friendships online, as well as relations between individuals and institutions, trust is a fragile commodity that is easy to lose and quite difficult to rebuild.

“Revelations about government surveillance programs further erode trust in the integrity and privacy of online communications”

How, for example, do human beings deal with the risks of intimate disclosure online?  The Internet promotes disinhibition, and that can benefit close relationships by encouraging intimacy.  But trusting that shared secrets and private photos won’t wind up in the public domain carries grave risks that can lead to years of embarrassment and negative outcomes, if the material goes viral, whether deliberately or accidentally.

Trust also becomes a casualty because of the growing number of massive data breaches and hacks, as Target shoppers, government employees, Sony executives, T-Mobile subscribers – among many others  — recently learned.  The hack of the Ashley Madison website exposed thousands of people who were seeking an affair, potentially destroying lifelong marriages as spouses checked the database and found their partner’s name.

Revelations about government surveillance programs further erode trust in the integrity and privacy of online communications.  And for different reasons, corporations go to great lengths to obtain personal information useful to marketers, offering “free” services such as Facebook, Google, and Twitter to collect and resell information about our preferences, friendship networks, and behavior patterns.  Research shows that people behave differently when they know or suspect that someone or something is watching.  While tools to preserve online anonymity and privacy are available, they are not foolproof.  For all these reasons, trust is a major issue for the psychology of the online world.

John Suler:

There are several issues, but I think a lot about machine intelligence.

I’m not worried about the “singularity” per se, the moment in history when computers grow more intelligent than us, when they turn sentient, when they might even decide to take over. This is still science fiction.

“We should worry about where the law of unintended consequences might lead us.”

Tech savvy futurists oscillate between fearing and idealizing artificial intelligence that will supposedly recreate the human mind – while psychologists, who have spent a hundred years studying the human psyche, know that it is far more complex than most futurists realize.

I’m more concerned about our relying on algorithms to assess activity in social media or elsewhere on the Internet, and to automate attempts to change it. Computers can only see what they are told to see, can only do what they are programmed to do, can only learn or “think” the way we train them.

Are they tinkering with happy and sad social media posts to see if they can change our mood, trying to get us to participate more, buy stuff, or make us believe something? Is machine intelligence giving us the information we really need to find in our searches? Do we even want machines monitoring us, recording us, and making decisions about what we experience in cyberspace? We should worry about the agendas of the powers-that-be who design algorithms.

We should worry about where the law of unintended consequences might lead us.

If there is one thing we have learned in the history of psychology, it is that the logic of computers and statistics can provide helpful information, but only the human mind interpreting that information will reach the best possible conclusions. If we rely too much on machines to show us who we are or control what happens to us, we are barking up the wrong tree.

Kent Norman:

Oddly enough I would say, cybersecurity and less than ethical behaviour on the Internet.  While cybersecurity seems to be more of an IT techie thing, it is really very much about psychology.

Having just finished a new chapter on cybersecurity for the second edition of my book, Cyberpsychology, I might be a bit sensitized to the issue.  But at the heart of cyber psychology is anonymity, privacy, and trust.

“The fallout of [the Ashley Madison] leak has resulted in public humiliation, suicides, divorce, and extortion.”

On one side of the cybersecurity issue are individuals and groups, who hack into accounts and systems for various reasons ranging from hactivism and whistle blowing to revenge and greed.

On the other side are websites and members trying to keep their information secure and private with various motives ranging from personal and financial security to keeping covert and unethical activities secret.

Recent events such at the hack of the Ashley Madison website by “The Impact Team” in July 2015 is a case in point.  The Impact Team demanded that the Ashley Madison and its sister site “Established Men” be shut down or they would release the database.

The parent company Avid Life Media did not, and The Impact Team released more than 25 gigabytes of company data including user details in August 2015 including the records of accounts that Ashley Madison had supposedly deleted at a cost of $20 per member. The fallout of this leak has resulted in public humiliation, suicides, divorce, and extortion.

What is funny is that an analysis of the Ashley Madison database found that the most common passwords that members picked were “123456” and “password”, hardly very secure.  But even hard-to-crack passwords would not have stopped the hack of Ashley Madison’s site itself.

What is even more intriguing is that of the 5.5 million female accounts less than 1% were used on a regular basis according a Gizmodo analysis of the database.  For every one time a female checked her email, 13,585 men checked theirs. Moreover, a very high number of the women’s accounts were created from the same IP address suggesting that they were fake accounts.

All of this underscores the importance of cybersecurity.

How do we know that corporations can protect our information of any type on the Internet?  And for that matter, do we even know what they do with our information let alone the NSA?

Raphael Cohen-Almagor:

We need to better understand the psychology of social-networking. We need to study how people try to impress one another, how they manage their time on the Net, their friendship performance. We need to invest in researching networks and network structure, the relationships between online and offline communications, and we need to address the growing privacy concerns.

“We need to better understand the psychology of social-networking.”

Privacy relates to the information Netusers voluntarily upload to the Net, and to governmental and business violations of people’s privacy.

One of the forefathers of the Internet, Vinton G. Cerf, suggests that those who make and operate the Internet and its applications have an ethical responsibility to take steps to improve the ability of Internet-related technology to protect users from harm, to warn them when they are at risk and to advocate domestic and international regimes to provide recourse when harms peculiar to the Internet environment occur.

Indeed, ISPs should continue to develop and embrace initiatives designed to protect Netusers, especially children. These include technological tools as well as educational campaigns. They should carefully balance reasonable expectations of customer privacy with the need to ensure a safe and secure online environment.

Industry should give due weight to societal considerations that may be essential to promote trust of people in it.

Read the rest of this 6-part Roundtable Discussion:

Part One: Cyberpsychology
Part Two: Misusing the Internet
Part Three: When Kids Go Online
Part Four: The Future of Online Relationships
Part Five: The single most important issue in cyber psychology today
Part Six: The Future of the Internet

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