The Electronic Pillory: Social Time and Hostility Toward Capital Murderers

Date01 September 2015
Published date01 September 2015
The Electronic Pillory: Social Time and Hostility
Toward Capital Murderers
Scott Phillips Mark Cooney
In early modern Europe, popular hostility toward criminals could be
expressed through the use of the pillory (a device in which offenders were
restrained and publicly displayed). Modern electronic communications have
facilitated the emergence of contemporary versions of the pillory. One such
example is, a Web site created by supporters of capital
punishment that permits members to post comments about particular execu-
tions. Most such comments are markedly hostile toward the convicted
offender. But is the hostility random or patterned? A new theory by Donald
Black predicts that hostility will increase with changes in social space, or the
movement of social time. Testing Black’s theory, we find that the number of
online comments hostile to the killer and supportive of the execution
increases with the degree to which the murder was a movement of relational,
vertical, and cultural time. Moving beyond the electronic pillory, we argue
that Black’s theory has much to offer to law and society scholars.
From time immemorial, people have criticized, mocked, and
excoriated deviants. Popular sanctions of that kind appear to
have been particularly prominent before the Industrial Revolu-
tion. In early modern England, for instance, “villagers, acting
communally, might take it upon themselves to punish those con-
sidered guilty of anti-social or immoral conduct” (Durston 2004:
313). Popular punishments included charivari or skimmington (a
noisy parade designed to humiliate a deviant), carting (being
paraded publicly in a cart), and ducking stools (confinement in a
chair that is plunged into water). A sanction that combined popu-
lar and legal components was the pillory—when a criminal “was
made to undergo a form of public penance by being exhibited on
a platform with his hands and head fixed in a wooden structure”
(Beattie 1986: 464). Members of the community could respond
to the offender with praise, indifference, or, more usually,
For providing comments on an earlier draft, we thank Donald Black, Bradley Camp-
bell, Jared Del Rosso, Mike Radelet, the anonymous reviewers, and the editors. We would
also like to thank the Nancy Maron Fund for providing generous financial support for the
research. Please direct all correspondence to Scott Phillips, Department of Sociology and
Criminology, University of Denver, 2000 E. Asbury Avenue, Denver, CO 80208; e-mail:
Law & Society Review, Volume 49, Number 3 (2015)
C2015 Law and Society Association. All rights reserved.
hostility—by jeering or bombarding him or her with rotten vege-
tables or other matter, thereby drawing wider attention to the
offense and humiliating the offender (see, e.g., Greene 2003).
Over time, popular sanctions of this kind increasingly gave way
to state sanctions administered by legal officials. Popular justice
never disappeared, but it assumed less public prominence. Scholar-
ship reflects the general trend. The conduct of police, prosecutors,
attorneys, judges, juries, and other legal officials has been studied
in considerable detail. By contrast, the sanctions that non-state
actors continue to inflict on one another has attracted much less
interest (but see, e.g., Baumgartner 1988; Morrill 1995; Senechal
de la Roche 2004).
Moreover, when popular justice is scrutinized
it often focuses on those occasions when informal sanctions are
used instead of law: if business people or rural country neighbors
do not sue when they have legal rights to do so, how do they man-
age their conflicts (e.g., Ellickson 1991; Macaulay 1963)? Some-
times, however, law and popular justice are found together (e.g.,
Manza and Uggen 2006; Pager 2007). And sometimes they are
both applied to the very same act. For instance, in a murder case
the killer might be arrested, prosecuted, and sentenced by the legal
system while also being castigated and shunned by the community.
In such cases, the legal sanctions are recorded and publicly accessi-
ble but the popular penalties have tended to remain private,
known only to those directly involved.
The growth of mass means of communication has provided
new outlets for popular justice. Radio, television, film, and, espe-
cially, news media enhanced the ability of ordinary citizens to
have their say about wrongful behavior. But no medium has
boosted it more than the internet. The internet allows more peo-
ple to participate in more moral controversies and do so faster
than ever before. Consequently, many disputes between individu-
als, groups, and countries now originate online; others migrate
there, wholly or in part. People have expanded opportunities to
support or oppose general moral causes (e.g., human, animal
rights) or to weigh in on particular moral controversies (e.g., the
guilt/innocence of defendants in well-known trials). Information
about moral events can be disseminated far and wide allowing
people to become familiar with the details of arrests, assassina-
tions, riots, massacres, and other manifestations of conflict—even
those occurring in distant lands. Since much e-control is either
publicly or semipublicly accessible, it can provide researchers
One tradition in legal sociology treats both law and popular justice as aspects of legal
pluralism (see, e.g., Griffiths 1986; Merry 1988). Given the marked contrast in severity and
otherwise between the death penalty and the online criticism we address here, we find it
useful to distinguish the two forms.
726 The Electronic Pillory
with data previously difficult to uncover. Yet with the exception
of online bullying, relatively little is known about this new phase
of popular justice. In particular, it is unclear whether the ano-
nymity of much electronic social control results in it obeying dif-
ferent principles to traditional social control. is an online moral community com-
posed of supporters of the death penalty. Among other things,
the Web site provides members with a forum for expressing
anonymous opinions about executions. Most of the comments are
highly critical of the condemned prisoner. This electronic pillory
provides naturally occurring data regarding hostility toward con-
victed murderers. But are such hostile comments equally distrib-
uted across cases? Or do some offenders attract more than
others? To answer the question and redress the relative deficit of
research on popular justice, we examine hostile comments
directed at 149 offenders executed in Texas from 2005 to 2012.
The Web site postings also reveal variation in support for par-
ticular executions, as indicated by hostility toward the con-
demned prisoner. Scholarship on support for the death penalty
has largely focused on the social and psychological characteristics
of supporters (see, e.g., Boots and Cochran 2011; Unnever and
Cullen 2012). The comments posted to
allow us to address a different question: Among those who favor
the death penalty, is support greater in some instances than
Most importantly, the data afford an opportunity to test an
ambitious new theory of conflict developed by Donald Black
(2011). Black’s theory posits that the fundamental cause of con-
flict is the movement of social time. Social time is the fluctuation
of social space—the dynamic aspect of social life. As people’s for-
tunes rise or fall, as they form new or dissolve old relationships,
or as they encounter or reject cultural diversity, conflicts emerge.
But movements of social time vary in magnitude: larger and
faster movements cause more conflict.
Black’s theory has been applied to explicate the causes of
three forms of violence: genocide, family honor killing, and sui-
cide (Campbell 2013; Cooney 2014; Manning 2015). However, it
has not yet been tested in the context of nonviolent popular
The social control on is what rational choice theorists call
higher-order social control—a response to the punishment that responds to the killing
(Axelrod 1986; Horne 2009). Higher-order social control is not, in itself, unusual. Since
many crimes are themselves responses to deviance (Black 1983), much legal punishment is
higher-order social control. What makes the e-community’s higher-order control different
is that it is an unofficial or popular response to the legal punishment (rather than, as is more
common, a legal response to a popular punishment or a popular response to a popular
Phillips & Cooney 727

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