Definition: Using threats of disclosure to coerce a victim.
Legal Status:
Almost always illegal
Platform ToS:
Violates Policy
Victim Visibility:
Contextually Sensitive
TSPA Abuse Type:
Violent and Criminal Behavior: Human Exploitation

Blackmail is the use of coercive tactics to threaten the release of sensitive information unless certain demands are met. This form of abuse jeopardizes user confidence and compromises their personal security.

Platforms can be used by blackmailers (like any communication mechanism) to communicate demands, with the benefits of distance, scale, and potential for anonymity, particularly when paired with pseudonymous payment mechanisms, like forms of cryptocurrency. When threats are issued through a platform, they typically occur within closed channels like private messages, which are generally not subject to the same level of scrutiny as public posts due to expectations of privacy. In each of these respects, platforms may enable blackmailers to achieve greater scale, efficiency, or obscurity, but the fundamental nature of blackmail is the same.

It is instead a different role which is of primary concern to platforms: their ability to be used by blackmailers to find coercive material. Platforms that specialize in sensitive topics (like dating websites for folks with minority sexual preferences, or amateur pornography websites) can be targets for blackmailers, who can see the communities that these platforms form as a list of potential victims, and evidence that can be used to blackmail them. For this reason, platforms have an important role to play in minimizing blackmail along the features that they expose:

  1. Prevent searches for protected terms
  2. Make sites harder to automatically scrape
  3. Align the visibility of content to its sensitivity

It takes a long time to build up community and trust in an online community, but only one incident of bulk blackmail to destroy it. Platforms interested in the safety of their users, or simply their own survival, must take proactive steps to make blackmail attacks less likely.

What features facilitate Blackmail?

Correlating sensitive information about a person with their real-world persona is aided by tracking of internet identities.
Individuals' ability to represent themselves in a digital space.
Messaging features create an environment in which threats can be issued to people all over the world without the likelihood of repercussions.
Enable users to exchange text in real time.

How can platform design prevent Blackmail?

Because people are highly dissuaded by legal consequences:
Identity Verification
Require users to register for an application with a state issued identity document.
Right-size content visibility
Place limits on the amount of harm content can cause on a platform by restricting its reach.
Allowing users to report blackmail when it occurs gives a platform the ability to block the account of the blackmailer, preventing mass attacks.
Reporting Mechanisms
Allow users to flag content or behavior that they find to be abusive.
Is something missing, or could it be better?