Internet Mob Mentality: A Response to Ronson and the Dangers of Social Media

“The World’s Biggest Small Town” is how Megan McArdle describes the internet ecosystem we live in today. I wanted to write about Internet Mob Mentality and the dangers of social media after watching Jon Ronson’s Ted Talk, “When online shaming goes too far” video for class. The hostility exhibited towards Justine Sacco, whether deserved or not, was shocking and I really wanted to explore other cases and perhaps nail down more concretely the major pitfalls of social media, even those with really low probabilities.

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Justine Sacco tweeted something that most probably would consider to be controversial, but nobody concretely can say for sure what her intention was. She might be completely insensitive and be exhibiting the epitome of white privilege as she tweets about her inability to get AIDS, or she might be trying to call attention to the inequality of the world and the unfairness of our privilege to live in such a “bubble”. While I personally think that she falls in the former category, nobody can be so sure that they demonstrate some of the behaviors which followed this tweet. Listening to Ronson’s video and the storm of tweets which followed created such a pit in my stomach it was frightening. Why were millions of people eagerly awaiting the termination process and expulsion of Justine Sacco like blood-thirsting werewolves. People were watching twitter feeds as tweets got more violent and threatening by the minute.

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Particularly I wanted to call attention to Ronson’s specific examples because I think they are a scary reality which I’ve even been witness to as I’ve scrolled through social media. Ronson says that when he asked the Gawker journalist about the matter he said “it felt delicious”. Delicious is exactly the kind of word which frightens me because it only evokes more feelings of the absolute devouring upon Justine which was about to occur and yet this journalist was salivating in anticipation. When people start to tap into their Hobbesian state of nature, what comes next is never pretty. When looking at this situation, the intentions of the journalist are clear and unwavering and yet he was perfectly okay with what he had done. His nonchalant comment to Ronson, “But I’m sure she’s fine” was not the right reaction as he gleefully tore down someone’s reputation in a matter of seconds as he simply retweeted it.

Things get hostile on the internet and it isn’t pretty. Any kind of situation that brews conflict like this should be avoided and feared and yet, most of the time people are okay with it. The internet serves as a wild west of sorts with no accountability and social coercion becomes the form of policing, not an authoritative body. Ronson points out in his video that the entire situation lacks justice “Justine was asleep on a plane and unable to explain herself, and her inability was a huge part of the hilarity”.

People were hostile and tweeted at Justine:

“Somebody HIV-positive should rape this bitch and then we’ll find out if her skin color protects her from aids”

“@JustineSacco I hope you get fired! You demented bitch…Just let the world know you’re planning to ride bare back while in Africa #tcit”

When the New Statesman writer Helen Lewis came to Justine’s defense, questioning if perhaps there was another side to this situation, she was torn apart by the mobs saying, “Well, you’re just a privileged bitch too”. It is this kind of one sided, thick-skulled mentality which fuels the fire of the “Internet Lynch Mob”. I believe that although Justine’s tweet could very well be an ill-natured joke, the policing of such situations turned violent and threatening, a way absolutely nobody should act in a situation as questionable as this one. When people band together and find that it’s okay to act this way on the internet, jumping quickly to conclusions and expressing hostile remarks, I believe we become closer to what Hobbes referred to as our “state of nature”. Each time we do this, we let these feelings and words become more “normal” and although words are only words on the internet, this way of thinking ends up bleeding into our central psyche and drives the way we act in other situations.

The famous Google Memo released by James Damore that got him fired suggested that women were less interested in sitting and reading code all day than men. Interestingly enough, Megan McArdle suggests that she came to the same conclusion through her experience, but wasn’t fired over it. Why was that? McArdle writes that she acknowledges:

“Women seem to have less affinity for mechanical things than men, a preference that shows up even in extremely young children. These preferences show up across cultures, and indeed, the less sexist a society is overall, the more you seem to see women splitting off into fields that emphasize people, and words, and caring.”

Interestingly McArdle says that Damore should have used words with less “high negative emotional indices” but convincingly points out that firing Damore really doesn’t necessarily convince him or anyone else that this type of behavior is wrong. Yes he was fired but during this process as she puts it “did anyone’s understanding of the complex quandaries of gender diversity advance?” The complex conversations surrounding the disparities between women’s and men’s experience in the workplace weren’t addressed by the mob, it was merely a firestorm of conversation and a flood of news networks. The reaction to Damore’s Memo isn’t dissimilar to the reactions seen to Justine Sacco’s tweet. McArdle comes to the conclusion that, “The conversation around Damore’s Memo hasn’t made the world a better place, as they say in Silicon Valley. It has just made a lot of people angry”.

This is precisely the issue with the social media conversations regarding complex topics. Oftentimes these conversations are no more helpful than people arguing in the street and yet they are far more influential upon people’s views and long lasting as they exist forever on the internet. When we start to let these angering conversations overshadow the consequences of our actions, social media begins to become less of a distribution network of good news and more of a platform to spread frustration and anger.

For better or for worse, these incidents do not go away with time. Years after the incidents, googling the perpetrators name after a job interview will immediately bring up articles concerning this single moment in their life. Unfortunately, these conversations will likely be as constructive as the ones mentioned above. Megan McArdle writes another article that addresses this fact. She shows that the internet is run through social coercion, a metaphorical gun to your head which is fueled by the fact that one small misstep caught by the wrong mob and you will have you reputation blemished for years to come. Most interestingly, she writes that the internet mobs aren’t harmful because of their immediate effect, but of what they encourage. As mobs suppress conflicting ideas, our state begins to look like a Communist state where “your true opinions about anything more important than tea cozies are only ever aired to a tiny circle of highly trusted friends”. When we can’t freely share our ideas without the fear of being squashed by those around us publicly and permanently posted, how can we hope to encourage the type of free speech which America prides itself on so greatly.

Lastly, it is not easy to control people or the platforms which they interact with. Google executives were convicted and were awarded six month suspended sentences when they allowed a clip of an autistic boy being bullied on their platform despite their efforts to take down the clip as soon as it was discovered. Another internet forum moderator when he claimed he was going to change some of his website forum was offensively insulted by his members as one desired a “sudden urge to ram a fistful of nails down [his] throat” and another called him a “slack-jawed turd-in-the-mouth mug”. People are defensive over the places where they express their views and content but people may be responsible legally or morally to moderate these places as seen in the Google case.

So where does this leave us? Ronson shows that people live in their own echo-chamber of ideas on the internet and can squash those ideas they dislike when they choose to do so. McArdle points out that many of these conversations which occur online are rarely constructive and rarely change people’s ideas for the better. People will continue to act this way on the internet until somebody breaks the mold. Should there be regulation, better filtering, more accountability? The wild west of the internet will soon need to become civilized, but somebody needs to be the one to take some major first steps towards stopping the mobs.

8 comments

  1. katietisinger · ·

    Great post, Tucker. I was also particularly struck by this Ted Talk and example of Justine Sacco. I was also left with a pit in my stomach after learning about it. Although I did not have a Twitter or follow this story at the time it was happening, I could place myself in this situation and see how I would immediately assume the worst. While I agree that her comment is horrible and she should be held accountable for it, I think it calls to question what holding people accountable means? I do not think this means attacking them in this way. But, as you said, how do you prevent or control this? Regulating technology is such a difficult thing to do, and once you regulate one part, a new technology may likely emerge to counter the regulation. I am sure this is something companies are considering as they work to innovate and look into the future. Even in this fight for technology regulation, you see this “lynch mob” type mentality with people having horrible, insulting things to say about people on the other side. It seems like a normal fight back in forth, but when amplified on technology, it clearly gets out of hand; however, I do not see how we can effectively regulate this?

    I have also been reflecting on the impact the video had on me and others in the class. The Ted Talk is essentially doing what other dissenters did during the post-tweet storm. They called out another viewpoint, and then they were pulled into the criticism. There seems to be a clear difference in reaction when there is time and distance between the event and the dissenters speaking out. While I know the Ted Talk speaker received a lot of backlash as well, I know this video would have had a bigger effect on me considering the other side watching it now vs. the dissenters who were pushing back right when she tweeted.

  2. RayCaglianone · ·

    The “internet mob mentality” has introduced a new layer to the concept of instant celebrity, too. Nowadays it’s nearly impossible to come across anyone who goes viral who doesn’t have some skeletons in their viral closet. And lo and behold, if they do have those skeletons you can count on the internet to find them. Just today Donte DiVincenzo, the strongest performer for Villanova in their victory at the NCAA championship game on Monday, had to delete his Twitter account after people uncovered tweets from high school where he quoted rap lyrics containing racial slurs. It remains to be seen if it hurts his career at all, but it’s pretty amazing that less than 24 hours after his ascent to stardom he is already knocked down a peg. And that is a common tale in the age of social media, whether it’s athletes, politicians, or just a star of a viral video.

  3. Tully Horne · ·

    The first thing I thought of was what @raycaglianone mentioned about DiVincenzo’s tweets. Barstool obviously jumped on the opportunity to poke fun at him for it, but the overall response was negative. This also reminds me of a couple other major focuses of the so-called mobs recently. First is our President. All political biases aside, no matter what President Trump says he is bashed. People say hateful things towards him and wish that he is impeached over tweets as simple as saying the stock market had a good day. Now Trump is no angel and has had his fair share of not-so-friendly things to say. But there comes a point where you may question whether people are taking the trashing of the President on social media too far. With this also comes bashing from pro-Trump supporters of anti-Trumpers, and the two mobs go at each other. Something I discussed in one of my history courses is how educated discourse has gone by the wayside and has been replaced with a simple “I’m right, your wrong” mentality, and many of both pro- and anti-Trumpers have taken this stance and shut out any type of conversation that makes progress and I believe that is part of why Congress has a hard time getting anything major done. The hatred between political divisions spills over to elected officials, and it all starts in places of discourse like Twitter.
    Another place I have seen this is with the recent push for more gun control. This is obviously a sensitive topic and it is clear something must be done, but with the recent rise of younger activists, especially from Stoneman-Douglas High School, there has been a growing animosity towards gun owners and the NRA. Many of the activists have made it clear they are not looking to get rid of the 2nd Amendment, but there are many die-hard 2nd Amendmenters who have lashed out on social media with some harsh and even threatening language towards gun control activists. Then, like with the Trump situation, there are some who are for gun control who go too far and unfairly bash some gun owners who have a Constitutional right to bear arms. Here again we see how these opposing mobs of people overshadow the true mission of coming together as one to have conversations, although sometimes difficult, to make progress.
    These are just two examples of this mob mentality negatively affecting us, and I think you discussed great examples as well. Great post!

  4. Great post. What make the Ronson video so powerful to me was that we were discussing the Sacco case #ISYS6621 in much the way he described. Certainly makes me more aware of how I act on SM.

  5. Jobabes121 · ·

    This was a great post! In my opinion, what makes this mob mentality so large in magnitude results from people’s desire to point out a unique action that they know something is inherently good/bad, but is not said or done often. This in fact applies to not just negative remarks but also positive ones. There was an instance where a white female in her 20s ran out of gas in the middle of street late at night, but a homeless person used his money to buy gas from a nearby gas station and bring her the gas so that she could go home safely. To commend his good deed, she posted the incident on GoFundMe, where they raised about $400,000 for the homeless person.

    What this example shows is that people seek unique or extraordinary events or cases to occur in their mundane lives, and whether it is something extremely impressive or terrible, the unique events go viral. I believe this stems from our thoughts where we know what’s good or bad, but such instances are done so seldom that they have an urge to either commend or bring someone down to abyss. Such mentalities will persist, if not will get even greater as social media becomes even more popular among all generations. Mob mentality is simply ingrained in human nature, and especially given that you remain non-offline in these mob activities, the magnitude in participants gets even larger. This simply shows that one must carefully speak and act on both offline and online forums regardless of the fact that everyone has “freedom of speech,” as it no longer bears freedom if it adversely affects others.

  6. Addison LeBeau · ·

    Great post! I especially enjoyed your concluding thoughts about people living in an “echo-chamber of ideas” and the lack on constructive communications. I completely agree with all of your opinions in this post, and I often find myself wondering – what is the ideal use of the internet in these instances? In some senses, it is good that often marginalized groups are able to find solace in others who share the same experiences and thoughts, and have the ability to surround themselves with it. However, what happens when these thoughts are harmful or dangerous, and they are trapped in an echo chamber?

    I believe as a society it is our duty to move forward with the internet and try out best to step out of these echo chambers and have productive conversations with those who have opposing view points. Additionally, we need to fight the mob mentality, and the first step is acknowledging it – as your post has done.

  7. jjaeh0ng · ·

    Agreed. It reminds me of my older blog post about “online bullying.” When I wrote that post, I was not aware of Justine Sacco story, but I felt very relevant while reading it for the class discussion. Largely due to the anonymous nature of internet society, people tend to be aggressively expressive as they become unconsciously careless about what they are saying. Even more, they care so much about things they do not necessarily need to. In Sacco’s case, why are that many people say the company should fire her. I get they are trying to find ways to express their anger toward her non-sense tweet as much as possible, at the same time, the relationship between the employer and employee is absolutely none of their business. How do I know? Thousands of people retweeted Sacoo’s tweet and spread words to fire her, but nobody cared what happened afterwards. This was the perfect example of internet mob mentality you describe, when people are quick tempered and then become careless soon after. Freedom of speech is something no one can infringe, but the internet users also have be conscious about what they post online.

  8. realjakejordon · ·

    Tucker, saw that you hyperlinked this as one of your favorite blogs in your final post so wanted to check it out. Really well written. I know this was written a while ago but this definitely still goes on. Last week I saw a girl posted a prom dress with traditional Chinese print and was ruthlessly harassed for appropriating culture. I feel like if that is someone’s belief, and they find it offensive, a private message or two does the trick. Harassing a poor high schoolers is certainly not constructive.
    Also, I wrote a piece about echo chambers a while back as well. I think theres ways to solve this and it really comes down to outsmarting ourselves and following a broad scope of people as a first step. Again, very thorough and interesting post.

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