“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.
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.
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.