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Social Media

The Social Media Mob

It is often hard to know where street mobs begin and social media ends.

Key points

  • Mob psychology has intrigued scholars since the French Revolution and was even recognized in classical Rome.
  • Social media mobs threaten civil order due to their potential size, speed, scale, and central organization.
  • If online platforms continue to promote hatred, there is a good case for closing them down for public safety.

Mob psychology has intrigued scholars since the French Revolution and was even recognized in classical Rome. The Internet adds new twists to mob psychology, but the beast remains much the same.

Features of a Destructive Mob

French genius Gustave LeBon described the basic features of mob behavior in 1895. Since then, leading social psychologists have tweaked his version of “The Crowd: A Study of the Popular Mind" but his title could easily be applied to a contemporary book about the workings of social media.

Le Bon characterized the mental state of members of a mob as unanimous, emotional, and intellectually weak. He might have been describing the herd mentality of people on online platforms who are deeply emotional and lacking in skepticism or discipline as they amplify the opinions of others by “liking” or retweeting.

The anonymity of the crowd can be enhanced by wearing masks, carrying emblems or flags, or donning an informal uniform such as the leather jackets worn by motorcycle gangs. Under a mask of anonymity, mob members experience a diminished sense of responsibility and accountability. They become deindividuated, which means their focus of attention shifts from themselves to the group. In this deindividuated state, mob members engage in disinhibited behavior, such as vandalism and looting—actions they are unlikely to take as individuals. While mob violence takes very different forms in different contexts, all mobs share features of deindividuation, disinhibition, and an intense emotional focus.

What the Internet Adds

These features are also apparent in social media groups. Yet online mobs have some organizational features that differentiate them from old-fashioned street mobs. To begin with, online mobs can be much larger because they stretch across national boundaries bringing the same themes to geographically dispersed actions. So, the same far-right anti-immigrant memes of territorial invasion and replacement of native-born residents are cropping up in street protests around the world.

Online mobs have organizational advantages in terms of the speed at which an event may be organized. The online mob also has centralized direction and is whipped up by messages such as “It's going to be wild!” (from January 6 in the United States) and the “bally up, tool up” of the Dublin street rioters who were being told to show up in masks carrying weapons.

The January 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol had ongoing social media communication among the rioters and between rioters and leaders as the violence proceeded. They also recorded the events as they happened, subsequently using these videos for purposes of self-aggrandizement and propaganda.

Unfortunately for them, and consistent with Le Bon's idea that members of a mob are intellectually weak, these recordings were subsequently used to put hundreds of rioters in jail, demonstrating an inability to think their actions through.

In some ways, mobs using social media are more threatening to civil order due to their potential size, speed, global scale, and central organization. This raises the intriguing connection between online discussion groups that popularize hate speech and the real-world outcomes in terms of damaging violence.

The Intersection of Hate Speech Online and Real-World Mobs

In the contemporary world of social media interconnectedness, it is difficult to draw a line between hateful speech and aggressive actions. Psychologists have always been bad at negotiating this boundary because we cannot explain why some individuals may cross the line into acting out hatred while the vast majority do not.

Broadly speaking, there are several plausible explanations: People who act out their aggression are swayed by intense emotion. At the same time, their inhibitions are weakened. It seems as though some individuals are more susceptible to mob influence than others are, whether it is a street mob, an online group, or the strange hybrids that have emerged with social media. It may also be that they have become radicalized by a history of exposure to extremist ideas.

However one accounts for the violence, from a public safety perspective, when social media are allowed to broadcast incitement, it is often only a matter of time before damaging violence is stirred up.

Cracking Down on Social Media Is Essential for Civil Order

By that logic, amplifying hate speech online is the legal equivalent of shouting “fire” in a crowded theater. We should not be surprised if people get hurt. To prevent that injury, we must clamp down on hate speech. If platforms like X, Reddit, Telegram, and YouTube continue to promote hatred, with damaging consequences, whether in Washington, Dublin, or elsewhere, there is an excellent case for closing them down in the interest of public safety.

More from Nigel Barber Ph.D.
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