The shameful shaming of Twitter's digital mobs

Twitter is an ideal medium for mobs because it is so democratic. Countless thousands mulling about an agora of infinite expanse, each person given the same 140 characters with which to pronounce, denounce, show off, and shine in a glaring public spotlight. To begin with there are only one’s own followers. But there’s always the chance that a well-timed, sufficiently clever and cutting tweet will get retweeted by a follower with more and better-known followers, launching the comment into a wider circle of readers who might retweet it again, and again, and again.

According to Andy Warhol, everyone will get to enjoy 15 minutes of fame. On Twitter, everyone gets 15 seconds to ride a viral wave. It’s that promise of attention and approval that provokes so many to pounce the moment they see an easy target for humor, mockery, and abuse. It’s standard-issue one-upsmanship raised to the millionth power. If you run in left-wing circles, you’ll jump on something that offends the left. The same holds for the right, and for dozens of other political-ideological-cultural factions. It’s the world’s largest high school cafeteria, with every member of every clique vying to become the most popular kid in the group.

None of the great critics of democracy, from Plato to the authors of the Federalist Papers, would be surprised. All of them considered democracy to be indistinguishable from mob rule. That’s why all of them insisted that democracy needed to be combined with non-democratic norms and procedures. These institutions would temper and channel the unstable, irrational, destructive passions of the mob, forcing its members to play by rules designed to foster reason and deliberation. The non-democratic elements of the American Constitution (some of them, like indirect election of the Senate, dismantled since the founding era) attempt to do precisely that — with decidedly mixed results.