Social media and cowardice before the mob

Dan Hannan over at the Washington Examiner has some food for thought this week which is particularly notable now that we apparently live in the era of Total Social Warfare. Dan argues that too many issues draw the attention of the mob mentality which has probably been part of our psychological makeup since long before recorded history began. But the mob these days doesn’t need to bother with rounding up like-minded folks from the local pubs, collecting pitchforks and torches and wending their way through the muddy, rutted streets. Now they travel at the speed of 5G, riding on apps like Twitter and Facebook. Curiously, though, Dan sees this as a downgrading of the entire mob mentality experience.

The worst thing is not the mob; it’s the cowardice that we display before the mob. In every age, some people have formed gangs to persecute deviants or heretics. It seems to be in our genes, a hangover, perhaps, from our hunter-gatherer days, when commitment to the kin-group was a survival trait. Modern technology facilitates that mob instinct — it’s much easier to Tweet an anonymous invective than to light torches and brandish a pitchfork — but the internet did not create the problem. What it has done, is make us more pusillanimous, even when we know that the mob is misdirected.

Dan summons up two recent examples of techno-mob mentality which come from across the pond in Great Britain. I was familiar with both of them since I listen to some BBC podcasts rather obsessively. One is the case of a British MP who recently blocked a parliamentary bill banning the taking of “upskirt” pictures. The other was the removal of Lionel Shriver as a judge in a literary award program because she published an opinion about how Penguin Random House is now more interested in ensuring they publish a set quota of books by authors of each demographic description than pushing out the best books possible.

Both of these are fascinating stories and absolutely exemplify how the mob can fly into a rage on a moment’s notice and create measurable changes in the real world. And perhaps Dan is onto something when he points out that gatekeepers of various sorts do tend to exhibit some “cowardice” in the face of the mob, preferring to fold under the pressure of a viral response on Twitter or Facebook than stand up to the maddening crowds.

But as I noted at the top, we may be seeing an increasing shift toward nostalgia these days when it comes to mob mentality. Not everyone is satisfied to simply help drive up the number of likes and retweets some troll gets for a particularly pithy attack on someone. It’s easy enough to say that someone “caved” when all they were facing was a crashing Yelp rating or the implosion of their mentions column. The threat of a boycott could prove to be far more serious, but even then, whither goest valor?

It’s considerably harder to blame the “coward” these days, though, particularly if the mob is using their phones to track you down to your favorite restaurant or even your home rather than just sending out tweets. The distress of having an unruly crowd of angry activists bearing down on you during dinner or camped outside your apartment is bad enough. But we’ve seen this movie too many times and it doesn’t always end with that. All it takes is for just one of the mob members to be juiced up just far enough to throw the first punch, pick up the first rock or (God forbid) pull out the first weapon and the entire scene shifts faster than any law enforcement could respond.

People like Sarah Sanders and Kirstjen Nielsen have already been learning this the hard way. Sure, the crowd might just be angry followers of Maxine Waters who only want to protest. But there could be just one Antifa among them with a brick in his pocket. And when the first stone is cast, mob mentality can transform a crowd quickly. Should we scoff at individuals who retreat in the face of an actual mob instead of an Instagram mob? I’m not going to be so quick to judge.

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David Strom 8:31 AM on October 05, 2022