Terry Pratchett famously said the collective intelligence of a mob can be gauged by taking its dumbest member and dividing their IQ by the total numbers of mobsters. Of course, this theory was devised to apply to the mobs of a pre-social media age. I shudder to think what kind of mind-bending exponentiality takes hold when this formula is transposed onto the world of Twitter. Like a kind of rhetorical quantum world, the usual rules breakdown in this strange digital realm and strange new dynamics take hold, facilitated largely by the sheer scale of the thing and its arcane algorithmic nature.
Twitter mobs differ from physical mobs in that they benefit from features not strictly found in the physical world. The function of a mob is to allow its members to behave in such a way as they would not (necessarily) behave normally and give into their baser impulses by providing them with the justification of simply being one part of a whole wherein their own actions are reflected by the collective – thus does the collective intelligence and morality of a mob reduce to less than the sum of its parts. The other advantage this conveys is the ability to dehumanise your victims through mob consensus on the righteousness of your actions against them. It is this particular feature that social media is able to bolster to stratospheric proportions. Not only can you easily seek out a like-minded mob quickly and efficiently, you can separate yourself from its actions even further by hiding behind a digital avatar.
This dynamic was observed acutely during the #Shirtstorm fiasco where scientist Matt Taylor was publicly eviscerated by a baying mob of self-righteous so-called ‘progressives’ for the heinous crime of wearing an eccentric shirt which was perceived as sexist (despite having been made for him by a female friend). This case, as well as the more recent backlash against and subsequent dismissal of another scientist, Tim Hunt, highlights another feature of social media: it is a fantastically effective conduit for extreme self-righteousness. From behind that digital wall it is far easier to mobilise your group-thinking gang into a closed circle of confirmation bias, as well as misrepresenting and demonising your opponent without having to address such fallacies in real-time. Ultimately, these exchanges become more personal and replete with ad hominem than real-world exchanges as every response from your intended victim is simply read in light of your own a priori characterisation of their position.
In this way, social media self-righteousness has succeeded in politicising any and every kind of human interaction. Unfortunately, social media is no longer strictly ‘social’, it would be more accurate to describe it as ‘public media’, a collective big brother where conversation is mediated and judged by the hive-mind. This seems to have created a feedback loop wherein the same rules are applied to interactions in the non-digital world, which are then absorbed back into the digital mobocracy, as we saw in the case of Matt Taylor.
The self-righteous impulse itself seems to stem from a bizarre and hypocritical mutation of the principle “sticks and stones may break my bones but words can never hurt me”. In this new interpretation, unintentional offence is the most egregious (often for the reason that it is characterised as an intentional but covert attempt to subvert whatever values justify the response to it) and warrants a no-holds-barred assault in retaliation. Participants are invited to take part in a sadistic character assassination with the promise and assurance of a moral high-ground. There is a certain kind of person for whom this is too good an offer to pass up.
Technology is only as good or bad as the people who use it and for what purpose. Platforms such as Twitter provide a telling illustration of this, on the one hand allowing the instant spread of information and news where it would otherwise be covered up or concealed, and, on the other hand, revealing unsavoury aspects in many of its users.
Featured Image Credit: “Salem Witch Trials” (date unknown). Source: Uncommon Sense Media