A mob mentality in social media

Animal behavior for the most part is predictable, if not explainable. A flock of geese or sparrows redirects itself instantaneously by some collective awareness, as if the individual physical components were subordinate to a greater unifying volition. Wild buffalo were at one time so bound by their sense of herd-togetherness they could be driven by hunters to mass suicide over a cliff in South Dakota. A “murder” of crows congregates strategically to ensure the successful assassination of a rabbit nest or to drive away an invading hawk.

Scientists have given us the tools to analyze, predict, and thereby manage the environment around us, placing us firmly at the top of the food chain despite our frail, fur-less, fleshy make-up. Our own behavior, on the other hand, is not so measurable or predictable.

Although we define ourselves as social animals, the traits of individuals vary greatly. Some choose to run with a large pack, while others — this writer included — prefer a higher degree of solitude and shun engagement with the masses.

The OBSERVER featured two stories on Sunday reminding us of the effects of group mentality. The first was about the anniversary of the Vietnam war protest at Kent State where four students were shot to death after things got out of hand and some national guardsmen overreacted. The other was Saturday’s “Fred Fest” in which hundreds of Fredonia State teenagers and young adults gathered to exercise their right to flout the law and be obnoxious.

In the first case, the congregation was drawn along the lines of the perception of injustice; despite their youth and naivety, the students at Kent were driven by a higher cause: they wanted to end the war in Vietnam. The other group was motivated by a something much less: an opportunity to display their willingness to trash property, along with their propensity for narcissism (social media posting), and an overall dull obstinance. Their collective behavior resembled that of anything from cattle to ducklings to hyenas.

Social science has devoted some research to the phenomenon of group mentality. A distilled version of the studies reveals what common sense should tell us: people behave differently when alone or in small groups than when they are assembled in large groups. The concern then is whether the collective behavior is constructive or destructive in its effect.

No doubt the enjoyment of a concert or sporting event or even a church congregation is enhanced because of the shared experience. In athletic competition there is joy in victory, and even in defeat there is the consolation of commiseration. Church people feel good as they share peaceful feelings, give to charity, or celebrate an individual whose great love conquered death. Audiences at theaters and halls are enthralled not only by the performances of artists, but also by the opportunity to feel a part of something greater than their individual selves.

The other face of large group mentality is that of an angry mob. Here individuals give themselves over to feelings of hate and revenge, targeting an individual or small group that has deviated from the norm. They justifying violence as a defense against what they perceive as a transgression or indecency that the law has failed to address. Throughout history, countless episodes of mob violence have self-ignited sporadically and have been recorded. However, if not for the emotional impact of novels and film, those small but very dark chapters might have faded into oblivion.

We are reminded in Shelley’s Frankenstein of the mercilessness of the villagers who would condemn the monster that was in truth an innocent victim of man’s over-ambition-his attempt to play God and create life. (That same theme is revisited in a less dramatic fashion in Burton’s “Edward Scissorhands”). “To Kill a Mockingbird” features the angry mob as it wants to hang Tom Robinson. In “Mississippi Burning,” the Ku Klux Klan is exposed as the most hateful and evil group in American history. And there are numerous Western films featuring a posse of ignorant, gun-toting cowboys who take the law into their own hands.

Today there is new form of mob, an insidious growth of nastiness and hate fostered by social media. The internet’s infinite supply of disinformation serves as a fountain of poison water and not only fuels the fire in those already enlisted as the devil’s advocates, but also affects millions of naive and impressionable young people who are lost, searching for meaning and mission in life.

It is not the professional media groups — those highly educated and trained journalists who in many cases risk their lives to uncover corruption and shine the light on irrefutable facts (they work for CBS, ABC, NBC, CBS, PBS and, yes, CNN) — who produce the fake news. It is social media — especially the part that promotes “alternative” facts and plausible lies—that poses the greatest danger to democracy.

The hardest part for me, and any other op-ed or commentary writer, is to know that somewhere out there at this moment some reader whose has gorged on social media duplicity is plotting something terrible. And it is not some four hundred-pound Chinaman spying on America. It is one American who has been so filled with hate and lies that he feels he must act.

Pete Howard is a Dunkirk resident, writer, musician and teacher. FOCAL Point strives to make insightful social commentary through the integration of Facts, Observations, Compassion, Awareness and Logic.

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