Wednesday, June 17

Internet 2.0 and TV news feeding off each other to create a mob rule?

Something very strange has been happening in the United States of America, but exactly how to term it, and figuring out why it's happening -- aye, those are the challenges.  On its face this might be termed identity politics gone berserk. From The Pecking Disorder: Social Justice Warriors Gone Wild:
The practical effects of such 'social justice' ideology [can] be seen in the communities where it flourishes (mainly on college campuses and online). It is a reverse caste system in which a person’s status and worth depends entirely on their perceived oppression and disadvantage. The nuances of rank can be as rigid as in the most oppressively hierarchical traditional society.
It could be a manifestation of what's termed the Victim Industrial Complex, or more to the point by British historian and curmudgeon David Starkey, the Human Rights Industry:
... Dr Starkey, 70, said judges and lawyers have hijacked the European Convention on Human Rights and expanded it beyond the purpose proposed by Winston Churchill after the Second World War.  
The result has been a society where people are too concerned about their human rights and do not think enough about their duties to society, he claimed.
The balance between the two, dating back 800 years to Magna Carta, has been thrown off-kilter said Dr Starkey, who recently published Magna Carta: The True Story Behind The Charter
He said it could be restored if  "the Amal Clooneys and Shami Chakrabartis would shut up", also referring to the director of human rights campaign group Liberty.
Then again the strange doings might be rooted in nothing more complex than American college campuses increasingly fearful of being sued at the drop of a hat.  In any case the colleges are encouraging infantilism among young adults. From I'm a liberal professor, and my liberal students terrify me
Only this time it would be a student accusing me not of saying something too ideologically extreme — be it communism or racism or whatever — but of not being sensitive enough toward his feelings, of some simple act of indelicacy that's considered tantamount to physical assault.
As Northwestern University professor Laura Kipnis writes , "Emotional discomfort is [now] regarded as equivalent to material injury, and all injuries have to be remediated." Hurting a student's feelings, even in the course of instruction that is absolutely appropriate and respectful, can now get a teacher into serious trouble.
It does seem colleges have gone completely overboard. From 'Infantilized' college students need 'safe spaces' to avoid scary free speech:
Judith Shulevitz, writing in the New York Times, reports that infantilized college students are indulging their need for insulation by demanding “safe spaces” where any speech that could hurt their feelings would be forbidden.
She lists examples of the demands of students that verge on the incredible; in one instance, when a student group at Brown University called the Sexual Assault Task Force discovered that a debate was to be held where one participant, a libertarian, would slam the term “rape culture,” the group protested to the administration.
That prompted Brown’s president, Christina H. Paxson, to schedule a talk concurrent with the debate that would provide “research and facts” about “the role of culture in sexual assault.” 
A “safe space” was created for students upset by the debate; the space included cookies, coloring books, bubbles, Play-Doh, calming music, pillows, blankets, and a video of puppies.
The tip-toeing to head off hurt feelings isn't limited to American campuses, by the way:
Oxford University’s Christ Church college canceled a November debate on abortion when feminists screamed that both debaters were men.
However, this encouragement of infantilism isn't limited to college students, either. Who can forget the Archbishop of Canterbury's call in 2008 for criminalizing of all public speech that was deemed thoughtless and cruel?

And yet these delicate flowers have an odd way becoming quite the bullies when they find safety in Internet 2.0 numbers.  Consider the chilling report in 2012 from Cause Global's Marcia Stepanek about what happened to a respectable private charitable foundation when it ran afoul of Internet 2.0 denizens:
There are two kinds of digital swarms in today's nonprofit world -- groups of people who self-organize rapidly on the Web to achieve an urgent, common goal (to help Haiti quake victims, change a law or oust a politician, for starters.)
And now, as this week's Komen for the Cure controversy has made clear, there are also the kinds of swarms that can form when an organization's most influential fans and followers on Facebook, Twitter and other social networking platforms start feeling that the organizations they support are ignoring them -- or betraying their trust by doing something controversial without their input or prior knowledge.
This week's Komen swarm acted swiftly -- "with head-snapping speed," according to Jennifer Preston of The New York Times. It began forming on Twitter and Facebook minutes after The Associated Press Tuesday broke a news "exclusive" exposing a decision by the Komen board to stop funding Planned Parenthood's breast cancer screening programs because of its support for abortion.
Within hours, criticism of the action on the organization's social sites had turned into an angry buzz. According to blogger Kivi Leroux Miller, who was closely monitoring the reaction on Komen's social sites at the time of the decision, "anti-Komen posts were outnumbering pro-Komen posts at the rate of 80-1."
The swarm intensified throughout the day into Wednesday, fueled by a decision Komen made to remain silent, even as the size of the swarm had become nearly overwhelming in its speed and ferocity.
"It was as if they were trying to ignore us," one #komen supporter tweeted Wednesday. But the uproar didn't reach critical mass until cause-wired fans caught Komen starting to remove from its social media sites some of their most passionate criticisms.
The swarm ended when its target, the Susan G. Komen for the Cure Foundation, said tonight that it would reverse its Planned Parenthood decision, three days after the uproar began.
There is much about the background to the situation to suggest that only a small fraction of the ferocious buzzers were financial supporters of the foundation or breast cancer research. It was a highly politicized scandal concerning Planned Parenthood, which Komen had every right to distance itself from (and which Stepanek doesn't mention), that touched off the onslaught.

So there is a term more fitting than "digital swarm" for what Komen's board of directors faced.  It's called a lynch mob.  That such mobs are virtual doesn't mean they aren't dangerous. From a May 2015 article at the BBC's video Artsnight page The Most Hated Woman on the Web?:
In 2012, Lindsey Stone did something incredibly stupid. She posted a photo of herself to her personal Facebook page mocking a sign calling for “respect and silence” at Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia, where over 400,000 US soldiers are buried. She claimed afterward she intended it as a joke. Almost everyone else found it offensive, and quickly the image went viral.
Stone was inundated with outraged emails, Facebook messages and phone calls, some of which included death threats – and so was her company. She was fired from her job and left to pick up the pieces of her life.
For Artsnight, Stone talks to author Jon Ronson, whose book So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed takes a look at people whose lives have been ruined because of ill-advised social media posts.
I think death threats are more than public shaming, and it wasn't only Stone who lost her job because of the incident; the friend who took the offensive photograph was also fired in response to the digital mob's fury. However, from the statement Stone posted to her Facebook page when she first realized she was in trouble, "stupid" doesn't quite convey what she did:

In other words it's okay to challenge authority from the safety of the internet.  So there's poetic justice in what happened to Stone. The mob she enjoyed being a part of turned on her.  As she learned the hard way the mob isn't a horse one can control with "Whoa."

But when our glorious cable television news media have nothing better to do, which has been increasingly often because one report after another in a 24/7 news cycle that details Washington's missteps is just so boring, they trawl Internet 2.0 looking for signs that the natives are restless again. These signs, especially when amplified by video footage shown on news-talk TV shows, then cycle back to the internet and recycle back to TV, and so on.

This same communications loop existed long before the internet. It existed between telephones and TV, then between talk radio, TV, fax machines and phone communications.  Then it existed between internet email and blogs and the earlier modes of electronic and landline phone communications.

The difference with the present loop -- smart phones and texting, Internet 2.0 and TV/ talk radio -- is that the cycle feeds on itself with blinding speed. There are no longer the brakes traditionally provided by press editors and TV producers.who determine whether to release a report to the public.

The mass communication generated by social media is now also the message. See Ethan Zuckerman's deconstruction of the uproar about the Kony 2012 film for a spectacular illustration of a social media story itself making big news.  Yet the situation unwound so fast I'm not sure television ever had time to catch up before the story started to blow over. This despite the fact that the uproar involved many millions of people. From Wikipedia's article on the film:
A poll suggested that more than half of young adult Americans heard about Kony 2012 in the days following the video's release. It was included among the top international events of 2012 by PBS and called the most viral video ever by TIME. The campaign resulted in a resolution by the United States Senate and contributed to the decision to send troops by the African Union.
This despite the fact that the film, while made with 'good' intentions, contained glaring and dangerously misleading inaccuracies.  Not to mention that it touched off a riot in Uganda among viewers who felt that the film glorified Joseph Kony -- the opposite of what its American creator had intended.  (The American hadn't bothered to 'focus group' the film with Ugandans before releasing it.)

And of course -- of course -- Al Jazeera just happened to be in the neighborhood when the film was shown and the riot broke out.  Result:  once again Americans were the laughing stock.  

But again, there had been no brakes. Kony 2012 was posted to YouTube before any editor, reviewer, or producer could analyze it and point out its errors. Or before any Ugandan ngo could study the film and warn, 'DO NOT let the Ugandans see this.'

By the time the errors were noted it was after the fact of the film's lightning-like impact.

So what are we looking at here?  It might not be a singular phenomenon; it could be a little of this and a little of that mixed up with the era of social media. It could be factors in addition to the ones I've named that I haven't seen yet.  However, there is one type of behavior that could fill the bill if the strangeness becomes even more pronounced in the USA.      

There's a precise technical term for the behavior and it's not infantilism, political correctness, digital swarming, or abuse of human rights principles.
Ochlocracy (Greek: ὀχλοκρατία, okhlokratía; Latin: ochlocratia) or mob rule is the rule of government by mob or a mass of people, or the intimidation of legitimate authorities. As a pejorative for majoritarianism, it is akin to the Latin phrase mobile vulgus meaning "the fickle crowd", from which the English term "mob" was originally derived in the 1680s.
Ochlocracy ("rule of the general populace") is democracy ("rule of the people") spoiled by demagoguery, "tyranny of the majority", and the rule of passion over reason, just as oligarchy ("rule of a few") is aristocracy ("rule of the best") spoiled by corruption, and as tyranny is monarchy spoiled by lack of virtue.


bdoran said...

Dear Pundita,

We don't have elites setting the example do we?

In fact we don't have elites. We have these strange insect creatures who seem only elite at legal crime and looting.

We don't have a government either. They're criminals.

However you might point to aspects of oligarchy and mob frenzy in America now and you'd be right.

As for the universities; Leftist profs fearing the students they've raised to be Feral is simple poetic justice.

Pundita said...

Rent seekers. Many rent seekers posing as capitalists. Yes, poetic justice. More on the way, I think.