Growing up, everybody talked about getting their “15 minutes of fame.” With the long digital memory of online presences, it seems that this time period is extended. Sometimes all it takes is one bad tweet, or post, for something to go viral. After that, who knows how far the information will spread? Or where it will end up. Or what happens to it.
The really challenging part is that it’s almost impossible to get rid of, or change, falsehoods, rumor mongering, and disinformation that takes hold. Bad information plagues, or sometimes destroys, people. Rebuilding a reputation takes a lot of work. If that’s even possible when so many untruths are floating around the internet and social media.
What’s always most surprising to me is how quickly this all happens. And how quickly people latch on to something untrue, unsubstantiated, biased, or sensational to start spreading it around. Often this happens before the information, bad or otherwise, has even been verified. Once the mob mentality takes hold, the momentum picks up.
Digital Mob Behavior
Mob behavior is fascinating to me. I remember in undergrad taking a course called “The Gaucho and the Cowboy: A Comparison of North and South American Cultural Myths.” My professor often reminded us that humans and cows behaved differently in groups. One cow alone is nervous. It remains agitated until it reunites with the herd. Humans, by contrast, are calm on their own. However, humans get worked up easily in a group setting.
In a digital setting, this behavior seems to be just as easy to replicate. In some ways, I think it’s worse. The reach of the internet is immediate and global. In a physical setting, the mob needs time to assemble their pitchforks and torches. It may slow them down slightly. Digital weapons of choice include malicious words, manipulated images, and sensationalized disinformation. Easy to assemble and instant to disseminate.
What isn’t easy is controlling, monitoring, or shutting down online mob behavior. This is especially difficult because sometimes great changes come about from people rallying together digitally. It’s hard to create rules when the outcome could be beneficial or disastrous.
I’m not sure there’s a good answer for how to manage this type of online activity. The only thing I could stress is acting responsibly online, reading things before sending them along, and validating information sources.