Nothing quite affords anonymity like the internet does. One may choose to be anonymous there, and by its very nature you already are: a minute part of an enormous data set, where our merged identities form a gigantic collective, infinitesimal flashes of electricity, among trillions of others, in a remote server farm far, far away.
On a personal level, anonymity is a convenient little costume to slip into online. It usually acquits you of any repercussions; one can perform traceless acts of virtual violence, then withdraw from the online world and carry on with everyday life, as if nothing had happened. Although your chosen prey may not find it so easy to afterwards.
Social media enhances and amplifies this phenomenon, and it is there that something really ugly emerges:
They are a permanent feature of life on social media now. Outraged mobs on Twitter resemble scenes from Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds, where a lone individual is pursued by a swirl of angry, pecking tweeting.
Believing might makes right, these mobs, by sheer virtue of their numbers, demand conformity and total obedience. It doesn’t matter how much hurt they cause, they operate in an anonymous, consequence-free zone where power is crowdsourced and responsibility distributed.
Even though a member of the mob may go by their real name, they are anonymised through their absorption into the furious multitude.
No one has yet been held responsible for the vicious attack on the family of the late Sunil Tripathi, the student wrongly identified as one of the Boston bombers by the misguided hordes on social media.
Jittery advertisers, afraid of compromising their brands, often acquiesce to the mob’s demands by pulling financial support from individuals and websites that have incurred the mob’s wrath, serving only to legitimise it and setting dangerous precedents that are wide open to future abuse.
As a result of these faceless gangs on Twitter, Facebook and YouTube, etc, people have had their livelihoods destroyed or been forced out of their jobs, reputations irreparably damaged. Often for the simple sin of expressing an opinion the mob doesn’t like.
This is the true horror of social media and modern internet culture, how destructive it can be of individuality and independent thought.
A while ago, I had a run-in with someone on Twitter over an article I wrote, he said to me something I can’t remember verbatim, but to the effect of: “Now you see the reaction to your blog, maybe you’ll rethink what you said.”
What he seemed to be implying with this statement is that my conscience should be externally, rather than internally guided. Instead of speaking my own unique truth, I should allow it to be defined by others, should it come into conflict with their worldview.
This is mob morality, which is, in fact, no morality at all.
It is merely a display of pure brute force, where the ends justify the means, and righteous anger devolves into verbal assault. One concedes not to a superior argument, but is overwhelmed by a wave of rage.
In this new social order, the reaction to content is more important than the relative merits of the content itself — and in the hits-hungry digital economy, probably more valuable.
And there’s the rub: unscrupulous, controversy-courting media loves whipping up the easily manipulated mob to get more traffic to their sites. They are the ones who truly benefit from discord. It’s an effective strategy: divide and conquer.
In the midst of these cynical agendas, we must work hard to retain our individual identity, listen carefully to our inner voice and not reduce our complex humanity to someone else’s triumphant spike on a Google Analytics report.
This is was originally published on Imagine Athena