Essay 1: Digital Mob Mentalities and Online Discourse

The internet is a chaotic space because of the ways in which content and information is shared – at such quantitative and rapid rates to almost everyone on Earth – it becomes impossible to create a natural order and rules for users to follow. Social media and its ability to massively share and discover content contributes to this the most. With so many voices online, it becomes easier to generate mob mentalities on both extremities of a debate and harassment towards people with different perspectives, an example of which is Twitter. In an article titled “Think You Wouldn’t Do Evil? Think Again“, Pete Ross argues that “Twitter is often the ultimate example of dehumanizing someone—all you see is an avatar, which may or may not be a picture of the person themselves, and their Twitter handle[…] While this is certainly true, there is another side to the coin: The lack of humanity that the online world sees in the victim.”

When you’re having a conversation in person with someone and you disagree with them, you don’t just go nuclear in response, even if their argument is stupid. Why? Unless you’re a sociopath, people don’t like hurting other people, physically or emotionally. However, online your target is dehumanized. We can say horrible things and won’t see the effect it has on our victim. We’re also not at risk of a beatdown for pissing off the wrong person.

Pete Ross, 2017

There is no doubt that the internet is a public space. It belongs to no one, and is available for everyone. Just like how driving is a privilege and we share the roads with other drivers, access to the internet is a privilege and that is something often forgotten because of how the media operates, enforcing a belief that there is one side or the other, and nothing in between. This is a toxic behavior that often leads to the impossibility of practical discourse. In Kalev Leetaru’s article Is Social Media Really A Public Space?“, he mentions how politicians block people just for posting things they did not believe aligned with their campaign. Rather than discussing it, it was a ‘delete, bye-bye’ interaction that ignored a potential discussion between a voter and a candidate. And my question is, why? Why are we so afraid of legitimate confrontation? Why do we hide behind memes and phrases like “calm down its just a joke” rather than discussing our differences of opinions and try to come to a peaceful conclusion rather than harass others, especially online? Being passionate about something is more than fine, its respectable, but there needs to be a distinction of defending your philosophies with transgressions.  “It’s really easy to […] believe you’re not the guilty party because others are doing worse. But it’s a slippery slope. Psychology shows that the first step—however innocuous it may feel at the time—is the most dangerous” (Ross, 2017).

And if we look at the AntiFa (anti facism) protest that occurred this Summer of July in Portland, journalist Andy Ngo was sent to the emergency room after being punched in the face and pelted with milkshakes, an event which was captured live and streamed to thousands of viewers. While this is an extreme case of live discourse ending in confrontation, it still shows how we treat categorize people with dissimilar philosophies as the other and dehumanize them. And if we turn a local mob, such as the AntiFa protest, and mass spread their anarchist-like philosophies to a global audience, then of course we lose natural order, as they seek to “seek to dismantle structures” (Bogel-Burroughs, 2019)

However, given the right circumstances, I believe that people can use social media platforms and the internet to be tools that help engage discourse, and my belief in this lies in Jubilee Project, a group of creators aiming to “bridge people together, challenge conventional thinking, and inspire love”, as mentioned in their organization bio. They have two video series examples which I think are excellent examples of the discourse culture they have helped build, and they are Middle Ground and Spectrum. These content are placed in a studio space that grants participants a voice to be heard, then released to the public. Examples like these then become example of what healthy discourse looks like, but ultimately, humanizes the potential victims if mobs were to attack them for believing a certain philosophy, etc.

Middle Ground is video series where they take members of opposing views and have them explain their thoughts and why their perspective is the way it is. Despite the arguments which occur, there is still professionalism and respect, which is ultimately the success of Jubilee, the creation of a platform that recognizes and maintains mutual respect despite differences. When Issac, a scholar and black lives matter supporter, said that “the phrase all live matter was derived from black lives matter to subvert black lives matter, and I won’t come here and sit down and say that’s okay”, it becomes clear why phrases like all lives matter insults him. What Jubilee so excellently and elegantly does is create empathy on both sides. They portray both “sides” without bias and let the audience see where both sides come from, and why their perspectives is the way it is

Spectrum, on the other hand, aims to highlight different individual (but still within the same sort of community’s) perspectives, how they’re similar/varying and why they think that. This series really dispels the stigma media has brought upon certain groups of people. for instance, using the video as an example, these veterans support Donald Trump because he’s the president and Americans should want their president to do a good job, but ultimately, it’s their job to protect the president, regardless of who it is. 

As individuals, all we can really do is promote healthy online discussions and understand we are interacting with other individuals online. Rather than cower away from semi-confrontational like arguments, we should be authentic about our beliefs like in Spectrum, and hope there will be genuine responses that spark a meaningful discussion, as seen in Middle Grounds.

Leave a Reply