Friday, January 24, 2014

Twitter mobs

Fredrik deBoer writes about the dangers of so-called "twitter storms" in his blog post "smarm and the mob". First he rehashes the story of Essay Anne Vanderbilt, and the subsequent moral judgments that various people made on that scandal. More important to him than the merits of people's suppositions about who-killed-who was the moral certainty to which they clung to their own beliefs, as if there was no possibility of being incorrect:

But I think the simplicity and force of that causal argument, whether explicit or assumed, is precisely why I’m still reading about it now. Because I think that’s what the Twitter storm needs; it needs to assert, in every situation, the absolute simplicity of right and wrong. To publicly state online that you are conflicted about any story that has provoked the mob into action is to risk the immediate wrath of the storm. It happened that, on the day the Jameis Winston case was blowing up, I watched the Ken Burns documentary about the Central Park Five. I thought about making the point that, perhaps, we shouldn’t rush to judgment when a young black man is accused of rape, given our country’s history on that front, but I didn’t dare. I knew the risks.

What people have built, on Tumblr and Twitter and Facebook, is a kind of boutique moral ideology that has one precept that precedes all others: the sheer obviousness of right and wrong. The very words “grey area,” in any context, have become anathema. The ideology of the Twitter storm is a kind of simple, Manichean morality that would make George Bush blush. They used to make fun of him, for that, the liberals and the leftists; his “you’re either with us or you’re against us” worldview was seen as not just illiberal but childish, a kind of moral immaturity that resulted from evangelical Christianity and neoconservatism and dim wits. Now, the shoe is so firmly on the other foot that the default idiom of the lecturing Twittersphere is a kind of aggressive condescension, one which assumes into its expression the notion that all right-thinking people already believe what the mob believes. It is on a foundation of this kind of moral certitude that all of history’s greatest crimes have been built.

That, to me, is the self-deception, a confidence game in the same way Scocca means above: a willful belief, among members of a social and cultural strata, in a kind of frictionless universe where putters can be made out of Stealth Bomber materials, or where all moral questions have long since been settled. It would be nice to live in a universe where there is straightforward relationship between good and evil and where all tragedies have accessible villains. But you don’t live there, and the notion that you do makes actual moral progress harder for us all. I would call that attitude smarm, myself. The problem is that the self-same people who were enamored of Scocca’s smarm essay– the ones who made its popularity possible– are the ones who make up the Twitter storms. And this has been my greater point about smarm: I find it a useful notion in a vacuum, but the mechanisms of internet culture makes me pessimistic about its actual use. As I said at the time: tons of the people who lauded that essay had, days earlier, gone gaga for BatKid. But BatKid was textbook smarm. It turns out that smarm, like so many other human faults, is easier identified in others than in ourselves, even when we are the ones who need to be indicted most of all.

And this is the problem for Scocca, and for us all: he’s a writer of great integrity whose ideas can only be spread with the will of a mob. I don’t blame him for not pointing out that the most influential purveyors of smarm are in fact the very people whose approval his essay required. I have many convenient blindspots to the comprehensive corruption of my present life. I just think that the altitude of his rhetorical station might need a little adjusting. Same message for him as for the Twitter mob: you can position yourself however you’d like. But we’re all down here in the grime.

For more on different moral universes, here


  1. A mob jumps to its feet

  2. Adrian Richards comes to mind...preening tech consultant who got two guys fired by tweeting their private convo at a tech conference claiming sexual harrassment. She got a huge tweeter mob and half blogoshere to agree with her...deff sociopathic behavior.

  3. The site Return Of Kings has twitter mobs go after them a lot lately.

    1. I forgot to say that their post "5 Reasons To Date A Girl With An Eating Disorder" is still making people on twitter butthurt.

  4. I suppose someone could formulate an equation about the more morally simplistic a position is the more folks will buy into it. Maybe at some point in the future mobs will be able to chew over the finer points of moral; relativism, but at present, Facebook and twitter have given us all a window into the functioning of moral panics, and opportunity to join in from the safety of our armchairs...

    1. Morally simple is needed for many people, as it is the simplicity itself that fulfills two requirements for them: 1) the ability to understand and digest the moral, and 2) the ability to accept it.

      The simpler it is, the less "strings attached". There are fewer moving parts to see, which therefore makes it easier to look at it all - to review it in the mind - and assess how it works and effects. It is, in a word, more convenient, and therefore more comfortable. This brings about the ability to accept it. Since it is comfortable, it is therefore good, therefore the greater chance of adoption. Because to accept it requires a comfort as a prerequisite - if they are uncomfortable about it, they will not accept it as their own.

      This all becomes twisted and misdirected when amplied by group/mob mentality. More basic group instincts begin to override a certain level of discomfort, which is then rationalized when the people experience it. It also grants a degree of detachment, in a pseudo-sociopathic fashion. However this detachment is not the same, because instead of becoming independently detached, you detach from your previous mental state and attach to the group, as the group. It is a paradigm based on nature, where individuals are not just accepted by the herd, but they also adopt the herd themselves in a two-way interconnection.

    2. It is also a given, that the closer the "message" is to a person's existing beliefs, they easier it becomes to adopt. And be adopted by.

  5. Sometimes people take an issue in a narrow two way street, and they go too fast, too far, causing a lot of damages (black and white thinkers). I like those large free -ways with many many lanes, people heading so many directions, none are really wrong.

  6. A lot of people have that problem. More than most admit, because if they do they are admitting inflexibility and/or lack of forethought (in themselves, not from others) which brings embarrassment. Because of this embarrassment, they reflexively try to defend themselves, as much to protect from ridicule but also from self-ridicule. Many want to be seen as "understanding" or "sympathetic", but in truth are not. You can tell not just by how they react with words, but also their body language and microexpressions. Sudden flash anxiety followed by defensiveness in facial expression. vocal tones, and body posture, which unfolds in a second or two. It happens quick, so it is understandable that many can miss it when looking at people. The observable signs are similar to what you see in lying, but the main difference is the context.

    This, by the way, is not exclusive of empaths. Sociopaths make the same mistakes as well, though they can be better at hiding it. They can more readily accept grey areas, but it doesn't mean they always do all the time. As for catching it, pre-existing confidence and surety before being caught helps smooth out any exposing indicators during transition. There can also be a lack of flash anxiety, which sometimes is replaced by irritation, that changes the transitional model when called on it. Unfortunately that by itself is not an indicator of equal value, because irritation can be well hidden and can actually represent an irritation caused not from being exposed but by their outlook on the person who called them out. I can feel irritation when people "call me out" when I was being fully truthful and honest. Usually caused by either me not transmitting it clearly enough, or them not receiving and interpreting it properly.

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