The making of a mob

From post-game riots in sporting events, to peaceful protests turned violent, recent history shows us countless examples where mobs of people have gathered, and leave mass havoc in their wake.

There is no question that physical mobs still exist today — but do mobs also exist online?

Shaming, name-calling, accusations and threats are daily occurrences on the Internet, and one nasty comment can quickly enflame hundreds, even thousands, of others to join in.

The Elaborated Social Identity Model is a current dominant theory of crowd psychology. It suggests that individuals do not lose their personal identity when placed in a group or mob setting, but act collectively with the crowd on the basis of a shared social identity. As a result, individuals in a large crowd experience a heightened sense of psychological empowerment, there are feelings of support by those involved, and a sense of shared identity towards a common issue or goal.

Stephen Riecher, one of the psychologists who developed the theory, states in his paper The Psychology of Crowd Dynamics that, “crowd action is patterned in such a way as to reflect existing cultures and societies.” He continues that an individual can belong to many different social identities or groups, and that their behaviour can change depending on which social identity is more relevant at the time.

Crowd behaviour

Following the results of game seven in the 2011 Stanley Cup Finals in Vancouver between the Canucks and rivalling Boston Bruins, riots broke out in the core of city. Police cars were flipped and burned in the streets, shop windows were broken and squads of armed police officers were sent in to control the horde, which involved over 300 participants.

The Night the City became a Stadium, a report conducted after the riot found that a misconceived notion of mob mentality by enforcers when paired with the size of the crowd largely contributed to heightening the destruction caused by the Canucks fans.

Their research suggested that when the members of the crowd were indiscriminately fought back against by police, a unity and collective hostility towards the police was created. This is because, as Riecher suggests, there are different individuals and groups within a mob whose social identities are all separate — until an agitator unifies the crowd’s purpose by marking them a validated whole.

Sociology and anthropology professor Mark Ayyash estimates that only about five to 15 per cent of people in any population are readily willing to engage in violent behaviour.

“It’s a very small percentage, but as we know and see, that small percentage can do a lot of damage,” says Ayyash. He continues, “[These people] probably didn’t think when they woke up that morning that they were going to be jumping on the hood of a car, or burning a shop or breaking windows… the activity takes on a life of its own, and all of a sudden you have ordinary people doing things they normally would never do.”

The online mob

“Social media changes the very nature of our social interaction,” says Ayyash, offering an explanation for the mob-like behaviour exhibited online when users unite behind a common cause.

Ayyash explains, the Internet is a breeding ground for targeted attacks and hostile behaviour.

“Actually saying something to someone’s face has a very large impact on how we interact with each other,” he says. “When you take that out, fundamentally our ethics change.”

Though that change manifests differently in every individual social media problematically alters the larger social phenomenon of mob mentality. The way an online crowd develops is not dissimilar to the way a physical mob would form.

“It might take a small group or individual to instigate, but once that gets going, it takes on a life of its own, and it can grow into something bigger without the initial instigator,” Ayyash says.

In fact, more frequently coordinated online attacks against certain individuals or groups are now evolving further to include real-world physical aggression against an individual or their property.

One recent example is the mob justice brought upon Walter Palmer over the poaching of beloved Cecil the lion, a central fixture among the wildlife at the Hwange National Park in Zimbabwe. When a photo of recreational big-game hunter Palmer smiling over the lion’s body went viral, he began receiving a massive online backlash from the western world, despite the fact that he had poached the lion legally and had a permit for it.

What started as hateful online comments led to the unofficial persecution of Palmer by Americans who took the responsibility of punishing him into their own hands. Through the power of the online mob, Palmer was forced to close his private dental practice, as it became a physical target for serving the hunter justice.

Similar examples of online mobs targeting individuals can be seen in the online threats and shaming of Justine Sacco in 2013, who posted an inappropriate tweet about contracting AIDS in South Africa, which seemed deserving of punishment.

Similarly, Calgary woman Alexis Frulling was shamed online for having sex in an alleyway during the 2015 Calgary Stampede. The threesome was caught on camera, and video of the incident was posted online. The event became a topic of mass media discussion for the duration of the Stampede that year, but neither the person responsible for the video, nor the two male participants, faced the same amount of harassment and online scrutiny.

However, though the Internet has become increasingly popular as a place for mobs to gather and develop in, Ayyash says it’s hard to tell whether there has been an overall increase in instances of mobs breaking out physically or online.

“It’s not just something that happens in the virtual world, as if the virtual world exists outside of our bodies. It’s just that the mode of interaction where two or more bodies are not present…that adds a whole other level to it,” he says. “That changes the ethical universe in which we interact with people.

ncruickshank@cjournal.ca 

The editor responsible for this article is Savaya Shinkaruk, sshinkaruk@cjournal.ca