Resist the social media mob

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In recent years, social media has facilitated the rapid spread of outrage. A few representative cases:

In nearly every instance, a difference of opinion within a community becomes a topic of conversation for outsiders, who amplify the issue, creating a "shame storm" that pressures the community's leaders, unaccustomed to worldwide scrutiny, into acting precipitously. In some cases, the outrage has its origins entirely outside the community.

For example, the Deborah Brown School hair code case: The affected student was upset, because the code forbade wearing dreads. The parents backed the student rather than the school and called a local TV news, which was happy to have a juicy controversy to broadcast. The local news story was shared through social media, where posters vented, characterizing the African-American leadership of the school as a bunch of self-hating racists, insisting that the school's rules were unreasonable, and demanding that they be changed at once. Perhaps under pressure from donors or from the sponsoring university, the charter school caved and changed its rules.

Bloomberg columnist Megan McArdle wrote recently about the "shame storm" phenomenon:

Twitter makes it absurdly easy to shame someone. You barely have to take 30 seconds out of your day to make an outraged comment that will please your friends and hurt the person you've targeted. This means it is also absurdly easy to attack someone unfairly, without pausing to think about context -- or the effect you are having on another human being much like yourself. No matter what that person did, short of war crimes, you probably would not join a circle of thousands of people heaping abuse upon a lone target cowering in the center. But that is the real-world equivalent of what online shame-stormers do.

This sort of tactic may buy silence, though it is likely to be the most effective on people who already agree with you and simply said something infelicitous. What it cannot buy is community, beyond the bonds that build between people who are joined in collective hate. With the exception of Lehrer -- who clearly realized he'd done something wrong without needing to be told -- the people whom Ronson interviews do not think that they were the victims of perhaps excessively harsh justice; they think they were victims of abuse. They often recognize that they did something stupid, but they don't think they deserved to be fired after having their lives dissected and their character impugned by thousands of people who had never even met them.

Writing at The Federalist, Mark Fitch advises that the Internet amplifies the apparent size of the community of the outraged and that those claiming to be offended often are pretending -- what they really feel is a lust for power:

It is often quite easy to feel that you are greatly outnumbered and that the entire world is against you, particularly if you have the gall to air your beliefs in the public realm (or be caught in it, in this situation). Social media can seemingly explode with anger at your mention of a political or cultural position that goes against whatever the Video Music Awards are advocating this year. You are beset by Legion.

But are you, really? Two thousand people is a drop in the bucket of the overall population, but when they all turn and look at you it can feel overwhelming. While outrage is nothing new in cultural or political fights, the Internet's ability to allow individuals to reach people they have never met or places they have never been perpetrates an illusion. Memories Pizza was deluged with one-star ratings by people who had never been to the establishment or sampled its pizza.

It was recently revealed that nearly 70 percent of the criticism lobbed at Rush Limbaugh (which is ample) comes from a small group of activists that have devoted their lives to attempting to make his miserable. However, to view coverage of Limbaugh in television and Internet media, you would think that the entire country is listening and vastly offended at everything he says. You would see and hear what appear to be great swaths of civilization amassing against this radio host. But this is an illusion born of spirit, not of substance, and it is meant to influence the spirit of others. It is necessary to separate the corporeal reality from the illusory zeitgeist.

Few people have time to be so incensed, and those that do should not drive culture. Their offense is an illusion. Their feelings may matter to them, but need not drive discussions and certainly shouldn't attain such grandiose proportions. Ideas can be debated and talked through, and individuals who maintain a decorum of objective detachment can often find common ground. But fight with a spirit, with irrational rage, and there is no way to find commonality.

The anonymity of the Internet allows this illusion to truly reach its greatest power as a single individual can assume any number of Internet personas that can spew any amount of nonsense and vitriol with no accountability or personal reflection whatsoever. The pseudo-anger and the Internet's ability to instantaneously connect users can often give the impression of widespread outrage, when really hardly anyone has noticed.

We should treat the purveyors of social media outrage as the tantrum-throwing toddlers whose tactics they have adopted. The more they fuss, the longer it will be before their demands are considered (if ever).

Businesses and other organizations should proactively put in place policies that require an inviolable cooling-off period prior to action taken in response to public outcry. Leaders of organizations caught in the crosshairs of a social media frenzy need to insist calmly that any changes will be handled through the organization's normal processes, after the mandatory cooling-off period -- no sooner than 30 days after the frenzy has died down, which should be long enough that the mob gets distracted by the next outrage du jour and the organization can consider the matter carefully.

The organization should then calmly examine the consider the issue in terms of general principle. Is there a consistent principle or rule behind the demanded action? If we apply that rule consistently, what other actions would be required and what precedents would be set? If we take all those consistent actions, is the result really desirable, or should the rule be modified?

During the Brady Street / Brady District controversy, I suggested that the city appoint a commission to look at the history behind all of Tulsa's names, decide on criteria that make a name unacceptable, propose substitutes for unacceptable names (preserving, I hope, Tulsa's orderly street-naming and numbering system), and propose a means for covering the cost of renaming. The public would adopt or reject the renaming and its attendant costs by an up-or-down vote. I went through a catalog of names that, by the standards applied to Brady Street, would have to be changed.

Of course, the mob will resist any effort to generalize or take a deliberative approach to the outrage du jour. They are practicing Rule 13 of Saul Alinsky's Rules for Radicals:

Pick the target, freeze it, personalize it, and polarize it. In conflict tactics there are certain rules that [should be regarded] as universalities. One is that the opposition must be singled out as the target and 'frozen.'...any target can always say, 'Why do you center on me when there are others to blame as well?' When your 'freeze the target,' you disregard these [rational but distracting] arguments....

Local news editors can help dampen the effect of the mob by declining to "doorstep" the targets of these frenzies, pressuring them for a response. They should put themselves in the shoes of the business and organization leaders that have been targeted by the mob. Someday they may be targeted; wouldn't they want to be given space to respond after due deliberation?

One more thing: Most people who fly the Confederate flag nowadays do not do so to express hate. When the Confederate flag was painted on a car named "the General Lee" for a TV series it was not intended to express hatred toward anyone, but pride in Southern accents, Southern cooking, Southern folkways, and Southern hospitality. That an online mob can so quickly cow politicians and corporations into bowing to their will, based on the meaning they impose on this symbol, is a frightening thing, not a great day for America.

Who gets to decide what a symbol should mean? The Nazis used the Star of David as a symbol of shame and persecution. The Israelis took that star and fly it proudly on their national flag. The enemies of Israel consider that flag and that star to be symbols of racism and oppression. If the enemies of Israel demand the suppression of the Israeli flag and star, should retailers cooperate?

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This page contains a single entry by Michael Bates published on July 10, 2015 11:47 PM.

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