I’VE BEEN THINKING a lot lately about the sheer quantity of hateful communication I see online — the name-calling, the snap judgments, the pronouncements of guilt or innocence, good or evil. I notice how we’ve all been siloed into online “communities” — tucked safely into communication bubbles with people who think and believe as we do on many issues, especially political, and how difficult it has become to have a civil conversation with those who do not.
In these online communities, it’s so easy to slip into groupthink — thinking and making decisions (or pronouncements) as a group, rather than as individuals.
But it’s a short bridge from groupthink to mob-think. And people do horrible, ugly things when caught up in mob mentality.
I’m sure you saw, or at least heard of, the videos of a MAGA-hat-wearing teenage boy standing with a smirk on his face in front of a Native American elder who was beating on his drum and singing a traditional song. You probably heard that this was a confrontation in which the boy and his friends were taunting the Native American using racist phrases or actions.
The world took that video snip or a photo excerpted from it and judged the situation. People formed into their respective cyber mobs, in which everyone became the judge, jury, and executioner of either the boy or the Native American or both. Everyone claimed to know exactly what had happened, even though the people who were standing nearby weren’t themselves so sure of the key events. Even though both the boy and the Native American expressed some confusion over how to interpret what happened.
Were you caught up in the viral fervor? Did you post opinions about what had happened?
I physically recoiled when a post appeared on my Facebook feed in which a person broadcasted the name, work address, and phone number of the MAGA-hat-wearing boy’s mother, encouraging people to use that information to harass and shame her. As if any mother is personally responsible for her teen’s behavior. (If you believe that mothers are responsible for their teen and/or grown children’s behavior, you’ve obviously never had kids or, at least, difficult ones.)
According to the Pen American Online Harassment Field Manual,
“A cyber-mob attack occurs when a large group gathers online to try to collectively shame, harass, threaten, or discredit a target. . . .’Outrage mobs’ or ‘shaming mobs’ are a distinct kind of cyber mob made up of internet users who collectively troll individuals in the hopes of silencing or publicly punishing them.”
“Doxing” (short for “dropping docs”) is a particularly insidious type of online harassment in which someone’s personal information, such as home or work address, phone numbers, and email address are posted with the intention of using the information to threaten and shame that person. This is what I was seeing in my feed.
Ugly, ugly, ugly.
I reported the post to Facebook as abuse and made a comment to that effect to the person who posted it, asking her to voluntarily take it down.
What is it about the anonymity of the online world that encourages the worst in people?
According to Tamara Avant, Psychology Program Director at South University,
“When in a large group, people tend to experience a diffusion of responsibility. Typically, the bigger a mob, the more its members lose self-awareness and become willing to engage in dangerous behavior. Second, physical anonymity also leads to a person experiencing fewer social inhibitions. When people feel that their behavior cannot be traced back to them, they are more likely to break social norms and engage in violence.”
We need to remember that violence isn’t always physical. We do emotional violence to people when we publicly shame them, harass them online, and judge them without knowing the facts. And even if we know the facts, who made us the officiators of justice?
Whatever happened to the idea that we should gather the facts of a situation before judging? Or that perhaps it’s not our place to judge others and that we should withhold judgment altogether?
Whatever happened to compassion — pity, empathy, concern for the suffering of others?
What if we approached people, known and unknown, with compassion instead of judgment?
What would the world be like if every time we heard about an act of injustice or an appalling behavior somewhere in the world, we all just took a breath and counted to ten before reacting?
What if we make a point of assuming the best of people instead of the worst?
What do you think would happen?Can we change the world by being more compassionate with everyone in our daily and online interactions? Click To Tweet
Sometimes, I just want to give up, cancel all my online accounts, and stay in my safe physical world (aware that I’m privileged to live in such safety) with my friends and family and neighbors and coworkers.
But then I think about how important it is, as Mahatma Gandhi famously said, to be the change we want to see in the world. If instead of being that change I turn my back on what is happening in the world and hide where it feels comfortable, then I will only succeed in leaving the world to the violent mob.
So, I must do what I can, when I can — to be a better person myself, to show compassion instead of judgment, and use reason instead of emotion to guide my interactions with others.
Can we change the world by being more compassionate with everyone in our daily and online interactions?
As an unabashed idealist, I believe we can. But it will first require setting the intention of being a more compassionate person. Then, of nurturing self-awareness and emotional intelligence in ourselves and those around us.
Imagine if everyone did that.
That is the world I want to see. And that is the person I want to be.
Where do you stand?