Soapbox: The Rule of the Cyber Mob – Whatever Happened to Compassion? 10

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?

[bctt tweet=”Can we change the world by being more compassionate with everyone in our daily and online interactions?” username=”writingthrulife”]

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?


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10 thoughts on “Soapbox: The Rule of the Cyber Mob – Whatever Happened to Compassion?

  • Sara Etgen-Baker

    I, too, am horrified with what I see online, in the media, and even within my own neighborhood–the propensity (with or without anonymity) for folks to say and do such hurtful things to fellow human beings. I’ve been the victim of such mob mentality and can tell you that it’s not pleasant having one’s words or actions twisted simply so that someone can feel powerful or act hurtfully–the horrible actions and words justified with everyone just going along. And don’t even get me started on the role I perceive the news media is playing in contributing to this madness–posting stories and comments to draw readership is disgusting. I have to admit that I’ve unplugged from the news and television in general, for I see so much violence and hatred there and I refuse to watch for I perceive that even just watching is contributing to the madness. That being said, I believe the way to cure the madness is for each of us to act with compassion and send positive energy out into what appears to be a negative world. I believe the matter at hand is complex and troubling, oh so troubling.

    • Amber Lea Starfire Post author

      Sara – I agree that the media is part of the problem. I also don’t watch TV news, though I do read a lot of news from sources that I think are as trustworthy as possible, and I always try to reserve judgment on a situation until I know more about it. Even the worst one of us deserves compassion, as hard as it is to be compassionate in some situations.

  • Natalie Moon-Wainwright

    I completely agree, Amber. I preached a sermon a couple of weeks ago using that video as an illustration of how we need to stop and listen to one another instead lobbing word bombs over our bunker walls. It’s easy to do. I’m outraged as much as anyone else at what I see going on. But I try not lash out at the “other side” and instead try to work toward bringing people together. Since the election I haven’t been present much on social media. I’m trying to live a life of integrity and wholeness and social media is not helpful for that.

  • Linda

    I’m with you, Amber. What you express so well here is certainly my opinion. I believe in what Gandhi said and did, and many other humanitarian and spiritual people. It would take great effort to shift the hatred, but I know no other way. Clearly what is happening in our world, is not elevating any of us. Thank you so much for saying this. You should go viral with it, or whatever the correct term should be.

    • Amber Lea Starfire Post author

      Linda, thank you for your comment. How DO we shift this hatred? That is the big question I am grappling with here. We are each doing this in our own way. Maybe there needs to be a collective movement, though I’m not sure what that would look like. Something to think about…

  • Peter

    Cyber-mob behavior is one of many negatives in our new digital / internet society. There is also the easy exchange of “fake news.” The addictive, hypnotic effect that handheld computers are having on everyone, particularly the young. The inability for sustained concentration and deep thinking. Lack of interest in our natural world. Inability to deal with quiet “absence,” which is healthy. And an overall superficiality and crudity. There was a time when, if a person wanted to be heard publicly, he/she wrote and mailed a Letter to the Editor. Those not only required knowledge, thrift, patience, civility, and a command of language, but there was a filter (the newspaper or magazine). Today – with texts, tweets, emails, online commenting – the most hostile and ignorant in society are able to drown out the most civil and educated, and there’s little filtering. It’s no accident that a monster like Trump was elected president. I admire your idealism that the world can be changed with everyone exhibiting compassion, but…I hate to say it…it won’t happen. This is the new normal.

    (BTW, I found your site through your book profile on BookLife. Congratulations on doing so well!)

    • Amber Lea Starfire Post author

      Thank you, Peter, for joining the conversation, and for your kind words. I’m glad the BookLife profile has some visibility! 🙂

      I agree with all that you’ve said in terms of reasons and factors for today’s mob mentality behaviors. And I do realize I am idealistic — but isn’t it true that the great idealists (people who hold to ideals) such as Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr are the ones who make the greatest changes? If we just shrug our shoulders and give in to “the new normal,” aren’t we part of the problem? We can’t all be great world changers, but I do believe we can influence those around us for good.