“For the people are all in all.”
~ Herodotus III.80.
Last month I reviewed a small but representative selection of instances of Internet vigilantism. Whether we are talking about Cecil the Lion or Justine Sacco, the causes and the consequences may vary, but they share several characteristics, such as the speed with which events unfolded, and their very real-life consequences, such as ruined careers. But I elided the subtler mechanics of why these instances actually occur. Put another way, what gives rise to the mob in the first place? So, in a time-honored essayistic maneuver, I will revert to that quasi-mythical place Where All Things Began, aka ancient Greece.
The scene is ancient Persia, and our chronicler is the inimitable Herodotus. Having taken the throne in a coup, Darius debates the best form of government with the seven Persian nobles who were his co-conspirators. Considering how these things can go, it is a blessedly short discussion, with democracy, oligarchy and monarchy representing the three possibilities. The noble Otanes puts forward a lukewarm endorsement of democracy, but it's very much a straw man. He is more concerned with the shortcomings of monarchy than what might be the virtues of democracy. Another noble, Megabyzus, then speaks in support of oligarchy:
For there is nothing so void of understanding, nothing so full of wantonness, as the unwieldy rabble. It were folly not to be borne, for men, while seeking to escape the wantonness of a tyrant, to give themselves up to the wantonness of a rude unbridled mob. The tyrant, in all his doings, at least knows what is he about, but a mob is altogether devoid of knowledge; for how should there be any knowledge in a rabble, untaught, and with no natural sense of what is right and fit? It rushes wildly into state affairs with all the fury of a stream swollen in the winter, and confuses everything. Let the enemies of the Persians be ruled by democracies.
For his part, Darius acknowledges democracy and oligarchy, but it wouldn't be a spoiler to reveal that he ultimately settles on monarchy, with himself as the head of state. Thus Herodotus sets the stage for the war between the Greeks and the Persians. In a sense, the Histories can be viewed as a meandering meditation on the best form of government, whose merits are ultimately determined on the battlefield.
For Herodotus, that preferred form is Athenian democracy, as flawed as it might be, but the fear of the mob – and its placation – remained an obvious and persistent thread throughout history. Not much after Herodotus, Juvenal coined the phrase panem et circensis – bread and circuses – that were required to keep the Roman mobs placated (and from which the Hunger Games' totalitarian state Panem takes its name). Bread and circuses, in Juvenal's opinion, were the bare minimum that the Romans needed, once they had abdicated their ability to participate in political life. Consider also Edmund Burke's hand-wringing over the French revolutionaries who toppled Louis XVI (“They have found their punishment in their success”), or Dostoevsky's broader dictum, that “to begin with unlimited freedom is to end with unlimited despotism”. The masses are to be feared and controlled, and it is only under the most propitious and unlikely circumstances that a system like democracy can harness their intrinsically destructive power.
Unfortunately, as satisfying as this all sounds, what makes this sort of analysis only partially relevant for our purposes is the fact that I am theorizing on a grand scale. Any discussion of ‘the best form of government' implies that we are concerned with nation-states; and when we speak of revolutions, or the prevention thereof, we imply a pile-up of discontent so substantial that its consequences become worthy of the historical record. The truth is that mob justice and vigilantism on the Internet don't possess these dramatic qualities. In fact, if revolution is the gold standard, I'm not sure if Internet-based mob justice really has any long-term effects. Instead, it seems to be more of a bit player that seems to merely strut and fret his hour on the stage.
So perhaps we can approach the phenomenon from the opposite direction, and begin with a theory based on individuals. Here is a proposition in that vein: ‘bully' is the singular of ‘mob'. So what, then, does bullying mean, within the context of current technology? Indeed, the Internet has made bullying easier than ever, but to say that the ease with which technology in general and social media in particular has allowed bullying to ‘scale' somewhat misses the point. Like anything else, the generative qualities of bullying are rooted in ourselves.
In a recent essay for The Baffler, anthropologist David Graeber takes a closer look at the social dynamics of bullying. For him, bullying is different from cowardice, and in fact there is a weird conflation of the two that ought to be resisted. That is, bullies are regularly dismissed – unmasked, if you will – as ‘cowards'. A bully engages in bullying because of a lack of self-esteem (and as if calling a bully a coward somehow disempowers him). However, Graeber cites research that reveals this as a just-so story; in fact, bullies usually have levels of self-esteem that are quite high. With typical provocativeness, he notes that “Blowing up a wedding party using an unmanned drone might be considered an act of cowardice. Personally flying an airplane into a skyscraper takes guts.”
For Graeber, it's essential to note that any sort of human interaction occurs within a social setting. And the bully thrives precisely because the social – or better yet, institutional – context is an enabler of such cruelty. The schoolyard bully is “refracting” the school's disciplinary authority, and furthermore knows that the victim cannot run away, or will soon enough be forced to return to the same hallways and playgrounds, because there is literally no other place to go. Furthermore, the bully knows that any victim that strikes back, if caught, will likely be punished just as enthusiastically as the bully, all in the name of restoring order. In fact, the closer any specific social setting gets to being a ‘total institution' (a typology first identified by sociologist Erving Goffman that includes prisons, army barracks, psychiatric institutions, etc), the more fertile ground there is for bullying, or more ritualized forms of bullying, such as hazing. Within this context,
…most bullies act like self-satisfied little pricks not because they are tortured by self-doubt, but because they actually are self-satisfied little pricks. Indeed, such is their self-assurance that they create a moral universe in which their swagger and violence becomes the standard by which all others are to be judged; weakness, clumsiness, absentmindedness, or self-righteous whining are not just sins, but provocations that would be wrong to leave unaddressed.
Cynically speaking, bullies are freelance enforcers within an implied social order. But what I really liked about Graeber's discussion is the notion that the bully-victim dynamic is only completed with the presence of an audience. Post-Columbine research shows that proper humiliation only makes sense if it is performed in public – instances of private bullying are relatively rare (unfortunately, Graeber doesn't actually cite the literature so I am taking him at face value here). So there is not just the need for there to be an audience, but an acquiescent one as well, since even a few protesters from a crowd can easily break a bully's spell. Just think of bullying as performance – it is not enough for the victim to become brutally acquainted with his or her weaknesses. It must be reinforced within the context of the social arena. The size of the crowd doesn't matter that much, though, since rumor and innuendo easily take over from there.
What happens if we take Graeber's point about the bully's moral universe and the need to ‘redress' weakness, and cast it into the funhouse mirror of social media? It's actually a good point from which the phenomenon of mob justice arises. Think of it this way: the victim crosses some perceived normative boundary. The bully senses weakness and pounces with some egregious remark. Any response by the victim sets off a further round of bullying, with more and more people joining in. The conversation is augmented, shared, and amplified. This practice, commonly referred to as trolling, may have a single point of origin, such as Justine Sacco's tweet about AIDS in Africa, or it may metastize into a nearly incomprehensible flamewar of apocalyptic proportions, such as GamerGate. Eventually these pile-ons dissipate, but as I documented last month, not without lasting consequences for the victims.
As Graeber notes, “It's not that as a species we're particularly aggressive. It's that we tend to respond to aggression very poorly”. The Internet is particularly good at exacerbating this dynamic. Whereas in real life we have the benefit of nonverbal cues, body language and other physical circumstances (eg, at some point, it's just time to go home), on social media we have only language to rely on. This is a tenuous thread, especially when platforms like Twitter make a virtue of brevity, which is enthusiastically achieved at the price of context. As Wittgenstein remarked, “understanding a sentence means understanding a language”. It's the stripping away of not just context, but the patience or even tolerance for context, that really makes social media the minefield that it is today. No one is really given the chance to explain themselves, not because they can't, but because the technology is designed in a way that discourages nuance, disinterested argument and respect for one another. Another way of putting it is that no one goes on Facebook, Twitter or Reddit to have their mind changed about anything. Unsurprisingly, this a priori condition makes for rich hunting grounds for bullies.
Furthermore, there is a finely ironic objection to be addressed here, and that is the contention that social media is not, in the classic sense, a total institution. A few years ago this would have been a reasonable counter, but we are currently passing through an inflection point. Our live are increasingly being lived on line, and institutions of all stripes now look to these online personae to help them determine who we ‘really' are. As I noted in the case of Adria Richards, it is sufficient to be the ultimate victim of widespread bullying that can determine one's continued employment.
And if we do not choose to participate? For every troll, there are untold number of lurkers who may follow the altercation but do not participate in it. But frankly, there is no such thing as simply lurking, just as an inert audience is nothing but complicit in the act of bullying. The concept of “interpassivity“, coined by philosophers Slavoj Žižek and Robert Pfaller, is another way of interpreting the bully's audience. Superficially, it is the substitution of passivity despite the potential for interaction. More subtly, it is the notion that the object is doing the work that the subject ought to be doing, facilitated by the way that object has been designed.
An example is that of laugh tracks on TV shows: according to Žižek, the purpose of the laugh track is not to soften you up and get you to laugh along. The laugh track is there to do the laughing for you. Thus in the virtual space that is the Internet, interpassivity is collectively generated. This is especially true when we observe the phenomenon of outrage. Even if we do not pile on to the bully's victim, or rush to defend him or her, we experience the voyeuristic pleasures of seeing two people scrap – people who are quite likely strangers to us and perhaps to one another as well. “Look at those two idiots go,” we smugly say to ourselves, knowing that we are too good to lower ourselves to that level.
This Schadenfreudegasm is not in the least instructive, but rather functions as our very own panem et circensis. Except that we don't require the government to dole out anyof the state's treasury for this privilege – we generate and administer the placebo ourselves. And while mob justice onthe Internet may not teach us anything or change our minds in the slightest, it certainly has the deleterious effect of making us that much more reluctant to step into the public arena to offer our own opinions. In the meantime, our complicity is recorded in our clicks, which are duly sold off to advertisers and who knows who else. Bully, victim and audience all collapse into the same blob, and at a profit to boot. It almost makes one nostalgic for the simplicity of Megbyzus's mob: “It rushes wildly…with all the fury of a stream swollen in the winter, and confuses everything”. Even a swollen stream eventually reaches the sea.