Social Media Mobs: Things That The Crowd Got Wrong

image courtesy of Divya Thakur via Flickr modified by Curiousmatic 

From Salem to the Holocaust, humans have an occasionally grave predisposition to mob mentality. Since the genesis of social media platforms, the mob has only gotten larger and less discriminant.

The Boston Bombing

The social media fallout after the terror attack on the 2013 Boston Marathon was a torrent of chaos, confusion, and in some cases defamatory misinformation.

The day after the attack, the social platform, Reddit, exploded with police obtained images that officials had identified as suspects. By that same afternoon, Redditors had fingered a Brown University student, Sunil Tripathi, and thusly a social media monster was born.

Redditor’s accusations quickly spiraled into fervor and Tripathi became one of two crowdsourced suspects of the bombings–the second being the real boston bomber, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev.

As was later revealed, Tripathi–who was missing at the time–was unrelated to the bombings, and in fact was found dead from an apparent suicide shortly after the chaos had subsided. Some redditors eventually issued apologies to the Tripathi family.

Anonymous’ Ferguson gaffe

In Ferguson, misinformation started with a twitter hashtag–#OpFerguson. After internet hacktivists Anonymous declared they [contextly_auto_sidebar id=”8omj2g5bVJjJeSXcWsuGdlniDsGc6wvA”]would uncover the identity of Michael Brown’s killer, accusations began to fly. Before long, the names of two officers were circulating twitter–the only problem being those names were incorrect.

The shooter, who we now know to be officer Darren Wilson, was unnamed in Anonymous’ attempt to hack the Ferguson police department, at the expense of another officer who Anonymous operatives attempted to blackmail and extort.

Before Wilson’s name was confirmed, the falsely accused officer’s name had been shared over 3000 times on twitter.

How to avoid the social media mob mentality

For most, avoiding the mob can be a fairly simple process–sometimes it comes down to exercising a little impulse control.

But in order to recognize when we’re being impulsive when it comes to social media it might help to understand the platform that we’re using first.

Since social media has become such an integrated and almost autonomous facet of our lives, we often times regard our actions as ineffectual or even meaningless–but this belief ignores a much broader, more global reality. This is where mob mentality goes unnoticed.

Here are some tips on how to avoid and recognize mob mentality using a journal of consumer research study:

  • Always check your sources. Before finding the first piece of evidence and running with it, make your choices slow and deliberate. Avoid sources who make quick and sweeping opinions.

  • Think before you react. Research shows that those who needed to justify their choices were far less likely to adapt to mob mentality.

  • Give your choices time to develop. The study shows that people who felt the need to make hasty decisions tended to adopt others’ decisions instead of formulating their own.

  • Be yourself. The study shows that we often conform when we’re afraid we won’t be socially accepted.

The dangers of social media “suspect sourcing”

The most powerful, and sometimes terrifying aspect of suspect sourcing, is possibly it’s potential for acceleration. It took but one spark for Tripathi’s name to ascend from the gallows of an online reddit forum, to the lips and fingertips of some popular journalists.

The demand for high octane information and the increasingly competitive arena of breaking news has unintentionally boosted the effects of misinformation, and as exemplified by Tripathi, can sometimes produce serious consequences.

Suspect sourcing isn’t always the issue, however–, sometimes it may take only one single, but unreliable, source to taint the waters with more misinformation. As we’ve seen following recent events in Ferguson MO., the unfounded trust of twitter crusaders may also lead to more of the same.

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James Pero