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Anonymity and mob mentality?

20 July 2020

Has the internet created a new phenomenon?

Humans are strange creatures that can be very hard to understand and sometimes exhibit widely different attitudes, responses and actions depending on the context in which you find them.

Most people are nice folk. They're generally empathetic, sympathetic, responsible, caring and rational. I've met very few people who could not be described using most or all of the above words, when engaged with by way of a one-on-one conversation.

However, these same lovely people sometimes become anything-but lovely when granted the power of anonymity.

In the pre-internet era, such anonymity was usually granted in one of two ways.

The first way was by visiting a place that was far away from your normal area of residence -- such as when you go on holiday.

How many people recall doing "naughty" things while enjoying the anonymity of being a stranger in a distant place?

I think we've all behaved in a manner that is decidedly "out of character" whilst enjoying the freedoms that such anonymity represents. Whether it's getting bladdered at a night-spot, engaging with members of the opposite gender with little fear of rejection, or just being a lout, many people's behaviour whilst on holiday bears scant resemblance to their normal persona.

The second way of gaining anonymity is to become part of a group. "The individual" seems to disappear when surrounded by dozens, hundreds or even thousands of others.

You are never more anonymous than when part of a large crowd.

As a result of this anonymisation, crowds tend to act with far less empathy, sympathy, responsibility or rational thought than do the individuals that comprise that crowd. This is "mob mentality".

Perhaps the best example of the dangers of mob mentality are the "lynch mobs" that sometimes formed hundreds of years ago when normally peaceful, law-abiding folk would, when in the presence of a large number of their peers, become unruly and lawless, sometimes taking those accused of crimes and stringing them up from the nearest tree without due process or even proof of their guilt.

Individually, these folk were often good, honest and frequently religious people who would never have taken a life on their own. However, get them in a "mob" and all their positive traits disappear, driven by a collective will quite capable of subduing all that is good.

I think we've also seen this in the BLM protests around the world.

It must be acknowledged that a great deal of the looting and violence in those riots was undertaken by louts who were simply there to create trouble but there certainly appear to have also been quite obvious examples of mob-mentality taking ahold as well.

This brings me to the Net and its roll in mob mentality.

Just look at what the internet provides: anonymity and membership of a faceless group.

These are the two factors that predispose someone to adopting "mob mentality" and subverting their own empathy, compassion, logic, reasoning and sympathies.

I think we've all see examples of how otherwise quite normal people misbehave or become totally obnoxious when online and seemingly anonymous. We've also seen many examples of people with shared perspectives grouping together online in a way that the "mob" discards the principles and ethics of the individuals involved.

Mob mentality is one of the very worst traits of the human creature and one that I've seen little success in controlling. Unless we're careful, the proliferation of virtual crowds (aka mobs) and the double anonymity that the Net provides in such context serves only to bring out the worst in many people.

How do we mitigate this decidedly negative force?

I have no bleeding idea... however I do know that recognising it as a phenomenon and being aware of its existance is the essential first step.

What do readers think? Have you observed mob mentality first-hand or have you even fallen victim to it in some way yourself?

Are there things you've done whilst on holiday that you'd rather forget and which were decidedly out of character?

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