The challenge to tackle mob mentality on the Internet


Much has been written lately about social media’s tendency to be the breeding ground for huge shame-storms. A thoughtless or dumb comment on a major platform can cause an intense, global outrage which has the potential to destroy careers, lead to harassment and cruel cyberbullying or even worse. Due to some recent incidents, the topic is highly present in the media now even at the center of a new book called “So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed”.

I did not plan to write about shame-storms because a lot of smart things have already been said and written about it. But then I saw this video of a cute little dancing fella which is currently being shared widely on Facebook. As indicated by the many likes, shares and comments, seeing a toddler with such unusual dancing skills makes a lot of people happy. But as always, there are a few who have some additional thoughts. Like a woman called Elaine. She could not hold herself. She had to be the killjoy, pointing out that the kid is “cute but FAT”, and that he probably would not reach 40 at this rate.


I am not sure why Elaine posted this comment. She actually might have serious health concerns about his weight, based on her own experience as a child or on the experience of someone close to her. Or she just is a person who always speaks her mind openly. Maybe she has traits of an Internet-troll (people who thrive on disrupting online discussions and who provoke for the sake of provocation). Her personality might cause her to struggle with a too high concentration of positive vibes, literally forcing her to make a distasteful comment to destroy the good mood.

No matter what her intention was: The words were not chosen in a way appropriate for the situation. If Elaine would have expressed her thought like this during an actual gathering with others, it would have been perceived as hostile, rude and too negative for the occasion. Most likely she not even have dared to put it like the way she did on Facebook, fearing the face-to-face confrontation with the people around her.

However, in a real life scenario, people who have listened to her muttering about the dancer’s overweight would have moved on seconds later. They might have left the event with a bad impression of Elaine, maybe they even called her out for what she said. But it is unlikely that the situation would had led to a lengthy escalation including various attacks against Elaine.

But not on the Internet. Elaine’s silly remark gained a bit more than 100 likes but also more than 200 responses, pretty much all criticizing her comment in various ways. Many of the replies stayed within the rules of objective criticism. But more than a few turned rather personal as well. Some were pretty insulting and nasty.

An angry mob

Here lies a major part of the problem of Internet outrage and shame-storms: One person says something rude and stupid. Hundreds of people point their fingers at this person and fight back. While the defense reflex is understandable from an individual level, the group psychology leads to an unproportional response. This is how shame-storms start. With a lot of people feeling the urge to comment on someone else’s arguably inappropriate behavior or public misstep. Even though it would have been enough if only a few people had raised their voice.

In a perfect world, what would have been different? Well, Elaine might have chosen nicer words and refrained from the capital letters. And others might have chosen not to respond. They could have decided not to give a random individual with a lack of sensitivity any attention, instead of increasing the negative atmosphere through their own partly rude and insulting contributions. At least after already 20 people had let Elaine know of their disapproval, the other 180 could have skipped to jump in as well.

But I understand why this is so hard. Those who attacked Elaine’s comment felt the urge to give her the feedback she deserves, and they possibly even felt the urge to “defend” the otherwise joyful and happy sentiment in the comments section. Especially considering that Elaine’s comment received so many likes, whereas Facebook does not offer a dislike button (which really would have been useful in this case). Unfortunately, despite the intention for good, the documented large-scale response to single people’s possible wrongdoings is what easily turns things really ugly.

To me, the big question is this: Will we ever learn? Do we, as individuals, get better at handling these kind of potential conflicts that emerge in the digital sphere? Are more people developing the skills and self-control needed to save themselves and others from escalating Internet debates? Or are we as a human race psychologically and emotionally too ill-equipped, vulnerable and unstable to ever get rid of the underlying dynamics of these shame-storms?

I have no idea how the answer will look like. But as a supporter of freedom of speech and an open web I hope that we are improving and will keep improving.

Photo: Flickr/Robert Couse-Baker, CC BY 2.0


  1. Internet self-control is disturbingly difficult to develop and maintain. I share your hope for a better status quo, but I can’t say I’m optimistic…

  2. I posted this on Facebook, and my boyfriend commented:

    “Our entire society’s reaction to antisocial and otherwise harmful behavior is retributive rather than rehabilitative, and this reflects even on allegedly ‘progressive’ folks. In plainer terms, ‘be good or I will hurt you’ is literal abuse.”

    • Thanks for sharing with your contacts. And what he commented nails it. This behavior might go back to the religious concept of “Eye for an eye”. But I wonder if it is simply passed from generation to generation, or if it simply is part of the human DNA.

  3. I disagree entirely, I think Internet backlash is a symptom of people not wanting to sit back and do nothing in the face of a social problem combining with how incredibly easy communications technology makes intervention. …and that’s a good thing.

    True, some people are crass bullies about it. But that’s nothing to do with the Internet or group psychology, it’s just that some people are crass bullies and will give themselves away even when they act in the name of an otherwise good cause. But that’s a negative reflection on those couple of people, not on the phenomena.

    I would much rather society “increasing the negative atmosphere” than fail to challenge hateful people. Some folks need to hear negativity. There is a distinction between being negative toward someone about something that is largely harmless and largely out of their hands (being overweight) and being negative about a conscious and harmful decision a person actively makes (trying to bully someone for being overweight).

    Ignoring bigots empowers them and helps normalize their behavior. Everyone should speak up. If that means 200 people dogpiling onto one rude Facebook comment, well, “everyone” is often a lot of people.

    • “Ignoring bigots empowers them and helps normalize their behavior. ”
      I do not see any evidence of this. But there at least is a lot of empirical evidence that ignoring those who express certain problematic positions and statements actually prevents them from a bigger reach. There is a reason for the existence of the famous saying “don’t feed the trolls”. This by the way does not mean that one should ignore the underlying ideologies and norms that turn people hateful. Definitely not. But this work is done elsewhere, not in the comment sections on the web where in 20 years no one ever changed their stance on something because somebody else told them that they are wrong.

      “I would much rather society “increasing the negative atmosphere” than fail to challenge hateful people.”
      The problem is that challenging hateful people often turns people hateful, too (just see the example from my article). I find it strange to accept open hatefulness as long as it targeting haters. Curing from “hate” with hate” does not improve anything, it just increases polarization and aggression on both sides.

      Is there any example from history where a hateful world view was changed through opposing hatefulness?

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