Cutting Social Media No Answer to Flash Mobs

By Douglas Rushkoff. Published in CNN on 17 August 2011

In the past, people seemed to require a massive “cue” to form a mob. The New York blackouts of the summer of 1977 resulted in citywide looting, not just because alarm systems were down, but because a whole lot of hot, angry, frustrated people had an excuse to act en masse. Likewise, the verdict on the Rodney King trial served as a spark, synchronizing simultaneous explosions of mob behavior in a dozen North American cities.

Media can certainly accelerate or even reproduce this process. Radio gave Hitler a way to unify angry crowds as never before, and it both inspired and facilitated the chasing down and murder of about 800,000 Tutsis by gangs with machetes in Rwanda. Radio broadcasters announced where potential victims were hiding, coordinating the violence via media.

“Flash mob” robs Maryland 7-11 in less than a minute, police say

Are social media such as Facebook and Twitter serving a similar function? This year, we’ve certainly become aware of how these technologies can coordinate the activities of protesters and rebels acting against repressive regimes. The Arab Spring was initiated on Facebook pages, orchestrated through Twitter accounts, and video recorded on cell phones.

But as we’re also beginning to witness, these same technologies are being used to orchestrate “flash” looting of stores – such as, apparently, at a 7-Eleven in Maryland on Saturday – and almost entirely destructive (or at least poorly justified) riots in England. A mob beating in Wisconsin was reportedly organized through social networks, as were attacks in Cleveland, Chicago, and Washington.

Is access to technology through which a network of friends can so easily be turned into a gang of thieves or assailants just too dangerous for people to handle? By putting what had formerly been the capability of broadcast networks in the hands of everyone owning smartphones, have we unwittingly empowered the “mob” and given new life to the lowest form of crowd behavior?

Maybe. But the abuse of these networks and their capabilities hardly justifies recent talk of limiting access, shutting them down, or entrusting corporations and central authorities to monitor them at the expense of our privacy. As the ever-growing News Corp./Scotland Yard scandal illustrates, it is not unregulated phone hackers we need to be afraid of so much as the folks who are supposed to be entrusted with maintaining these networks and our security.

The answer is not to limit access to social media or even to sacrifice what little privacy we may have left using them, but rather to educate ourselves and our children about the underlying biases of these technologies: how they influence the way we think and act.

Digital technology is both arousing and distancing. We don’t look at the users on the other side as people. They aren’t – they’re just usernames, Facebook photos and Twitter handles. The people who use the Net to organize a crowd beating are sick to begin with, but the rest of us who might be incited online to act as part of a violent group are simply letting the biases of the technology push us to act against our own better natures.

Just as the charismatic power of radio supported the violent rhetoric of a dictator, the seemingly anonymous power of social networks supports the violent actions of those who hope to act without repercussion. As if “everyone else was doing it” serves as the excuse. (Of course, in reality our digital technologies and their new GPS features make us infinitely more trackable and culpable for our actions.)

The less access we have to these tools, however, the less about them we understand. And the less about them we understand, the more easily our behavior can be programmed by them, instead of the other way around.