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Online Mobs and the Danger of Digital Bullies

Bloomberg View’s Megan McArdle, one of our most insightful social observers, has published an interesting piece on the frightening impact of  “online mobs” and the dangers of digital bullying. Her article discusses online shaming and contrasts it with more ancient forms of social intimidation.

In the early days of Twitter, I used to say that it was a bit like I imagined living in a forager band to be: You were immersed in a constant stream of conversation from the people you knew. Ten years later, I still think that’s the right metaphor, but not in the way that I meant it then. Back then I saw Twitter as a tool for building social bonds. These days, I see it as a tool for social coercion.

In the past, social shaming involved people belonging to the same tribe or kin group; the individuals knew each other personally. McArdle considers how the new environment has removed the limits once created by person-to-person interaction:

We now effectively live in a forager band filled with people we don’t know. It’s like the world’s biggest small town, replete with all the things that mid-century writers hated about small-town life: the constant gossip, the prying into your neighbor’s business, the small quarrels that blow up into lifelong feuds. We’ve replicated all of the worst features of those communities without any of the saving graces, like the mercy that one human being naturally offers another when you’re face to face and can see their suffering. The rise of the internet and social media have changed such moderating impulses.

Online shaming is typically extreme, often threatening, and essentially permanent. As they say, the internet is forever. The individual being bullied no longer even has the option to move to a new town and create a fresh start among people unfamiliar with his or her past transgressions.

McArdle offers another disconcerting observation: today’s internet shaming is often similar to the forms of social control employed by totalitarian regimes:

I find myself in more and more conversations that sound as if we’re living in one of the later-stage Communist regimes. Not the ones that shot people, but the ones that discovered you didn’t need to shoot dissidents, as long as you could make them pariahs — no job, no apartment, no one willing to be seen talking to them in public. The people I have these conversations with are terrified that something they say will inadvertently offend the self-appointed powers-that-be. They’re afraid that their email will be hacked, and stray snippets will make them the next one in the internet stocks. They’re worried that some opinion they hold now will unexpectedly be declared anathema, forcing them to issue a humiliating public recantation, or risk losing their friends and their livelihood.

While McArdle’s discussion primarily focuses on the use of social media to shame individuals expressing inappropriate views, there is a related issue involving the conflict between verbal coercion and free speech: the unprecedented power of private companies to control what information we are allowed to see. The virtual monopolies controlled by these companies are raising some troubling new questions.

The United States has laws designed to inhibit the government’s ability to limit what issues are allowed to be discussed. However, the power to control communications is overwhelmingly concentrated in private hands. Technology giants such as Google and Facebook wield enormous control over what we see, hear and read. That power keeps growing, as does the number of subjects that appear to be considered off-limits for discussion.

Google’s termination of James Damore seemed to demonstrate that some ideas are considered “unacceptable” — and are therefore forbidden to be discussed or debated. However, Damore was an employee of the company, and his commentary can still be viewed on the internet. So one might simply dismiss this as a private dispute, if nevertheless troubling.

I consider YouTube’s censorship of videos produced by Prager University (including one on free speech, natch!) to be much more disturbing.  Might Google tweak its search algorithms to make it more difficult to find information that does not conform to what it considers “appropriate”?

I’ve always considered myself a strong advocate of both free speech and the rights of private organizations to be free of excessive government control. But I’m increasingly wondering whether that absolute position needs to be tempered, especially in light of the unprecedented power wielded by companies like Google.

Could such power, if left unchecked, lead to frightening levels of groupthink and narrow social conformity? Is there a danger that companies like Google and Facebook might contribute to the online social shaming that so concerns Megan McArdle…and me? Could they use their power to suppress views that do not conform with theirs?

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