When James Surowiecki wrote The Wisdom of Crowds: Why the Many Are Smarter Than the Few and How Collective Wisdom Shapes Business, Economies, Societies and Nations, with its self-explanatory subtitle, he acknowledged that there were certain instances in which crowds behaved more stupidly than individuals.
In particular, emotional conditions can lead to a herd mentality resembling collective hysteria. An individual might momentarily succumb to such feelings but would most likely take a sober moment to analyze the situation logically. However, in a crowd situation, buffeted by other people reacting emotionally, the move to logic never occurs.
That is what happened today on Facebook in response to a National Public Radio story about the tragic shooting at the Holocaust Museum.
Facebook has adopted a system whereby one can click "Like" or leave a comment on stories posted by individuals or by institutions with Facebook accounts like NPR.
Within moments of the posting of the story, there were "Likes" and comments.
Many of the comments were outraged that someone could possibly like something "like" a shooting.
At first the comments were relatively benign and quizzical. (I've suppressed the names to protect the guilty.)
"wtf?..why would someone 'like' this story.." wrote one commenter.
"Um......someone actually likes shots being fired at a holocaust museum, eh?" wrote another.
"Why would anyone click "like this" on this story?"
Then the indignation started.
"Who the hell clicks "like" for this story....you are some sick individuals."
"I agree, I don't understand the liking this story"
"Not sure why people "LIKE" awful stories like this?"
"People are really giving this story a "thumbs up"? Your mothers must be so proud......"
"now 6 of u? srsly, what makes u hate so much??"
Interestingly, throughout there were, for lack of a better term, voices of reason.
One noted, "They need a "how Awful" Button!"
One of the likees, who later told me that he was on his way back from a meeting at the Sherwin Miller Museum of Jewish Culture when he saw the story and clicked "like" to draw attention to it wrote "Way too many people confuse "like" with "approve of." You hit like because you're glad it's being reported on. People who condone or practice acts like this can seldom survive the light of day being shone on them."
Another noted: "they "like" it so they can get the comments sent without commenting."
Entirely too sensible was another young man. "Perhaps they like the fact that NPR decided it was a good story to post on Facebook. The "Like" feature in FB is pretty vague, to be honest."
After a while, the lynch mob mentality grew. A leader emerged, who brightly observed that the "likees" were "all white male" (untrue) and "I suggest sending personal messages to these people on how insenstive (sic), racist, anti-semitic they are! bastards!"
Someone wryly responded, "Let's condemn people for things that we don't understand!"
Another responded, "I see dumb people, they're everywhere, they don't even know that they're dumb."
But sure enough, the likees soon began receiving angry messages in their facebook inbox.
So I decided to message all of the 'likees" to see if any of them actually supported the shooting as opposed to the reporting.
The consensus response I got was "that's a really dumb question."
Said one woman, "What a question. "Like" meaning that I will be emailed any further updates to the story on facebook. No, I do not approve of violent attacks on innocent people!"
Another likee responded, "When I clicked "Like", I simply meant, I liked that it was brought to my attention. People are reading way too much into this."
One man admitted that he clicked "like" to rile up idiots. "I cant say I approve of most violence. But I can say I approve of making people angry. I saw all the people wringing there hands and moaning about people hitting the like button, so I did it."
Only one person was in favor of the violence. She wrote "Lol. 'Ist das final solution! Juden ist stimmt nicht!' XDDD." But perhaps a friend was pranking her. The internet is a strange place. She wrote her comment on the message board and did not click "like." I did not email her to find out her opinion.
It's not per-se absurd to think that there might be some sick minds out there who celebrate this violence. But it is strange to think that the average Facebook user would blasely click "Like" to signal their support of a racist agenda. It just doesn't pass any logical test. If they wanted to out themselves as racists, why not go the whole hog and write something inflammatory?
The Internet has a lot of virtues. It makes available more information than a thousand libraries more quickly and efficiently than any previous form of communication. But it tends to magnify some of our worst traits. When people rush to judgment over their perception of someone else's beliefs or actions, it leads to more misunderstandings and can sometimes actually have real life consequences.
That's why I didn't use any names in this article. The ringleader of the idiots lynch mob caused some pain to some innocent people and personally attacked me. She made some very ignorant racist and sexist remarks. But she's young. And a few years from now when she's looking for a job, she probably doesn't want this story to be the first result for her name in Google.
The Internet tends to magnify one's own prejudices while blotting out competing viewpoints. Someone who reads Free Republic or Little Green Footballs is unlikely to read Huffington Post. Nicholas Kristof wrote a thoughtful op-ed on this subject in the New York Times. He urges us to take in varying viewpoints, citing the work of Cass Sunstein, a University of Chicago law professor. According to Kristof, Sunstein's research showed that the more we talk to likeminded people, the more cemented we become in our viewpoints.
That's often ok. But it's usually a good idea to at least see what the other side is saying.
When you combine a rush of judgment with righteous self-indignation and a community of people who exist primarily to verify your own prejudices, you get the kind of strange virtual lynch mob that occurred on Facebook today. Or a meeting of the Republican party.
Who knew that NPR listeners and the GOP had so much in common?
Please send your thoughts and prayers to the guard shot in the attack, who sadly is listed in "grave condition." Update: Sadly the guard, Officer Stephen Tyrone Johns, has died. Truly sad. He died a hero, saving the lives of others. Our thoughts and prayers are with his family.