Dark Ages 2.0: The Return of Public Lynching

07/14/2015 12:10 pm ET Updated Jul 14, 2016

Mob mentality. Public lynchings. Dark reminders of a past that makes us shudder. We in the United States hope that such things are behind us and can't happen anymore. Unfortunately, the reality is starkly different. The only thing that's changed is the medium.

The rise of online technology, and social media in particular, has created a new brand of public lynching, thankfully limited to a virtual universe but still no less harmful. From hysterical reactions to an unpopular opinion to public shaming of individuals for their appearance, sexual preference, or political beliefs, social media is routinely used by people to abuse others or force them to conform to their own views/priorities.

What makes this phenomenon even more disturbing is that it doesn't really depend on merit but solely on the collective opinion of a group, which then becomes the gospel. In other words, it doesn't matter if your perspective on something is more mature or valid than that of others. If your stance diverges from that of your social media circle, and you have the temerity to express your views, chances are pretty high that you will be judged and eviscerated by the majority.

In the fast-paced online world, such a backlash can be brutal and incredibly damaging - to your reputation, your friendships, and even perhaps your career. Once the internet deems you to be wrong, you're sunk. The problem, of course, is that the definition of wrong is subjective and in most cases driven simply by the power of numbers. The more people decide that you're wrong, the louder the volume of criticism on social media and the wider the perpetuation of the group's verdict on you!

That's a chilling thought, and the essence of a public lynching.

It is, more importantly, an unfettered and unapologetic suppression of free speech. The risk of being demonized and mercilessly lampooned online and the peer pressure of social media can push people to avoid having difficult discussions altogether, especially when this type of cyberbullying is cloaked in the garb of moral righteousness, and that's terrible for the exchange of ideas in our democracy.

Another danger of technology-fueled lynchings are in their ability to distort the truth and rewrite the narrative according to the current, collective, belief system. A lie repeated enough times, as the infamous saying goes, can become the truth, and nowhere is this more applicable than in the realm of social media, where unsubstantiated rumors, inaccurate facts, selective interpretation of history, personal agendas, half-baked ideas, outrageous sensationalism, and general ranting are commonplace, often spread like wildfire, and can skew people's vision without them even realizing it.

Of course, this is all fueled by the extreme polarization and stubbornness of our views today and our intense desire to hear exactly what we want at all times, and so it would be wrong to blame social media for creating this mess. Technology is simply a tool that the darkest part of our own human nature has coopted for the purpose of misleading and coercing others to our will.

But it's nonetheless an extremely disturbing trend.