How the wisdom of the crowd can turn into social media mob rule

A mob of keyboard warriors is not so different from the pitchfork-wielding variety. Robert Couse-Baker, CC BY

When what Nobel Laureate Tim Hunt intended as an after dinner speech was made public he suffered the consequences, as have several others before him, including the loss of his positions at UCL and the Royal Society.

Recently, sitting on a panel discussion on privacy in the digital world it was surprising to hear how people who marvel at their voice control televisions, phones and tablets don’t always make the connection that such a feature means their device is also listening to them. If Edward Snowden’s revelations have done anything it’s to remind us that whatever we say can be overheard somewhere. What becomes of what we say depends on who or what is listening and what is done with that information.

The sharing of information is socially ordered; there are some things you might say to your partner, child, boss or the Inland Revenue, and all of these can be mutually exclusive. The digital world radically changes this social organisation of information and reduces control over who has access to it and the uses to which it is put. This is a change we are only just beginning to learn to deal with.

Open source software pioneer Eric Raymond said in his book The Cathedral and the Bazaar that “given enough eyeballs, all bugs are shallow”. He was describing how software development can thrive not as a cadre (“priesthood”) of highly paid experts, but rather as millions of volunteers of varying skills willing to contribute time programming and looking for bugs. This is the open source approach. The principles of crowdsourcing are based on a similar notion, giving rise to user-generated sites such as Wikipedia and YouTube.

The power of “Organising without organisations” is what internet theorist Clay Shirky ascribed to this phenomenon, where powerful social movements emerge online not because of expert leadership but because the decentralised internet empowers their participation.

There are some who argue for the Twitter mob on the basis that it generates valuable debates – a kind of public flogging for the 21st century.

Others are not as sanguine about crowdsourcing and the social media inquisition. In his new book, The Internet is Not the Answer, Andrew Keen writes that the internet is “empowering the rule of the mob. Rather than making us happy, it’s compounding our rage”. Worse, when Twitter users pick their victims they sometimes get it horribly wrong and attack the wrong person. In other cases, they misinterpret the meaning of comments, such as with the open letter signed by activist Peter Tatchell and Cambridge professor Mary Beard, among others.

As instances of cyberbullying all too frequently illustrate, recent sociological scholarship correlates violent mob mentality to the suppression of a moral code. Studies into the strength of like-minded communities online – what Eli Pariser calls filter bubbles – suggest that the internet is not decentralising communication into a level playing field as we once thought. Instead it is becoming a tool for the re-establishment and re-enforcing of tribal groupings, and the monopolisation of debate by micro-celebrities who may or may not be deserving of serious attention.

The type of Twitterstorm that erupted around Hunt is an opportunity to contrast the supposed “wisdom of the crowds”, as discussed in James Surowiecki’s book of the same name celebrating crowdsourcing, against how the internet provides the means to support and spread socially unregulated moral panics.

While Hunt’s comments are offensive and unbecoming of a Nobel Prize winner, the method by which he was prosecuted needs further scrutiny. As we put increasing faith in social media to solve social problems – from the building of the world’s most linked-to website, to student recruitment drives, to the functions of government – we may want to reflect upon the supposed wisdom of the crowd.