Personal Thresholds and Mob Violence

Back in 2015, Malcolm Gladwell wrote about school shootings. He reached a conclusion that no one on any side of the debate about gun violence wants to reach, because frankly it’s depressing to think about. That they were actually tied together, a very long and drawn-out riot that was going to keep happening as long as any kid saw themselves in that “group”.

I don’t know if he’s right about that, but the study that he writes about would be an interesting way to view social media.

In a famous essay published four decades ago, the Stanford sociologist Mark Granovetter set out to explain a paradox: “situations where outcomes do not seem intuitively consistent with the underlying individual preferences.” What explains a person or a group of people doing things that seem at odds with who they are or what they think is right? Granovetter took riots as one of his main examples, because a riot is a case of destructive violence that involves a great number of otherwise quite normal people who would not usually be disposed to violence.

Most previous explanations had focused on explaining how someone’s beliefs might be altered in the moment. An early theory was that a crowd cast a kind of intoxicating spell over its participants. Then the argument shifted to the idea that rioters might be rational actors: maybe at the moment a riot was beginning people changed their beliefs. They saw what was at stake and recalculated their estimations of the costs and benefits of taking part.

But Granovetter thought it was a mistake to focus on the decision-making processes of each rioter in isolation. In his view, a riot was not a collection of individuals, each of whom arrived independently at the decision to break windows. A riot was a social process, in which people did things in reaction to and in combination with those around them. Social processes are driven by our thresholds—which he defined as the number of people who need to be doing some activity before we agree to join them. In the elegant theoretical model Granovetter proposed, riots were started by people with a threshold of zero—instigators willing to throw a rock through a window at the slightest provocation. Then comes the person who will throw a rock if someone else goes first. He has a threshold of one. Next in is the person with the threshold of two. His qualms are overcome when he sees the instigator and the instigator’s accomplice. Next to him is someone with a threshold of three, who would never break windows and loot stores unless there were three people right in front of him who were already doing that—and so on up to the hundredth person, a righteous upstanding citizen who nonetheless could set his beliefs aside and grab a camera from the broken window of the electronics store if everyone around him was grabbing cameras from the electronics store.

If that doesn’t sound like Twitter, I don’t know what does.

But, the interesting thing about this theory is how someone on the outside would see it. What we see, and what we are all held responsible for, are individual actions.

Again, let’s think about Twitter. On any given day there’s going to be some outrage splashed across our Twitter timelines. Many of us are incapable of resisting the urge to pile on with our own tweets. So we do. We say something that, out of that context, seems to be inflammatory, mean-spirited, even hateful, but in the context of what we were seeing in our own timeline, was simply what everyone else was doing.

Of course, the people who follow you, or know you in person, aren’t seeing it in your timeline. They’re seeing it on it’s own, and it comes across exactly for what it is, hateful, and horrible. (Future potential employers are likely to see it out of context as well, for the record.) We have often heard it said that people will, in the “comfort” of cyberspace, say things that they would never say to anyone in public. I don’t think that’s it. I think they say things in the midst of the riot that they would not say outside of it. Social media is the riot. When someone writes something we, and our group, don’t agree with, trolling them becomes the thing that we might not ever think to do on our own, but by the time 2-3 other people already have in our timeline? Not so much…

The trick, of course, is to stop and consider your individual actions before jumping in to the fray, and making the choice based on that instead of the rioting group. I’m just not sure we have that level of self-awareness. Especially on the internet, when all it takes is a quick tap of the keyboard.


Image by cÁmARa AccióN

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