The mob mentality and individual responsibility

In the wake of the attack on the US capitol and the social media “cancel culture” that has also become a growing definition of the present times, I have been thinking a lot about mob mentality and how it affects our individual lives, especially in the fast paced world we live in today where collective thinking is so easy. Mob mentality is described as a behavior in which a group of people act the same way or adopt similar behaviors sometimes at the expense of their own individual thoughts and feelings. This especially rings true in the case of the attack on the US Capitol that consisted of individuals from all walks of life, some highly educated, others less educated, some even holding respectable positions in the society, but all of them coming together incited to violence and mayhem that they might otherwise not have done. How does this happen?

In a Forbes article, Jeanne Croteau, discusses the ways in which the mob mentality could begin to affect us both online and physically. One important way is when “our desire to be accepted impacts our ability to be objective”. As humans we all want to be loved and accepted and when we meet a tribe of people that understand and accept us, we suddenly feel recognized and comforted. But what happens when that group, “our group”, believes in something that we do not necessarily believe in? We might fear being rejected and thrown out of the tribe and so we go along with them in it. In the case of the Capitol attack, there might have been some in the group who disagreed with the violence of storming the Capitol but who felt too afraid to speak up and be different or worse be rejected by the only group that they identify with. Like Croteau points out, “when members of the group do not want to dissent for fear of rejection, the mob mentality will prevail”.

Another way this could happen is through the “us versus them” mentality. As humans we are social beings and we gravitate towards those who look and think like us. This idea that someone thinks like us and has our best interests at heart could cause us to give up our own individual thought because after all we agreed with them on topic A, and we would probably feel the same in topic B especially when the topic B is being perpetuated by “them”. In this way, opinion leaders are formed and slowly they begin to make decisions for us in the group and we all continue to follow them and the trend and the fear of not missing out on the trend or not being out of the group forces us to constantly stay within the thought patterns of “us”. This collective thinking could be dangerous because in extreme cases when the hate against the other side is fueled, it often results in malicious speech, gaslighting and in some cases violence. We often fear what we are not and fear is a powerful emotion that if not contained can lead to actions with devastating consequences. The “us versus them” mentality is not just evident in physical mobs but is especially evident on social media. I see it very often in the case of feminists versus anti-feminists/misogynists, the liberals versus conservatives, and the single versus married. It is a polarization that often leaves no room for individual thoughts and feelings.

However, this very polarizing development can also lead to what I refer to as the contrary mob mentality – which occurs when you identify “the mob” and you immediately choose to go against their ideas without thinking or examining your own beliefs on the subject matter. You become determined to never agree with the mob. In effect, the mob still controls you, just in the opposite direction. The real issue would seem to be we forget that there are instances when even the popular thing might be the right thing if it is properly examined and that on the other hand, nobody has a monopoly of knowledge, such that we are not under obligation or we do not have to accept anything without subjecting it to our own evaluation and thinking. In this regard, we must come to the realisation that it is possible for even those we look up to and admire to falter as they are humans or in some cases have views that are different from ours. No two humans think perfectly the same way and recognizing this helps us to grow into our own individuality. Social media makes it easier to think in the collective. This is because we are constantly bombarded with the thoughts of other people that we love, agree with or identify with; the people we “follow”. By constantly seeing their thoughts, it is easier to give up our own individual responsibility to make our own decisions and make up our own minds, choosing instead to go with theirs because we often agree with them or look up to them. This collective thinking is what often leads to mob mentality. With social media becoming a huge part of our lives, no wonder that mob mentality has been on the rise.

There is another side of the social media mob that makes it dangerous. It is described by Pete Ross as “the lack of humanity that the online world sees in its victim”. On social media, often we do not see the faces of the people we respond to, nor do we see their nonverbal expressions of communication, we often only see a picture that may or may not be the actual person and a few words describing them. This disconnect makes it easier to dehumanize them, to forget that the person we might be spewing hate at is a person with feelings, a job and a family. So when the mob comes for a person and “cancels” them because of a misinformed tweet or an insensitive joke, we might not recognize the humanity of the other person. As Ross recognizes, “it is really easy to make small transgressions and believe you are not the guilty party because others are doing worse, but it is a slippery slope”. When thousands of people make those small transgressions and direct them at one particular person, it can be overwhelming. This reminds me of an instance of a celebrity who was trolled and canceled so terribly that he tweeted that he wanted to die. Only then did people realise that maybe they had been too harsh. Evidently they had forgotten that he was a real person with real feelings who could be affected by negative thinking just like we all could be.

The reality, therefore, is that the mob mentality has the potential for harmful consequences and it is our individual responsibilities to apprehend the harm in it and work and take steps to continuously prevent it becoming the overarching characteristic of public engagement. To do this, we have to continually examine and question our own selves, our thoughts and our motives. Am I just tweeting this because a set of people think so? Do I really agree with this person’s opinions? Am I disagreeing just because I believe this person is against me? Would I say this if the person were in front of me? Do I recognize the humanity of others and their right to their own opinions and beliefs? Am I too caught up in everything to see reason in engaging with others? Asking ourselves these vital questions may be the thin line between joining the mob mentality or thinking for ourselves and it is a responsibility that we must all take seriously.

  • Wale-Olaitan is an educationist.

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