Opinion: How Social Media Became A Vehicle for Mob Rule
The Internet is forever. Everything we’ve ever done, and every mistake ever made will be encapsulated in a server somewhere. Does this terrify you? It should.
Massive corporations like Google, Facebook and Twitter are home to some of our most precious works, while at the same time, posing as a god-like ledger for our worst transgressions. We can no longer pretend that we didn’t say those angry words typed out in a heated debate on Facebook. Sure, we deleted it, but who else saw it? Who took a screenshot? Has the platform really removed it, or is it still living somewhere, waiting for that moment that we attain a position of honor before it’s uncovered and used against us?
The most recent case paints this reality of digital life in crystal clarity. Kyle Kashuv, an 18-year-old survivor of the Parkland shooting in 2018, who was accepted by Harvard, only to have his admission rescinded after screenshots of a racial slur being used on a shared document belonging to him and other students, was found and made public.
It’s not absurd to punish someone for the use of a word that we can all agree is disgusting. If your child, or your student, said these words to you, would you punish them for it? Of course. But would you tell the world about it and call into play the crushing social pressure of millions of Americans? Would you mark them for life? Would you destroy them for it?
I doubt you’d want to because we all have some sense of justice and when we think about it, the scope of the crime should match the scope of the punishment. This is a fundamental building block of our laws.
For your child who’s done something wrong, the outrage of their own mother or father has an appropriate weight to it. It teaches them, but it’s not too much to grow and overcome. But multiply that by ten, by a thousand, by a million and you will destroy that child. All the while, no one person is reacting any different from the next, denying any culpability for what becomes a social assassination. It’s not the intensity of the reaction, it’s the scale of it. No one person is to blame. It’s the bigger, inconceivable monster of it: the mob mentality.
A bad conscience is easier to cope with than a bad reputation.
― Friedrich Nietzsche
This wave of outrage never existed – never could exist – before the internet, and the platforms that sit on it. A lot has changed since the times when a mob could only tar and feather a man or stone a woman to death. Now, it’s been given a vehicle that has no limits to its reach. It’s superseded our own laws. Where there was once the fear of punishment by the state, now there’s a social fear.
Twenty years ago, you could break a law, pay for it with money or time and your friends would forget soon enough. Now, in 2019, the law is no longer the scariest thing to break. Social law, with its new sweeping scope, holds more power over your life than any regulation or law debated on the floors of Congress. Say or do something that was made taboo by the social decree of those with influence and no one will ever forget what you’ve done. No one voted on these rules in a private booth with a curtain. Instead, they are constantly evolving through an unending series of public smoke signals – disgust and joy spread from one to another.
If you don’t listen well; if you don’t keep yourself immersed in the daily ticker feed of “what’s right and wrong,” you risk breaking a law you can’t afford to atone for.
The social ledger’s judgment has become so frightening to us that it shapes our decisions more than the speed limit, more than taxes, more than laws prohibiting drug use. We do things because of what
our friends the world will think of us –– and our governments no longer have the power to destroy what the social ledger does.
Harvard knows this. More specifically, the people who staff admissions offices in every major school across the country know this. When making decisions on who will represent the future of their student body, they can’t risk the god-like social mob turning to them and exercising its people-given right to judge.
But that’s ok. We gave it this power, didn’t we? This is just how democracy works, right?
Once spirit was God, then it became man, and now it is even becoming mob.
― Friedrich Nietzsche