Don’t Jump to Conclusions: Mob Mentality on the Internet

It feels like we get a new story to be upset about every day. Some of them are local, some of them are national, and some are even international. And while I’m certainly not trying to say these stories are all fabrications, I know much of how the internet works these days (monetarily speaking) is focused around eyeballs. If you can get people to click through to your article, you get money. Take a stroll through established news sites and you’ll see this immediately.

Right this instant, CNN is running the following stories on its front page: “5 Ways to Understand Cory Booker’s Presidential Chances.” “She Ate 501 Wings in 30 Minutes.” “Drought Woes? This Tech Can Literally Make It Rain.” Fox News has more of the same: “Here’s Who Really SHOULD Run for President.” “What Patriots Star Did for Bullied Girl QB Will Make You Smile.” I could go on, but we’ve all seen how click-baity things have become. These are sites that at least some people in the country consider reputable, non-“Weekly World News” sources of information. And they’re all designed to get people to click through so they can sell more ads.

And to be truly successful (to prompt other people to share the stories and encourage them to go viral), nothing’s quite as effective as outrage. Write a story and slant it in a way to provoke an immediate response of anger, and you’ll quickly enflame a group of people who have lots of like-minded friends who’ll want to share that story onward. All sorts of eyeballs just waiting to be mined. This happens on both ends of the political spectrum, and it happens daily.

I’m not going to list specific stories here, because to me, it’s not about the stories. Some of the stories are accurate and justified. Some of the stories are biased smear pieces designed to do nothing more than enrage. What I’d like to focus on is how we respond to any story we come across. Speaking as an information professional, I’d like to suggest a couple of things we should do when we’re presented with a story that just makes our blood boil:

  • Take a step back and look at the story with a critical eye. Are both sides of the story portrayed? Why or why not? Could there be more to the story than you’re aware of? Do you really have all the facts? When I come across an account of a story, I like to discuss the concept at the core of it, rather than the specifics of that individual case. If I don’t know the details of an incident, I don’t feel qualified to speak to those details publicly. I’ve read a single article about the story? That doesn’t make me an expert, though I definitely feel free to talk about the concepts that article may bring up.
  • Try to get more information. Look for the other side of the story presented elsewhere. Search out unbiased sources that aren’t clamoring to be shared on social media. Inform yourself about what’s going on.
  • Avoid falling for any immediate “call to action” sort of things. Often these stories are presented in a very clear cut right/wrong sort of scenario. The right decision is so painfully obvious, it’s shocking that anyone in the world would have made a different decision. In these cases, it can be very tempting to call for consequences as quickly as possible. “That person did WHAT? They should be fired.” This sort of flash-mob, viral justice mentality does no one any favors, and often ends up doing far more harm than good.

I’m always careful to acknowledge when I don’t know the whole story. I’ll discuss the principles behind a story without calling for actual outcomes for the specific story in question. Why? Because my experience leads me to believe clear cut right/wrong cases are few and far between, but it’s quite simple to portray something in that light. An author gets to select what details to include and what to exclude, and through that process, the reader can be fairly easily manipulated.

I’m not saying I never fall for the technique, and there are probably instances where I should have spoken out more strongly than I did, but I believe on the whole, my approach has served me well. We can call for more understanding and civility in the world and around us without making specific “Off with their head!” accusations in stories where we know only what a single writer has told us.

The trick is we *want* to be upset. We *want* to rush in to the victim’s aid, especially when it’s *so clear* who the victim is. That’s a good trait to have, and I wish we’d see it more in the here and now instances where witnesses watch events unfold first hand. That’s the time to speak up. To call people to account. You’ve got far more facts than a person sitting in front of his computer reading about the story a week or two later can ever have, and you have a far better chance of actually doing some good. You don’t have to be a jerk about it, but you can say things like, “I hope I misheard you,” or “I might not have the whole story, but it really seems like . . .”

There have been a number of stories I’ve seen circulating online the last few weeks. These are the thoughts they’ve kicked up with me. Thanks for listening.

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