The Rise of the Social Media Mob: Social Media Gives New Life to an Ugly Practice

It’s been an interesting week in social media. A week that’s got me thinking a great deal about the ways in which we communicate in a digital age. So many like to say things have changed. That digital tools have changed the way we act, communicate, converse, share.  And yet, every day there is evidence that this is a lie.

Yes, I said it.

Digital tools have NOT changed the way people behave.  They’ve just given us more ways in which to communicate.  Tools like Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, Instagram, Path — all let us share our feelings faster and farther — but they have NOT fundamentally changed how we, as humans, behave.  Really.  Humans are inherently social. (Yes even introverts are social.) We like to gather with our friends, we like to share our experiences, we rally to our friends to help them in times of need, we group together to fight a common foe, we unfriend each other, then become friends again later on. We find common cause, we get righteous together, we get mad together  Social media just lets us do all of that faster with a bigger reach —  but face it, if we weren’t already craving social connection as part of our DNA, these tools wouldn’t work.

So now to the point of all of this. The simple fact is that just because  humans crave coming together to right wrongs, to protect the innocent, to see justice done, at what point does the righteous turn ugly? at what point does the protection of the innocent create even more victims? at what point is justice not actually being served, and we enter into the scary world of vigilantes, mob mentality, and retaliation so memorialized in films like Death Wish?

Stick with me here.

Remember my main points:

  1. Social media has NOT changed human behavior
  2. Social media has created a faster way to reach more people

This week is a case in point.

Two things happened which on the surface are black and white. Clear right and wrong. Easy to judge. Easy to rally to both causes. Easy to like. To share. To retweet. To hashtag. To do good while causing the “bad guy” (which coincidentally in both of these examples the “bad guys” really are guys) to scurry for cover.

One happened to a news woman in Wisconsin. One happened to a group of women right here in Burlington, VT. The stories are both inspiring in how the women rose up against adversity, found their voices and stood up for themselves. As a woman myself and one who has, in her lifetime, felt and dealt with situations similar to both of these, I cannot say enough how proud I am of them and their strength to face the people who would tear them down and make them “less than”.

I”m sure you’ve all heard the story by now. Jennifer Livingston, a news anchor in Wisconsin on WKBT News received an email from a sometimes viewer basically telling her that she was a poor role model for young girls because she was obese and had let herself go.  Jennifer’s husband posted the text of the letter on the stations FB page, and then she responded publicly on air. Here’s an article from the HuffPo to give you the details.  Her response was strong, passionate, and highlighted why she is a PERFECT role model for young girls everywhere.

Just a few days ago, a new hashtag in Burlington was born. #btvhickscam. The cliff notes version revolves around a man (aka Stephen Churchill, aka @thevermonthick, aka co-founder of 30inThirty.com, aka Kurt Wright’s Communication Director), how he exploited women in the community both professionally AND personally, alleged misuse of funds, and overall douchbaggery. One woman in particular, a former student of mine, reached her breaking point and took to Twitter to air her frustration and to “out” this person so others would not suffer the same way she had.

Right on ladies. Go. Get. ‘Em.

So there we have it. A wrong done. Women stood up for themselves. And of course people rallied to their causes.

And, this my friends is when it starts to become something we should all take a pause and think about.

Let’s start with the person who sent the letter to Ms. Livingston.  So he had a point of view. Whether you agree with it is not the point. He said what he had to say.  He did not, however say what he had to say in a public forum did he? He sent an email. I’m going to assume he didn’t intentionally think this would go viral. But as soon as it was posted on social media…it was out. He was “outed”. This article over at Jezebel is an interesting example of how people have rallied to Jennifer’s cause. As is this one.  Read the comments.  Here’s a few choice ones:

Anyone want to take bets on what he calls his dick? The Mighty Conquerer? Lance Dickstrong?

I will send 5 internet dollars to the person who walks up to this tremendous, teetering, wobbling jello casserole of asshattedness, and flatly informs him that his body is wrong. The way that it is, is wrong. His body is wrong, and it is a terrible choice that he is making for it to be the way that it is, and also, what will the children think.

Over here in #btvhickscam land, there was a similar flurry on Twitter. First of all, in this particular case, this guy is what I will call an “operator”. It really was just a matter of time for all of this to come out. Vermont is small and many of the women he exploited actually know one another.

Notes are compared, conversations are had, and bang. Done. It just takes one person to let the cat out of the bag as it were.

It’s 10pm. Do you know where your children are? Probably on a date & working free for #BTVHickScam

this is embarrassing but @TheVermontHick also slept with me. Also: I have a penis. Also: I have the herp. #BTVHickScam

So here we have it.

In the conversations on both of these you have people rallying to defend, but you also have a lot of anger and frustration that comes out in not such a good way.  Some of the comments actually start asking the right questions and is what this post is all about. From the Jezebel article about the news anchor:

So, let me get this straight: Calling someone out for being fat is wrong, because we shouldn’t judge people and make assumptions about them based on how they look because people who do that are jerk faces, right? Got it.  So what, then, is this thread about? I am so confused here..

From our #btvhickscam:

I agree with the sentiment (have known this for a LONG time), but is there a solution-based discussion we can have here? #btvhickscam

We remember it as kids (or at least I do) — do two wrongs make a right? Is it ok to attack others just because your cause may be just? At what point is the line crossed from “outing” something/someone who is hurting others, to creating a feeding frenzy and group think that is just as dangerous?

I ask the question because social media does make it super easy to share our first thought. Our first reaction. We don’t need “courage in a bottle” to shore ourselves up before we storm the jail (a little cowboy/western reference there for y’all — I do hail from New Mexico in my past!).  We also have a bit of an echo chamber that makes it easy to feel that there are more people rallying to our cause than actually might be.

Human nature. It hasn’t changed. People get fired up. The question is, when it comes to social media, how do you temper that fire so you can make constructive change instead of becoming destructive. The mob mentality is even more insidious online. So as you all read these stories and consider posting your reactions, take a minute, breath and consider what are you contributing to the conversation.

For our guy in Wisconsin, as a woman who has been moo’d at and who has struggled her whole life with weight, I’d say, “Ken, it’s clear you are a fit, healthy guy who cares about the community. I don’t know you, and you don’t know me.  I don’t know your history, your story, your baggage.  You don’t know mine. You are entitled to your opinion.  Now take a minute and think…really think…about how your words made this woman feel.  Is that what you wanted? You thought you would help her “get healthy” by telling her she’s a poor role model? That guilt would do it? As you think about that, perhaps you could consider a different approach — how about a health challenge for the news room to support activity — a wellness initiative? We are doing that at Champlain College where I work and it’s pretty amazing to watch each person start where they are and improve their strength and health one step at a time. It’s empowering.  Behavior change in anything requires small, measurable actions. Little steps that build and build to the change. Guilt doesn’t work. Hurting someone doesn’t work. Build them up. Don’t take them down.

And to Stephen or Winston or Tim (whoever you are today) right here in VT. As a professional woman who sees former students who have been hurt by you, and small businesses who have been duped by you, I am hopeful that the light that has been shed on your activities will shine bright enough to put an end to your shenanigans. I encourage all the freelance professionals who had dealings with you to contact the BPD, because in the end the more complaints that come in the harder it will be for you to conduct business in our small, very connected state.  I encourage the women who you have hurt to connect with each other, share your stories and be strong. Ladies, I also suggest taking your stories OFF of social media and getting back to basics, meeting in person and helping each other move on. There is, unfortunately a tipping point with this sort of thing, that can quickly bleed into the rest of your life, and this man has done enough damage.

There is so much I love about social media and the ability to connect easily with people I know and care about. However, the dark side of all of this is the dark side in all of us. Quick rushes to judgement, righteous indignation, anger, frustration. It’s a small step to go from support and defense to a social media mob feeding frenzy that has no good outcome.  So stand up for those who need it. Come to the defense and support of those you feel have been wronged. But just remember that social media can make it bigger, faster, meaner, and more serious than you intended. As with most things, we all need to temper ourselves and think carefully about how we use social media when our emotions are high because in the end when you support someone you want to help make a difference and see a positive outcome, not cause even more hurt.

About Elaine Young
I am a professor of marketing, specializing in digital marketing and social media, at a small, private college in Burlington, VT. I blog about teaching and my areas of interest that include digital marketing, social media marketing, and the impact of social communication technology on society, families, and children. I am getting ready to publish my first book: "Tuned-In Family: How to Cope, Communicate, and Connect in a Digital World" which will be available soon. In addition to teaching college students, I also conduct workshops and will speak to community groups and organizations. I'm also a Mom to an amazing 17-year-old daughter. My opinions are my own and do not represent my employer.
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