The digital mob bites back

“We are the angry mob
We read the papers everyday
We like who we like, we hate who we hate
But we’re also easily swayed”
– Kaiser Chiefs

“Media changes the dynamics of power”

Scary words there from Antony Mayfield, Vice President of iCrossing, but of course very true. Recently, Clarence Mitchell, spokesman for the McCanns, declared that “The latter day lynch mob has gone digital” and when you consider how many online users there are, that’s a heck of a large mob out there. 1.4 billion of them, to be precise. If just a fraction of online users are galvanised into action, the outcome can potentially be devastating. A case in point is Eason Jordan, whose comment about the number of journalists being killed in Iraq enraged bloggers who went on to create a blogswarm that ended in his resignation.

The blogosphere can be a very powerful beast that can turn on someone with the slightest provocation, and sometimes not even that. It’s something to bear in mind as journalists continue forward into this world of interacting with ‘those formerly known as the audience’, because the ‘audience’ know how to bite back. Take Richard Cohen’s recent experiences with readers who didn’t exactly share the opinions he put forward in his articles.

As he said, “It seemed that most of my correspondents had been egged on to write me by various blogs. In response, they smartly assembled into a digital lynch mob and went roaring after me.

“It marks the end of a silly pretense about interactive media: We give you our e-mail addresses and then, in theory, we have this nice chat. Forget about it. Not only is e-mail too often a kind of epistolary spitball, but there’s no way I can even read the 3,506 e-mails now backed up in my queue — seven more since I started writing this column.”

So how much should journalists open themselves up to interacting online with its readers? Although webpages like the BBC’s Have Your Say offer the public a chance to air their views on news stories and often allows for intelligent debate and feedback, it also exposes the journalist to insults and spiteful comments, the kind that people would rarely have the guts to say to someone’s face.

But then again, now that the floodgates are open and journalists are expected to encourage feedback, asking how far this interactivity should go is kind of redundant because readers now expect, demand even, to be able to answer back. And trolling is an inevitable by-product of engaging with the audience. As The Guardian’s Emily Bell commented, “Complaint becomes a participation sport in a digital world, where totals are electronically tallied and regularly updated. Most importantly, by participating, the public expects to influence the outcome of events.”

The outcome was certainly influenced in the Russell Brand/Jonathan Ross/Andrew Sachs scenario, but there, it was the media that were almost solely to blame. By whipping the digital mob into a frenzy, newspapers like the Daily Mail and the Sun turned the original two complaints into over 37,000 in the space of two weeks, most baying for a resignation. The digital mob cannot be tamed, only sometimes influenced, and in this instance the media created a monster no one could control.

After all, as Bell says, “Technology is amoral and the connectivity which helps a civil rights movement can equally be the platform for a lynch mob. There is no implicit democracy in interactivism – the most organised and connected, the most vociferous and offended can tip the balance.”

Stanley Baldwin once said that journalists enjoyed “Power without responsibility – the prerogative of the harlot throughout the ages.” But power just got a lot more powerful and a lot more unwieldy. The digital mob can be swayed and manoeuvred, but it can also turn around and bite the media in the bum. The media need to be even more conscientious in practising responsible journalism to avoid causing hysteria or lynch-mobbing, and they also must learn how to handle harsh criticism from its readers.

Interactivity is a great thing in some senses, but it comes at a price. Not everything the community says is going to be insightful, engaging, or even civil – some will be downright vindictive. But now that we’ve opened ourselves up to online public engagement, there’s only one thing for it – to grow tougher skins.

Image from The Simpsons, courtesy of Fox Broadcasting Company

© Melanie Hall 2017