The wisdom of mobs

3 minutes estimated reading time

Old media historically took a pride in its ability to spur the public into action, a classic example would be The Sun’s headline from April 11, 1992 which trumpeted ‘It’s The Sun Wot Won It’. In this case claiming that The Sun’s readers had turned the tide of an election. There is also a darker side to this: the wisdom of mobs. 

I have been interested in how mob behaviour or the shifting of public opinion has been changed by social media and affected consumer behaviour with ‘the wisdom of mobs’.  The recent super injunction debate has again brought it to the fore, as has Anonymous and Wikileaks.

This has all had another subtle effect, as evidenced by this quote from Jamie East, founder of HolyMoly:

“There are fewer gobshites who aren’t media-trained and surrounded by PRs, so it’s more difficult to find things to write about. And the ‘pap’ agencies aren’t getting the pictures they used to.”

East is describing in his own colourful way an awareness and responsibility about their own reputation, or as Singaporean blogger Pat Law put it:

As long as the information is online, even if you’ve placed it on private mode, your privacy is automatically placed on a pedestal for potential abuse. So never publish anything you don’t want people to know online.

This is one side to a multi-stranded solution to the wisdom of mobs problem:

  • Behavioural – individuals need to take responsibility for their actions and what they say, reputation isn’t managed: reputation is, as reputation does
  • Social – we have yet to develop an appropriate civic society online. Towns on the American frontier appointed sheriffs and town councils to try and bring a modicum of justice and decorum during the pioneering days. These appointments were symptoms of a wider awaking towards thinking less about the individual and more about the kind of society that they were creating on the frontier. We need a similar awakening for online. Secondly a better civic society, should be able to organise lobbying that is as effective as that currently done by vested interests on behalf of disrupted interests like the ABPI and Warner Music; otherwise these groups will continue to enjoy undue succor – what politicians fail to see is that these groups are the British Leyland or the Northern Rock of the digital age
  • Legislative – this is the one that I am most concerned about for a number of reasons. Politicians of all sides are not good at giving up surplus powers and striking down legislation, instead keeping it to one side for a rainy day. The Labour administration of Tony Blair kept the Criminal Justice and Public Order act of 1994 including its controversial part V dealing with criminalising rave culture. The current conservative government has kept the Digital Economy Act in place, despite the fact that it adversely affects their ability to spur digital innovation and inclusion. The threat of legislation allows politicians to adjust behaviour in industries, for instance: self-censorship by UK ISPs by Ed Vaizey. It is virtually impossible to find a legislative body with the suitably sustained light touch required
  • Governance – effective and transparent governance mechanisms for governance in commercial issues would mean that there would be less of a public interest in gossip. Allegations surrounding Fred Goodwin would have been more appropriately investigated as part of his management of the Royal Bank of Scotland
  • Professionalism – the media has a responsibility to lift its own content out of the gutter of sensationalism. They need to man up and take responsibility for the wisdom of mobs, but they won’t. There simply isn’t a desire to do decent investigative journalism or thought-provoking analysis. It is probably not considered commercially viable to do it (though the audience of documentaries at the cinema seems to suggest otherwise), there aren’t the journalists with the right set of skills and mindset: where are the next Bob Woodward, Carl Bernstein or Seymour Hersh?

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