[Home]LynchMob

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Many on the internet have observed the irregular occurrence of "internet bashing" or "ganging up culture" or "synchronised flaming". A group of concerned citizens form an effective LynchMob, focussed on a single person. This can be a form of VigilanteJustice.

On a wiki, this often takes the form of creating new pages to encapsulate discussion on a single user, as doing so on a user's FrontLawn or MessageBox typically goes against societal norms. Then a number of users come together in an attempt to apply extreme PeerPressure to the targeted individual: writing, for example, 'why Joe Blow is universally loathed', with a bullet list. Although trolls will be attracted to the "discussion" merely by the heat of the flames, sometimes there are BackRoomDecisions involved too.

Causes

In most communities, it is taboo (rightly so?) to engage in SnipingCriticism, and in any case most people shy away from this kind of direct conflict. This can lead to a slow build-up of unexpressed resentment and frustration. LynchMobs only happen when there is a significant amount of hostility and animosity latent in the community that is waiting to crystallize into action. Then, the first person to break the taboo by flaming, or making a call to action, sparks an extreme over-reaction by the community, and suddenly you will be in a mob. The person who made the call for action may be perceived as the leader, but he or she may just be standing in amazement and what he or she had wrought.

When a person viciously counter-attacks any criticism, however mild, then he will shield himself from mild criticism. However, when enough people act together, the threat of counter-attacks becomes notably reduced: there is SafetyInNumbers?, where a group of people are willing to DefendEachOther, almost regardless of merit, and unite to assault a common foe. Even a GodKing cannot HardBan everyone.

Prevention

If you are a potential target, prevention is easy: just recall that CriticismIsFeedback. Your words and actions need to show that you are willing to listen to criticism, that you are willing to respond rationally to criticism, that you are willing to change how you act based on criticism, then you paradoxically make facing a lynch mob less likely. If the criticism is due to deeply held beliefs, or unchangable characteristics such as skin colour, then RightToLeave may be the only sane option.

One of the worst things a potential target can do is to assert that their attacker does not represent the community as a whole. This is tantamount to begging everyone who holds that opinion to attack you, all at once. Instead, recall that for every one person who expresses a criticism, there is likely to be ten who hold the same opinion but have not expressed it… yet.

Conversely, once a LynchMob is in progress, those who sit on the fence or are opposed to it feel much less inclined to act as mediators or get involved, fearing getting caught in the crossfire or being illegitimately seen as siding with the target, who undoubtedly has done a lot to provoke such a response. Thus, while the LynchMob self-perpetuates by continuing the ConflictCycle, there is no one willing to stop it. Many hope that it will silently go away, but if it lasts too long, they decry the community they loved is dead, and leave. This may be more troubling for those who enjoyed the community that would AssumeGoodFaith, and now they see the DarkSideOfCommunity emerge; of course we caution you that it's natural to do bad things when pushed and pushed and then kicked in the teeth. Therefore, it's important for the community to hold each other back, keep each other from getting angry and falling into invective, and to maintain BusinessAsUsual.

Sadly, those who could most easily prevent a lynch mob forming are often those least likely to do so, so the burden falls to community leaders and the wider community. This reinforces the need to be careful in criticism online because you have no other choice. Our own culture here on Meatball slowly became arrogant through many reinforcing factors, and we become comfortable to be ColdBlankets. It's important to remember who is really weak in the end: us. Politeness goes a long way (cf. PrincipleOfConstantRespect)… but not the full distance, which is why we also DissuadeReputation (not really DissuadeInteraction which is not polite). After all, really the point is to bring everyone to the agreement that we just aren't good fits, shake hands, and part ways. Be boring. Fighting is too interesting. (cf. FightingIsBoring, paradoxically)

Reactions

Lynch mobs are typically, not surprisingly, viewed by the targets as unjustified or out-of-proportion attacks, comparable to ye olde peasants with pitchforks and torches converging on Frankenstein's castle. Different people will react very differently, according to their feelings about conflict.

One approach targets may use is to start a ForestFire of counterattacks. This is an application of MeetForceWithForce, but an ill-advised one, because it escalates the conflict. It increases the deterrence against expressing criticism, but this (as noted above) actually makes lynch mobs more likely. This is the approach used by those who are weak in the sense that they believe themselves to be strong, but it burns up a lot of time. A wiser target would know that FightingIsBoring.

A GoodBye is another common strategy: one can take shelter from the storm of criticism by making a temporary departure. Perhaps the target hopes to come back when the waters are calmer, or perhaps the community is so caught up in its hatred that that would be impossible. Often, through lack of a target, lynch mobs will rapidly break up. Sometimes, the act of (publically) departing encourages supporters to voice their feelings, where they have previously felt that it wasn't worth getting involved. This is the approach used by those who are weak in the sense that they believe themselves to be weak — eager to be seen as the innocent victim.

Sometimes if you tolerate a lynching with your dignity and temper intact, and without leaving in disgust, then you can gain forgiveness and acceptance from the community. This kind of TrialByFire? is probably an anti-pattern.

Problems

A LynchMob is hardly NonViolent, and thus as a means of ConflictResolution, it's not a very good strategy. While they may form as part of the reaction to a ForestFire, a real reaction to a ForestFire involves not just collating the entire writings of a problematic user, but also refactoring, synthesizing, and eliciting the truth of the matter in order to resolve the conflict. Only doing the first half is a quash of a person's voice, and that is never seen as a positive thing by the person being quashed.

If you feel that you are in this situation, you need to keep the community from descending into vindictiveness (and thus PunishReputation). The only goal is to eliminate all flamage to sift out what of real concern has been actually said in the conflict. However, since you can no longer trust the community to do this, you have to move to the next level, which is the elimination of the conflict from visibility.

On WikiWiki and other wikis with editable RecentChanges, one can simply delete the pages of conflict from RecentChanges (with a MinorEdit), and thus keep the RecentChangesJunkies from replying and thus pushing the conflict further along the ConflictCycle. On spaces where the AuditTrail is perfect, this becomes much harder. Rather, you have to rely on either a TechnologySolution or a CommunitySolution to keep people separated.

First, one can install a SurgeProtector to limit the amount of energy any one party can put into the site. This will keep people back from their keyboards since they won't be able to post. Hence, you slow down the pace of the flame fest, and thus reduce the hate that glues the LynchMob together.

Second, one could create the CommunityExpectation to not reply immediately, but wait several days (weeks, perhaps) before simply dealing with the flamage. A few angry words are not that disruptive. Providing the victim of the mob does not attempt to recruit new members into the fray (i.e. he participates), then this solution is workable.

Finally, one cannot actually negotiate with someone who does not accept FirstReadings; if he does not read what you write, it doesn't matter how eloquent you are or accurate you are. Putting people in AngryClouds thwarts FirstReadings, so by the time you enter a LynchMob, the victim will only perceive actions — or inactions — not words.

Historical Context

WikiPedia:Lynching

Lynching is a form of violence, usually murder, conceived of by its perpetrators as extra-legal punishment for offenders or as a terrorist method of enforcing social domination. It is characterized by a summary procedure ignoring, or even contrary to, the strict forms of law, notably judicial execution. Victims of lynching have generally been members of groups marginalized or vilified by society. The practice is age-old; stoning, for example, is believed to have started long before lapidation was adopted as a judicial form of execution.

On naming this page

Recall the truly abhorrent nature of the lynch mobs in the American South. Recall the hatred of the perpetrators, the innocence of the victims, the excessiveness of the punishment, and the foundation in racism and fear. There can be no comparison to the behaviour described here, where the victims have often done something, maybe many things, to spark the formation of a mob. Online, people are "lynched" for vandalism or trolling, not for the colour of their skin. Compare GodwinsLaw: using the term LynchMob demeans what happened to its victims in the same way that most Jewish groups strongly resist using the word "Holocaust" in a cavalier way. This page should be renamed to FrontierJustice? or VigilanteSwarm?.

There are no words that we can use for this behaviour that are not overloaded with racism. To bring the community to the violent level of a LynchMob, one must tap into a significant amount of hatred, and tribalism happens to be a good source. Mobs form in response to who people are and what they believe, as well as what they do and say. Yet they are still mobs. For all the difference in ethics and morality, I see the same behaviour. I see the hatred, I see the members of the crowd urging each other on, and I see a desire for revenge, not justice.

Comments

The weakest is usually not the target, because he would just redraw. The target is usually a person who is weak in the sense, that he will never admit that he is wrong and who is therefore predictable to fight as long as his opponents wish. It's like "inverse trolling". -- HelmutLeitner

No. Lynch mobs do target those who are happy to leave quickly. We just don't notice them as much, because the target leaves (often rejoining with a fresh name and a different approach) before the mob have been able to claim their scalp.


I think it is important to state that fighting is not the wiki way. It is technically possible, but it usually slows down any communication, cooperation and learning processes to a crawl. If fighting happens, the community must have an interest to understand the reasons, make the situation clear and suggest fair solutions. If a community is weak, it will just let people fight. Sometimes incompetent moderators even appreciate the traffic that the fighting creates. In the end the community is weaker than before. -- HelmutLeitner


A community will sooner or later insist on some sort of "justice", particularly when faced with what it views as extreme provocation. Societies evolved DueProcess? as a way to limit vengeance. "An eye for an eye", though barbaric by most modern standards, was a significant limitation on the vengeance that was prevalent when it was first stated. -- TomStambaugh


The problem with the CanTheWorms? strategy {in a particular instance of an online LynchMob} was that it was overt; in some sense it might have been perceived as a form of "glaring of teeth." But since the target enjoys conflict (and he continues to try to pick fights in his never-ending "GoodBye", even eliciting other trolls to his aide), glaring teeth is the wrong answer. BeBoring?, remember? So, it would help if people stopped taking the FlameBait and stopped being overt. I think we should wait until the situation is resolved before we go further on this point. -- SunirShah


I think one major problem with Wikipedia is that there don't seem to be enough adults in charge who will forcefully intervene in disputes. There are lots of questionable things going on, especially in the articles that deal with controversial topics (9/11 conspiracy theories, JKF assassination conspiracy theories, Ady Gil, etc. etc.) where some editors will go to extreme lengths to keep well-sourced material out of the article, because they don't like it (but they Wikilawyer to vainly try to obscure this). A gang of these people sometimes work together to achieve that end. And when editors complain, there is no swift action to reprimand the offenders and tell them to cut it out. The bullying behavior seems to be tolerated. We're told to work it out on the discussion page among ourselves, but the offenders are usually not reasonable people. I'm a fighter, I try to stand up to them, but it wears you down and you feel like you're in a snakepit and you just want to quit in frustration. Ghostofnemo

I would argue that the problem is a direct consequence of Wikipedia's reliance on HardSecurity measures. -- NathanielThurston

CategoryConflict


Discussion

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