Acton Institute Powerblog

When online conformity mobs imitate government coercion

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The social-media outrage machine is rather predictable these days. It doesn’t take much for companies and celebrities to offend the cultural consensus, spurring online mobs to respond, in turn: not through peaceful discourse or by turning their attention elsewhere, but by fomenting rage, abuse, and assault on the subject(s) in question.

The notion of public outcry isn’t new, of course, particularly as it relates to those in the public eye. But such vitriol seems to be more hastily applied, and increasingly so for everyday citizens, whose words and actions are constantly ripped from their context and over-elevated to implicate and denigrate particular peoples or groups or entire schools of thought.

Take James Damore, author of the now-infamous Google memo and the most recent target of this same school of tar-and-feathering. Damore was a lower-level engineer at a massive global company — not an executive or a “whistle blower” or a “public face” — and yet journalists, media outlets, and armchair shame-mongers quickly proceeded to tear apart Damore and his memo for days and (now) weeks in the public eye.

Whatever you think of the memo’s contents, the vindictive and incessant nature of the response begs an important question: Is this any way to maintain and preserve a peaceful, virtuous, and free society?

As Megan McArdle points out, much of the shift in tone is due to a range of social, economic, and technological changes, each leading to our present and peculiar mix of atomized culture and globalized communication. “We now effectively live in a forager band filled with people we don’t know,” she says. “It’s like the world’s biggest small town, replete with all the things that mid-century writers hated about small-town life: the constant gossip, the prying into your neighbor’s business, the small quarrels that blow up into lifelong feuds.  We’ve replicated all of the worst features of those communities without any of the saving graces.”

Whereas local communities have long wielded social coercion as a mechanism for sorting out norms and behavior, the new status quo lacks any sort of personal touch or intellectual empathy, not to mention personal consequences for the “coercers” in question. There is little to lose for those hiding behind their screens.

It’s all part of a trend we’ve grown familiar with. From Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone to Charles Murray’s Coming Apart to Yuval Levin’s The Fractured Republic to J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy, we see the same frays at the same seams of community and civil society. Yet for conservatives and libertarians, we tend to point mostly to the eagerness of the State in filling such voids, whether via intrusive policies or political grandstanding. Those are well-founded concerns. But the continued rise of “private-sector” conformity mobs demonstrates that the State is not the only threat we face.

In a country of splintered communities and centralized online platforms, government isn’t the only place from which top-down, detached, and impersonal coercion is a threat. As McArdle explains:

Given the way the internet is transforming private coercion, I’m not sure we can maintain the hard, bright line that classical liberalism drew between state coercion and private versions. We may have to start talking about two kinds of problematic coercion:

1. Government coercion, which is still the worst, because it is backed up with guns, but is also the most readily addressed because we have a legal framework to limit government power.

2. Mass private coercion, which even if not quite as bad, still needs to have safeguards put in place to protect individual liberty. But we have no legal or social framework for those.

Taking into account the grand diversity of the social and economic order, these are the types of attitudes that, when given power and prominence, will flat-line flourishing and tear apart the fabric of modern civilization. Though these mobs wield their power without the force of government, the intimidation they inspire is just as stifling, whether to freedom of speech, freedom of religion, or plain-old, hum-drum peace and prosperity.

“And unless it is checked, where does it lead?” asks McArdle. “To something depressingly like the old Communist states: a place where your true opinions about anything more important than tea cozies are only ever aired to a tiny circle of highly trusted friends; where all statements made to or by the people outside that circle are assumed by everyone to be lies; where almost every conversation is a guessing game that both sides lose.”

As for what the “checks” on such power should look like, the answers aren’t easy. In many ways, the solutions are the same as those for our other crises of social capital: find some way to inspire a return to vibrancy for “associational life” in America (or another “Great Awakening,” as Charles Murray recently called it).

In an age where social coercion continues to come from isolated individuals on the web or the collectivized bureaucrats of the State, a revival of the “middle layers” or “mediating institutions” of society is sorely needed. Disagreements and disruptions will continue, and until we learn to respond without the foam of enraged mobs or the billy clubs of centralized governments — reviving virtue, trust, and power in families, communities, churches, schools, and businesses — we can expect our freedoms to fester accordingly.

Image: Angry Mob, Rumble Press (CC BY 2.0)

Joseph Sunde is an associate editor and writer for the Acton Institute. His work has appeared in venues such as The Federalist, First Things, The City, The Christian Post, The Stream, Charisma News, Juicy Ecumenism, Ethika Politika, Made to Flourish, and the Center for Faith and Work. Joseph resides in Minneapolis, Minnesota with his wife and four children.

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