Acton Institute Powerblog

Fake friends: the dangers of the internet mob

In his memoir, Defying Hitler, Sebastian Haffner reflects on the social climate that characterized Nazi Germany. In particular, he describes how “[the Nazis had] made all Germans everywhere into comrades.” Author David Rieff explains why Haffner saw this as “a moral catastrophe”:

This emphatically was not because comradeship was never a good thing. To the contrary … it was a great and necessary comfort and help for people who had to live under unbearable, inhuman conditions, above all in war. But Haffner was equally adamant that … in ordinary civilian life, comradeship became a vice, for it relieved people of “responsibility for their actions, before themselves, before God, before their consciences…Their comrades are their conscience and give absolution for everything, provided they do what everyone else does.”

Rieff’s New Republic article on Haffner’s memoir, entitled “The Unwisdom of Crowds,” was penned in 2010, but 10 years later, it seems eerily relevant. We are living in the era of “groupthink” – a phenomenon which has always come and gone throughout history, as Haffner’s experience in Nazi Germany proves – but has now has the potential to spread to a global audience thanks to social media and the internet.

At this point, it comes as no surprise that social media lends itself to the “mob mentality.” Technology makes it easy to join the crowd and, as Rieff reminds us, once you have taken that step, “You end up doing, or at least condoning, things that you would never do solo, and that you have a hard time justifying once the crowd disperses and you are on your own again.”

Social media is a double-edged sword. It tries to fill two voids in our culture and ultimately fails on both counts.

First, it tries to fill a moral void. It seeks to provide a moral compass in a culture where individual conscience has been stifled and dismissed, lost in a sea of relativism and a decline of religion. In the absence of a defined dogma or moral code, it is up to the mob to determine who is guilty and who is innocent. Today, we witness this phenomenon in “cancel culture” and the way the social media crowd doles out both punishment and praise, often ruining a person’s entire career because of one wrong move.

Social media’s “mob justice” corresponds to what René Girard called the “scapegoat mechanism.” According to Girard’s mimetic theory, society is driven by imitative desire, wanting what others also want. However, this desire leads to rivalry, envy, and conflict. A community tries to alleviate this conflict by “uniting against” a scapegoat, an “arbitrary other who is excluded and blamed for all the chaos.”

Unfortunately, even if the scapegoat is driven out and “sacrificed” for the sake of restored social order, envy and conflict always return. The cycle of scapegoating continues indefinitely unless an external force intervenes. The Judeo-Christian tradition holds that the scapegoat cycle has been broken by such a force: the voluntary sacrifice of an innocent victim Who has taken the sin of the people upon Himself. Our prevailing secular worldview, however, rejects this tradition and is consequently trapped within the scapegoat cycle. Without an awareness of every man’s individual sin, society finds itself in need of a culprit, someone to blame and punish.

The second void that social media tries to fill is man’s need for relationship and community. Our increasingly globalized culture has come at the cost of authentic community. Certainly, the internet can provide the feeling of connectedness; it is a “global village,” if you will. Technology has made “all [people] everywhere into comrades.” But no online community can replace personal relationships with family and friends.

George Packer, writing for The New Yorker, described America’s current political state as a “perpetual tribal war” promulgated by the divisive effects of social media. Perhaps so, but it is important to consider why we are so quick to split into defined partisan groups. Man is tribal and social by nature. We seek community, affirmation, and accountability in our online “tribes,” because the natural institutions of a civil society – family, friendship, and church communities – are disintegrating. But if you are seeking justice, peace, and love, the mob is the wrong place to look.

To quote Rieff once more:

It is not that all individuals are level-headed, or reflective, or kind, or merciful. It is that level-headedness, or introspection, or kindness, or mercy are only possible for individuals. Crowds can be joyful or they can be murderous; they can celebrate or they can protest; but what is beyond their reach is sobriety – and it is sobriety that ultimately separates civilization from barbarism.

When we allow social media and mass public opinion to act as the arbiters of our society, we propagate Girard’s cycle of scapegoating. Caught up in the exhilarating, sweeping sensation that we are a part of something – an immeasurable crowd, a community of comrades everywhere – we forget the truth that blaming all of society’s problems on a single person or demographic group, in Girard’s words, is never an “efficient means to bring about peace, as it always depends on the periodic repetition of the mechanism.” The solution to violence is not more violence. Rather, God “desire[s] mercy, not sacrifice” (St. Matthew 9:13) – not because we are guiltless, but rather because we are all guilty – but because He has paid the price, once and for all.

(Photo credit: Public domain.)

Zsanna Bodor

Zsanna Bodor is part of the Acton Institute's Emerging Leaders Program. She is a senior at Hillsdale College, majoring in Music and German.