Lost in the crowd
It’s relatively easy to hide in a crowd.
When someone is a member of the majority group, either in a face-to-face setting or online, they will feel more empowered to express their opinion. They become one voice amongst many.
It is more difficult, and riskier, to go against the crowd. There can be real and damaging repercussions for expressing a different opinion. If your opinion or instinct is unpopular in your group, going against group norms signals to the rest that you are not really with them. You’re not really one of them. You don’t belong.
Pat is a new student. Pat is targeted with some teasing by other members of your group. The teasing gets some laughs and so it continues. You are encouraged to join in, but you can tell that Pat is anxious and upset.
You remember what it was like to be the new kid and if it was just you, might find a way to help Pat feel more included. But you don’t want to go against the group and so you mirror the groups behaviour towards Pat. It is easier to be part of the group targeting Pat, than it is to be the next target.
By joining in with the teasing, you’ve shown the rest of the group that you condone and endorse the bad behaviour—they all think you are one of them. But you can’t stop thinking about the new kid and how horrible they must be feeling. You decide that next time you’ll try and step in, maybe distract the others so they’ll forget about Pat.
Online, it’s relatively easy to say what you like with little repercussion. No-one has to know your real name or anything about you. Screen names or handles don’t have to link with real world identities.
This anonymity can drive disrespectful and abusive behaviour because it is seen to be easy to avoid any consequences or punishment.
Anonymity versus obscurity
Even when someone doesn’t hide their identity, their voice can be shielded when they become part of a larger online crowd. Their name attached to a comment just becomes one of hundreds or thousands of similar comments. When a comment is lost amongst many others, it can feel anonymous and relatively private.
If you were to post an abusive comment on your school website page about another student, you may feel less hidden than if you posted the same comment on an online gaming forum that your group engages with that has members from many countries.
Even though both comments are tied to your name, you believe that the comment on the gaming forum is no big deal because the people who see it have no idea who you are.
When we can’t see the hurt caused by an abusive online comment, we’re removed from knowing the consequences. We become desensitised to the impact our actions can have on others.
The more comments posted without consequence the less considerate we can become. We get caught up in a crowd all behaving in a similar way and don’t think about how our comments will be received. If everyone is doing it, you convince yourself that anything you say won’t have an impact.
Physical separation makes it easier to be offensive or critical of others. When you can’t see how your actions directly affect another person, you’re removed from the consequences.
You might even forget about the bullying comment, but the person who received it won’t. Trolling is a form of abuse—it hurts people. The fact that the target of the abusive comment has no idea who you are does not reduce the impact of your words.
‘Everyone else is doing it’ is no excuse.
Instead you could step in and try and diffuse the situation:
- Hey guys, this is not cool.
- C’mon, let’s get on with our raid.
- DM the target with a link to where they can report the harassment
Mob mentality occurs when you stop seeing yourself as an individual and act more in line with the group. You ignore your own thoughts, feelings and values and adopt those of the group.
Being a member of a group does not always mean you have to be exactly like everyone else. In many groups, diversity of opinion and behaviour is welcome. Being a member of a group that respects individuals can have a positive impact on our well-being. We feel we can be ourselves and be accepted and valued.
Some groups use their collective power as a negative influence. The actions of all group members become more extreme as the confidence of the mob increases. Anyone thought to be going against group consensus, is seen as reducing the power of the group and punished or excluded from the group.