Social Media and the ‘Herd’ Mentality

1. What is the ‘Herd’ Mentality?

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The Herd Mentality is not a foreign or recent concept. As far as my knowledge permits (which, admittedly, is not a lot on this subject), the similar idea of ‘collective consciousness‘ can be traced back to 1893, to French sociologist Emile Durkheim and his work – Division of Labour in Society. This has been furthered developed by Jean-Gabriel Tarde (1843 – 1904) and Gustave Le Bon (1841-1931) as ‘group mind‘ or ‘mob behaviour‘. Since then, more and more works have sprung up regarding this fascinating human behaviour. More famous, and more well-known, is Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego, by none other than Sigmund Freud in 1921. As someone who has read almost all of his most esteemed works, I tend to hesitate a little when referencing his material – I don’t agree with a lot of them, though usually not on a fundamental level.

However, I would very much like to point to a particular extract on page 77, something that would resonate heavily with someone even faintly aware of today’s occurrences:

“…groups have never thirsted after truth. They demand illusions, and cannot do without them. They constantly give what is unreal precedence over what is real; they are almost as strongly influenced by what is untrue as by what is true. They have an evident tendency not to distinguish between the two.”

To put it in as few words as possible, herd mentality is the phenomenon in which individuals in a group can act collectively without centralised action. It is a concept stemming from the herd behaviour in certain animals, often prey, in order to reduce risks in the wild.

2. Is ‘Herd Mentality’ Necessarily a Bad Thing?

Some have argued that this is a good thing, even necessary. Founding president of the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine (PCRM), Neal D. Barnard, has once stated that:

“I think herd mentality is a good thing overall. Because if every sheep had to figure out the velocity of the wolf and their personal risk, that would take forever.”

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In a way, he is not wrong. Indeed, any organisation in our modern day cannot function if its members question decisions and motives at every turn. So, what is he implying? Does he mean that free agency, often believed to be a fundamental human right, should be sacrificed for the sake of efficiency? When put in this light, it seems that his argument stands on feeble legs, doesn’t it?

One may argue that the maintenance of one’s view and ideals in the face of reality is an impossibility, naive/childish/foolish if anything. Indeed, these are words I am not unfamiliar with. However, even with the sacrifice of some agency for the sake of conformity, there is that additional step of choice – you choose to sacrifice your dreams in order to comply with society. “The other option would be to starve!” Yes, but that is still a decision, isn’t it?

I am not passing judgment on whether one should sacrifice their values and dreams for the sake of fitting in. My personal view is, to a large extent, “no”. Yet, that does not factor into this argument. The argument here is that when someone chooses to follow the rest of society out of his/her own will, there is a sense of rational decision-making. Rationality, in this sense, as used in social sciences, is the weighing of intangible cost and benefits. The herd mentality, on the other hand, described how people are influenced to act on a largely emotional and highly reactive basis.

3. Social Media: The Context

This is going to sound like the start of my first debate at 13, regarding the rise of the Internet. Sounds grand, but it was my first ‘public-speaking’ experience, not to mention that I was up against a team of 2 seniors. Needless to say, I was scared shitless as I stood there with my script. The first line went something like:

“In the age of the Internet, the world has become more connected and information, more widely available. With a click of a button, you can message a friend in another continent, or get millions of search result about your favourite idols. Already, the Internet is capable of something far beyond what the previous generation could have imagined.”

Of course, I sounded nowhere as inspiring as that could sound. I was a stuttering mess trying not to freak out during my first debate.

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Yet, the points are still there and they are more true than ever: (1) the world is more connected than ever before, and (2) there are vast amounts of information online. Both of these somehow managed to play into the herd mentality.

3.1: Internet Penetration

Internet usage has grown drastically over the past few years. We take a look at statistics at the end of last year:

In Africa, the penetration rate is 35.2%, a huge 9,941% increase from 2000. In Asia, the rate is 48.1%, now almost half of the most populated continent, a 1,670% increase from 2000. In Europe, it is the second highest at 85.2%, 570% up from 2000. In Latin America/Caribbean, the penetration rate is 67.0%, a 2,318% increase from 2000. Even in the conflict-ridden Middle East, which has quickly become the proxy-war location for the predominant powers and western powers, the penetration rate is 64.5%, a 4,893% rise from 2000. In North America, penetration rate is highest at 95.0%, a 219% from the start of the millennium. In Oceania/Australia, the penetration rate is 68.9%, 273% increase from 2000.

Yet, the connectivity enabled by the Internet is an oxymoron. It connects us physically, across geographical spaces that we simply cannot transgress without it. Yet, at the same time, technology has also created separation in a very profound way.

Again, I find myself quoting an author who I don’t particularly like, Samuel P. Huntington. In the Clash of Civilisations and the Remaking of the World Order, he says:

“There can be no true friends without true enemies, Unless we hate what we are not, we cannot love what we are.”

In his view, identity is achieved by the rejection of differences in others. Thus, as the world becomes more connected and we become more and more aware of societies that may contradict values in our own, some choose to actively oppose its influences. From Islamophobia, to the characterisation of individualism as a western idea of ‘selfishness’, it seems as if while we do become more knowledgeable of other cultures and societies, the increase in hatred supercedes that of understanding. Each society becomes a herd that looks at the other with hostility and suspicion.

Furthermore, the increase in Internet penetration also means that an idea implanted onto the Internet can travel much faster and wider than before. Here, we move onto the next characteristic and the next corresponding issue.

3.2: Vastness of Information

When you enter the name of your favourite idol, millions of search results appear. Yet, how many of them are true? How do you know whether they are true?

In fact, I would say that the rise of ‘fake news’ may actually be positive. Well, if people did not have a herd mentality and instantly dismisses an article as ‘fake news’ the moment some important figure says it is. I mean, in a sense, because people are more aware of the concept of ‘fake news’ now, scepticism and cynicism should rightfully follow, allowing for greater internal filtering of content seen online. Instead of taking everything as the truth, readers should actively sift through what is through or not through information-gathering. Or at least, that’s what would ideally happen.

More often than not, however, an article goes online about a controversial subject and almost instantly, it gets blown up with minimum fact-checking. By the time the fact-check is underway, the damage may already have been done. This, in fact, formed the backbone of the International Price Moot Court Competition 2018 held in Oxford last month, which I was honoured to be able to participate in.

What aggravates this is that some, when taking this source and reposting it, distorts the content and presents it in a skewed manner. Instead of focusing on an interview as a whole, for example, they nitpick a single topic and rant on it, disregarding what the interviewee might have said in other portions, or even in regards to the topic itself. Yes, I am referring the to the entire Kanye West interview with Charlamagne. Now, I did not start off the interview as a fan of his. In fact, because I am surrounded by people who have a stigma against hiphop and rap in general, I also inherited a little bit of the doubt. At the end of the interview, however, I came to respect a lot about the man.

4. An Example

So, the kind of rage I felt when people online started making articles nitpicking at things he said. Particularly, many people started talking about how he claimed to have tackled his mental issues by ‘forcing’ his friends to talk it through with him, rather than seeking therapy.

This is distortion. Firstly, because the mental illness part is just a small piece of a much larger puzzle – the interview. Let’s not neglect the fact that the interview is a minute piece of a much grander puzzle – Kanye himself. You cannot judge a person’s character by an interview, and you certainly cannot judge him by a single comment. Secondly, he said afterwards that he does not think everyone in his situation should not seek therapy. He was simply being honest to the fact that this was the way he solved his own problem. Certainly, he is an influential person. Still, as someone who has suffered depression before, I can certainly say that seeing an idol figure not seek therapy does not make me think I don’t need it. After all, we too need to use our common sense and brains. This is why there shouldn’t be an outrage over a person talking genuinely about how he overcame his problems, just because it doesn’t fit into what is socially acceptable, i.e. the herd mentality.

This goes for the TMZ interview as well. While I certainly think he might have made a mistake talking about slavery that way, viewers need to use their brains. Firstly, he is still a person and he is allowed to make slip-ups. Secondly, if a viewer watched through the entire video, and genuinely applied their mind and emotion to understanding the main point of the interview, they would come to comprehend the simple yet profound message Kanye was trying to put across – free love.

Honestly, this is something I would take up arms and fight someone over. It isn’t so much as defending Kanye as a person as me trying to defend what it means to understand and the pursuit of understanding. He might have said something factually wrong, but so do we all at times. So why is it that, day-to-day, you can make slip-ups and still have the listener understand you? Because humans are able to see beyond words. Sometimes words are not enough – and it then follows that we need to be able to see beneath and between words.

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5. What is Exactly Wrong?

I am not taking a superior stance here, trying to be a special snowflake INFJ as some have accused me to be. I am not saying that I can see beyond words and everyone should come to my level. That is simply twisting everything out of context.

Watching Violet Evergarden has proven a belief I always had – that emotions and the understanding of emotions are intrinsic to being human. The fact that one is born human means they have emotions and are able to learn to comprehend them. Thus, instead of saying that I am superior and everyone should just ‘git gud’, I am saying that I genuinely believe that everyone comes equipped with the ability to see beneath the surface.

Furthermore, I also believe humans are naturally curious. The entire controversy about Kanye thinking that slavery is a choice began way before the full interview was published. A 3-minute edited clip was posted on TMZ, many big news networks caught onto it, and instantly, the Internet blew up. Did it matter that even to someone who doesn’t know video editing, like me, the video was clearly cut and pieced together? Did it matter that a reasonable human should at least be curious about the context? No. Everyone instantly took to Twitter without fact-checking, information-gathering, etc. None of that was taken into account. All everyone cared about was the expression of outrage and anger – what good does that do?

Social media has that effect. You see a short clip, a short few sentences and instantly react. I believe everyone has the ability to go on Google and search further, cross-reference sources, seek out the truth. Yet, that takes too much time, doesn’t it? Don’t want to miss breaking the biggest news to all my friends and getting those likes! Instead of maybe sitting and thinking about suspicious elements, everyone becomes content in the herd mentality, in believing and feeling like everyone does. And often, that feeling is hatred, contempt and fear.

Instead of instantly reacting the next time you come across a post, why not go on a search for the truth first? Is it a responsibility? It depends on how you see it. Or is it an adventure because I simply “like to know things”? That also depends. But it is certainly better than just following everyone else. After all, hasn’t your mom asked you before: If your friends jump off a cliff, will you jump too?

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