(This has been rewritten for article formatting and will be edited in separate publishing.)
What is the ‘Herd’ Mentality?
It is a concept that is neither foreign nor recent. As far as my knowledge permits, a similar concept can be traced back to 1893, to the French sociologist Emile Durkheim, and his work – ‘Division of Labour in Society’. His definition of crime led to his notion of the conscience collective, “the totality of beliefs and sentiments common to the average citizens of the same society”. Others have developed their own terms separately, all reaching analogous results. Jean-Gabriel Tarde and Gustave Le Bon call it group mind or mob behaviour. More famous and well-known is a particular work by Sigmund Freud in 1921. While one can hold their apprehension towards Freudian theories (as I do with quite a bit of conviction), his ‘Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego’ is perhaps the most comprehensive early authority on the subject.
“…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.”
- Page 77, ‘Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego’
Quoting Freud has its uses. He insightfully identifies a phenomenon that is undeniably manifest, especially on social media today – the ignorance of truth. How often have rumours and gossip spread like wildfire online, only to turn out to be wildly untrue or misinterpreted? How many of these instances could have been easily remedied if people in the chain of ‘reposting’ had the sense to factcheck the information they were spreading?
Of course, it would be ridiculous to expect every user of social media to factcheck every post that they make. Still, as citizens increasingly exercise journalistic activity online, the idea of a ‘citizen journalist’, who may be bound to the same duty of care as a professional journalist, has been developing in areas such as media law. In other words, there must still be some expectation that a social media user, publishing information likely to result in harm (physical or reputational) or social disorder, must take some extent of care in posting online.
Here, we turn to the recent Kanye West controversies as an example.
Kanye West Controversies – Charlamagne and TMZ Interviews
The Charlamagne Interview
Filmed on 18 April 2018 and published on Kanye West’s official Youtube page on 1 May 2018, was a 1-hour 45 minutes long interview between Charlamagne and Kanye West. This interview follows a breaking of Kanye’s Twitter Hiatus on 17 April 2018. As expected of an extended interview, a variety of issues were covered – mental health, Kanye’s business ventures, Bitcoin, creativity and self-expression, free love, etc. While I urge each and every person to watch the interview in its entirety and then form their opinions on it, I would say that my greatest takeaway and interpretation of the interview was Kanye’s continued promotion of his genuine belief of ‘free love’.
Yet, an hour and 45 minutes is, indeed, a period of time way beyond the normal attention span of a modern, social-media-consuming person. Here, the ‘herd’ mentality takes over and sweeps the entire issue out of hand.
One of the sections in the interview covers Kanye’s encounter with mental health. He talks about the tolls of being an artist, prompting Charlamagne to ask the question: “Did you go to therapy at all? ‘Cause I feel like this is a lot of unpack. And I’m sure you’re the guy for a lot of people, so it’s like, ‘Who does the go-to guy go to?’”
Kanye responds: “Nah, I use the world as my therapy, as my therapist. Anyone I talk to is my therapist. I will pull them into the conversation of what I’m feeling at that point and get their perspective… I’ll talk through things… I put that as advice to people: use people around you as your therapists, ’cause they probably know more about you.” He then goes on to talk about how he wants to address the stigma of mental health.
At this point, with the way I have narrated it, nothing seems to be particularly wrong. Yet, social media seems to have a way to twist everything out of context.
Articles, such as the one on DJBooth, instantly jumped onto the notion that “Kanye does not actually understand in full what a therapist does”. While the article acknowledges that “[he is] not saying therapists are bad”, they have taken that portion of the interview entirely out of context.
In the first place, Kanye was answering a personal question – a question on how he, personally dealt with his own mental health. Simply because he chooses to speak to friends and family as a form of therapy, instead of visiting a professional, does not lead to the extrapolated assumption that he, in anyway, does not support professional therapy or counselling. However, many who saw such opinions reposted it on social media, which acted as the propagation tool for such a ‘herd’ mentality. Like in Freud’s quote, a “demand [for] illusions”, “[giving] what is unreal precedence over what is real” and having the “tendency not to distinguish [between the real and unreal].” Here, we are not dealing with truths and falsehoods, but rather fact and opinion, but the same applies – consumers of opinion articles tend to take them as facts and circulate them as such.
The TMZ Interview
This is, perhaps, the more well-known interview. Big news networks, such as the Independent, BBC, CNN and the Guardian have all covered what is perceived as the focal point – “400 years of slavery was a choice”. This is the result, once again, of nitpicking little snippets of topics from an extended interview. In a 3-minute clip on Youtube, segments of the full interview were collated for its most controversial points. TMZ, whether intentionally generating controversy or not, published this clip before the full interview was up. Even big news networks, publishing straight after the social media switched on ‘attack’ mode, clearly failed to give consideration, or even mention, that this clip was simply a chosen compilation.
Articles presented and portrayed Kanye, from its chosen Twitter posts, as someone who has offended and was then confronted by a righteous employer at TMZ. The articles at this point also failed to mention what the main takeaway from the interview was, or how Kanye felt the emotions from that employer so deeply that he moved to hug the man, apologising for hurting him.
The full interview, like the Charlamagne one, focused on the idea of ‘free love’. Unlike what the clip might have suggested, it was not just a shouting match where Kanye expressed controversial ideas, one after another. There were genuine, insightful debates, some of which involved the possible conflict between ‘free love’ and ‘free thought’, i.e. emotions and logic. All of these were ultimately lost, as our generation, reactionary and unwilling to wait for the entire truth, immediately hopped onto their social media and posted away.
Social media as the culprit?
No. With a definite, resounding ‘no’, that is the conclusion that must be reached here. Social media is not a ‘mere conduit’ but is still primarily a platform and a tool for dissemination. To closedown social media platforms because of the advent of ‘fake news’ would be like stopping the production of knives because they can be used as a murder weapon.
Does social media worsen the problem? Yes. There is an incredible phenomenon, in fact, on platforms such as Twitter. Following the controversies, many users took to Twitter and made their own Tweets, rather than reposting those made by others. This is because social media platforms give users the notion that they are making their own content. While largely true, in controversies such as these, users often take likeminded opinions, repackage it as their own, and posting it. Ironically, these posts are anything but original, and are highly dangerous. The presentation of opinions without balancing can easily be digested by the uninformed as facts.
What really is the solution then? The answer is unclear. You cannot expect users who both produce and consume to factcheck all information – that is logically impossible to regulate or enforce, and morally/legally flawed. Social media platforms should not be shutdown, because they serve a much greater purpose than just distributing false information. Indeed, as seen in the media law arena, this is truly a sensitive area very much under development. And that’s really not good news: Kanye may be able to stand up to such widespread online attacks on his reputation, but the very fact that such damage can be done should not be tolerated.