When the ‘Wisdom of Crowds’ turns into an Angry Mob

Books won’t stay banned. They won’t burn. Ideas won’t go to jail. In the long run of history, the censor and the inquisitor have always lost. The only weapon against bad ideas is better ideas.
Alfred Whitney Griswold, New York Times, 24 February 1959

One of the disadvantages of creativity is open resistance and personal danger by other people. Creativity means creating something new that is different and useful, but what if a group of people do not like it? In the physical world they would have to be close together (and near you) to have any power, but online distance doesn’t matter. If there are only 5000 people seriously disliking your idea, the mob is immediately at your digital front door.

And the mob has found the digital pitchforks.

The ‘Wisdom of Crowds’ has its uses — it can build impressive things. Even people with no expertise can check texts for spelling or grammar errors or tag images. Wikipedia is the hallmark example and a tribute of what can happen when a lot of people work together. But the Crowd can also be used to destroy things, even if it seems — at first — that they only try to uphold a worthy principle.

Anonymous and its attacks on businesses that distanced themselves from Wikileaks or the Guttenplag-people putting the microscope to apparently plagiarized dissertations — I agree with their (apparent) goals — to protect Wikileaks (or rather: to ensure that whistleblowers have an outlet) or to uphold the integrity of a scientific dissertation (and to protect science). But this is not the way to ensure this — and I question that all participants have these goals.

The problem is that this form of work is not an objective and rational analysis, problem solving and decision making, but the high of venting anger at an apparent insult, the joy of finding something that hurts someone else. This way of ‘making one’s voice heard’ is emotionally driven and can easily go too far.

The ‘Wisdom of Crowds’ turns into an Angry Mob.

The problem here is accountability. With many people participating there is a diffusion of responsibility working — no one feels responsible for throwing a little stone, but the victim will be stoned to dead (no matter what kind of offender he or she was). One server knocked down, one little tripping someone up — it accumulates — and the net makes this very easy.

It is easy to feel righteous and be driven by emotional reasoning and good people can be misused by a few opinion leaders who sell their goal as more pure than it might actually be. Freedom of speech doesn’t mean that you can deny other people’s freedom of speech, or incapacitate their ability to do business to hurt them. Protecting science needs to be unclouded from political pressure. And like written in a comment — while plagiarist are … very bad people … no one should enjoy finding evidence so much. It should lead to anger or disappointment, but not to Schadenfreude.

Personal responsibility is the difference between a veiled avenger and a pussy with internet access.

And critics must be identifiable, they must have not only a voice but also a face, stand to what they do (unless it is a whistleblower who is currently in grave danger if he or she is identified). If others want to join the critics in a cause they shouldn’t have to feel like they join the KKK during a secret meeting. Without a name and a face, just a stone thrown in the dark or a server set up without disclosing one’s own political beliefs, this kind of protest is more akin to terrorism or highway robbery than to legitimate concerns and a desire to make the world better. I want to know the person’s motivation for doing something, not only the behavior. Otherwise, how can I be sure that they use my work in a way I agree with?

But it seems that the inquisitor of the past has now entered the global village … and spread into the myriad parts of an anonymous group.

When will they get the first innocent?

When is the first Frankenstein’s Monster hunted down and driven … to bankruptcy, insanity or suicide? When will the emotional rush of self-righteousness, of the power of many, be used on a person who was falsely suspected of a wrongdoing?

The problem is that they often do not challenge the idea of the person, but the person itself. Or that the ultimate goal is clear but the evidence is optional. That sentences are carried out before all facts are in. It’s often an ad hominem attack.

But — like the quote above said so beautifully — the idea must be challenged and replaced with a better idea, and not with noise.

I fear that is this goes and catches on, it might lead to people censoring themselves — as to not incur the wrath of the ‘Wisdom of crowds” … or just of the crowd.

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