Responding to Mobs

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Updated January 28, 2020

β€œOur crowds are online and our Colosseum is Twitter,” writes Michael Fontaine, a professor of classics at Cornell University, in an article on mob mentality. If a tweet receives enough criticism, warranted or not, it can snowball into a full fledged mob. An unpopular tweet can be ratioed and receive hundreds or thousands of quote tweets, often with deeply personal attacks. A wave of DMs or emails can follow and even attempts at having your account hacked or calls to your employer to fire you.

It’s a deeply unpleasant experience that more and more people are going through, because it can be genuinely difficult to know when a form of public shaming will occur and what might trigger it.

  • Josh Pigford (@Shpigford) shared a view on hiring for his company that led to days of disproportionate response and culminated in a clarification and apology.

  • Marc Hemeon (@hemeon), a prominent product designer, shared a viewpoint about the use of fonts that led to widespread disagreement. Industry peers voiced their support for him after his response.

Jon Ronson, author of So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, notes: β€œWhen we deployed shame, we were utilizing an immensely powerful tool. It was coercive, borderless, and increasing in speed and influence.”

While such incidents are increasingly common, you shouldn’t spend much time fearing this outcome. However, there are a handful of precautions and actions you can take:

  • Old tweets are increasingly becoming fodder for online mobbing. As a precautionary measure, there are advocates for automatically deleting old tweets. Taylor Lorenz, Internet Culture Reporter at The New York Times who has experienced multiple online mobbings, has all her tweets auto-delete.
  • Mobs can be become extremely vitriolic and lead to attempts at hacking your public accounts. Set up two-factor authentication on all your social media accounts to avoid being hacked.
  • Protect your home address and cell phone number. Work to remove both from any online directories to avoid being doxxed.

Unfortunately, even with precautions, these pile-ons can be difficult to weather and represent a hazard of the platform. While Twitter mobs have common similarities, what to do in each individual situation can vary dramatically. While some people choose to fight back against accusations they feel are unfair, others apologize, or, depending on prominence, contract reputation management or PR firms to seek advice on how to move forward.

While downsides to Twitter are very real, it shouldn’t deter you from using the platform. The negatives are outweighed by what you have to gain in finding a community of people you can learn from and grow with.

Recognizing Harassment on Twitter

Despite strong suggestions of how Twitter could combat bad behavior on its platform, the platform has failed to adequately address the harassment that occurs on a daily basis. This includes widespread and targeted mobbing campaigns, lewd comments and messages, and death threats.

In 2017, Pew Research found that around 41% of Americans have experienced online harassment, including the following: offensive name-calling, purposeful embarrassment, physical threats, sustained harassment, stalking, and sexual harassment.*

All of this occurs on Twitter.

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