Some Online ‘Mobs’ Are Vicious. Others Are Perfectly Rational.

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Isn’t it amazing what people can do when they put their minds together? On a Monday in July, a casting announcement blitzed the Hollywood press: Scarlett Johansson would star in a forthcoming drama as Dante (Tex) Gill, a real-life 1970s underworld kingpin who, according to Deadline, “flourished in a male-dominated business of massage parlors and prostitution by essentially taking on the physical identity of a man.” Within hours, though, suspicions were brewing.

Online commenters noted that Gill appeared to live as what we would now call a transgender man, not a woman “cross-dressing” to get ahead. Trans actors and writers asked whether this rare role as a trans man should perhaps be played by a trans man. By the time Daniella Greenbaum, a conservative writer at Business Insider, defended Johansson for just “doing her job,” the wrath she met was so forceful that her editor scrubbed the column from the web. Twelve days into the controversy, Johansson announced her decision to “respectfully withdraw” from the project.

Greenbaum’s new project was just beginning. First she wrote and shared a letter of resignation, criticizing Business Insider’s editor, Nich Carlson, for “capitulation on the part of those who are supposed to be adults to the mob.” Of Johansson’s withdrawal, she tweeted: “The mob claims one more victim.” In an op-ed for The Washington Post, she bemoaned the “policing of speech and opinion” by a “social media mob”; in another, for The New York Post, she warned that the online crowd was gaining strength and that “the mob only gets hungrier when it eats.”

It has been a summer of Hollywood mobbings. When the actor and director Mark Duplass recommended that his fellow liberals might get something out of following the conservative pundit Ben Shapiro on Twitter, the crowd rebuffed his suggestion so strongly that he was forced to issue a formal apology. An online crew dredged up old tweets in which James Gunn, the director of the “Guardians of the Galaxy” films, made jokes about pedophilia, so Disney axed him. And when 4chan and Reddit dwellers resurrected a risqué “Dexter” parody from 2009, in which the comedy writer Dan Harmon simulated the rape of a plastic baby doll, Harmon nuked his Twitter. Big Hollywood players, fearing the next takedown, are redrawing contracts and purging feeds.


Each of these online storms seems, at first, to follow the same script: Locate the target and pummel them with outrage until reputational damage has been sustained. Zoom in, though, and crucial distinctions emerge. The supposedly bloodthirsty mob that robbed Johansson of her role appears, on close examination, more like a critical consensus — one in which genuine stakeholders, including trans Hollywood players, responded spontaneously to dispiriting news. Johansson and her film’s producers had simply failed to read the room and were treated to a sustained round of sincere and mostly uncoordinated boos.

The mobbing of Gunn was another animal entirely. Mike Cernovich — the same internet figure who helped foment Gamergate (a sustained harassment campaign against feminists in the gaming profession) and Pizzagate (a conspiracy theory claiming that liberal politicians were molesting children in a Washington pizzeria) — was one of a few right-wing trolls who spied an opportunity to engineer an outrage campaignagainst a liberal “elite.” Together they pounded it into Twitter until they got results.

But recent rhetoric attributes it all to the same shadowy force: The mob has claimed another victim.

Our popular understanding of a “mob” is more than a century old, tracing back to an 1895 book called “The Crowd: A Study of the Popular Mind,” by the French polymath Gustave Le Bon. Just as critics of “Twitter mobs” worry about people’s behavior when they move from real life to the internet, Le Bon was skeptical about the shift from an agrarian society to city living. The urban crowd, he wrote, is marked by “impulsiveness, irritability, incapacity to reason” and “the exaggeration of the sentiments.” A man on his own “may be a cultivated individual,” but “in a crowd, he is a barbarian.” Over the next several decades, Le Bon’s work attracted many influential fans: Lenin, Mussolini and Hitler.

In the second half of the 20th century, though, sociologists began to puncture these assumptions. Carl Couch argued in a 1968 paper that crowds often appear irrational only because they are working against the “established institutions of the day” — a “mob” was merely what authorities called it when “people organize their behavior on the basis of a different set of norms.” Far from being hyperemotional and irrational, crowds were ruled by the “highly rational” insight that their power was in their numbers. And despite a reputation for destruction, crowds “have generally been as gentle as a loving mother when compared with the established authority.”

Whether a group is labeled a “mob” often does have more to do with its aims than its tactics. The angry crowds coded as mobs are those whose actions are later condemned by history — the pogroms that murdered Jews in Russia or the lynch mobs of the Jim Crow South. Those whose ideas are eventually adopted and normalized become, in hindsight, revolutionaries.

Mob members are also often styled as an underclass, armed with a peasant laborer’s pitchfork and torch — as though the primal fear is that society’s discontents, a mass of people “beneath” you, will rise up, and not in a spirit of reason, fairness or mercy. Just about everyone, these days, seems eager to claim that underdog status — but there are those who lack institutional power because of discrimination, and then there are those who are kept out of polite society because they are amoral ghouls. The true nature of a mob becomes a lot clearer once you differentiate between the two.

The Johansson “mob,” for instance, was dedicated to challenging a fault in the status quo, punctuated by trans actors’ insights into the ways Hollywood was embracing their stories but still boxing them out of participating in telling them; it seemed less interested in punishing Johansson than in gaining opportunities for trans people. (As the actor Jen Richards told The Hollywood Reporter: “In an ideal world, I would like anyone to be able to play any kind of part. That’s the kind of freedom I want for myself and the kind of freedom I want for others” — a kind of thoughtfulness easily obscured by lumping her in with an irrational “mob.”)

The Gunn mob was led by a clutch of far-right men who only frame themselves as outsiders and use as their weapon the most thoroughly accepted norm they can find: that pedophilia is indefensible. The insincerity of their complaint — or the fact that Gunn apologized for his jokes years ago — doesn’t matter, because the goal isn’t to change anything; it’s merely to destroy a rival. As one 4chan user wrote of the Harmon mob, which formed in the wake of the Gunn win: “If they get to take scalps for someone making racist jokes, we get to take scalps for them making pedophilia jokes.”

Like a pitchfork, Twitter is an imperfect tool. Its brevity suppresses nuance; its virtuality opens the door for insincerity; it incentivizes people with no true investment in a controversy to weigh in anyway. And the internet has primed us to demand instantaneous results: When everything we want to know or buy can be accessed with a few clicks, perhaps we expect that justice be served just as swiftly. Members of some crowds acknowledge that these conditions are less than ideal. But for disingenuous outrage trolls, the blunt instrument of outrage is an end in itself: The crude result of getting someone fired is the entire point.


It’s true that internet mobs are rarely sated until they achieve some reduction in their target’s authority and power — often a firing. (They’re occasionally referred to as “lynch mobs,” as though losing a career opportunity were a kind of modern extrajudicial killing.) These mobs may not literally have the power to rip words from the web or push an actor off a call sheet, but they intuit that a big-enough public-relations disaster can force corporate interests to do it for them, whether the corporation finds the complaint valid or not.

It may be the employer or the publisher who ultimately makes that call, but it’s the mob that gets the attention — and some targets are beginning to find that blaming the mob is a smart P.R. move. No surprise, then, that so many “mobbings” are slickly converted into opportunities for grandstanding among self-styled freethinkers, their individuality under assault by the politically correct masses. Courting wrath on the internet can give you a powerful tale of persecution to share, surfing a wave of raised fists to fame. Greenbaum, for instance, rode her mobbing from The Washington Post to The New York Post and onward to Fox News, where she perched in a guest chair opposite Tucker Carlson and spoke about the “silencing” she experienced. And Carlson, for his part, found a way to indict the irrational masses and the liberal elites in the same breath. “Even the biggest Hollywood stars,” he marveled, “are no longer safe from the mobs they created.”


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