Social media mobs behave like children. This hit me Tuesday as I sat down to watch "Spy Kids" with my 6-year-old and 3-year-old sons. You know how kids movies are, there's a clearly defined hero and a clearly defined villain.
There is no real nuance -- one character is good and one character is evil and at the end of the day good triumphs over evil. It makes sense for children's movies to be crafted this way since this is how kids see the world, with clear delineations between right and wrong, good and evil. But it's also the way adults on social media see the world.
As you age you become aware that true good and true evil are rare. Life is not a stark contrast between forces of light and dark. Most of us dwell somewhere in between the poles of human behavior; sometimes we're good sometimes we're bad, but almost always we're in the middle. This is where life is lived, in the gray areas between heroism and villainy.
Increasingly, however, social media mobs glide directly over the gray area, where all of us live our lives, choosing to project their own child-like constructions to a world far more complicated than good or evil.
When it comes to social media mobs you're either good or you're evil. We can use two recent examples of football players representing both poles, the "heroic" Josh Shaw and the "evil" Ray Rice.
Southern Cal football player Josh Shaw claimed that he jumped off a balcony to save his 7-year-old nephew from drowning. Immediately, the plaudits rang forth on social media, what a hero! I read the Shaw article, but didn't retweet it because the entire story gave me pause -- put plainly, I didn't believe it. Something about the story rang hollow.
I contemplated Tweeting my opinion, but I was just about to go on the FoxSportsLive set and I knew that as soon as I tweeted that the story sounded fishy -- the moment I said something other than the same thing everyone else was already saying -- I'd get killed by the Internet mob.
Who was I to question the actions of a hero? And what if it was true or never proven to be untrue, why get involved in the social media morass? So I just decided to sit that one out, I didn't retweet the Shaw story or comment on it at all. Guess what emerged over the next day or two, Shaw had made up the entire story, he'd actually been fleeing police after a domestic altercation. The social media mob craved a hero to such an extent that it was willing to fly right past several warning signs.
On the flip side of the equation, Ray Rice is now the embodiment of all that's evil in the world. He knocked out his wife, an undoubtedly heinous act, which, in the minds of the Internet mob, proves that he is evil.
Since the release of video on Monday, Rice has been indefinitely suspended from the NFL, his high school has pulled his picture off the wall of honor, Rutgers is erasing every image he's ever appeared in at the university, and Rice is now among the most hated men in our country.
Hell, it's so bad for Rice that many are calling for NFL commissioner Roger Goodell to be fired for not conducting a more thorough investigation of Rice's behavior. Leaving aside the fact that Goodell's job isn't to investigate player misbehavior -- that's the police and district attorney's job, Goodell uses their findings to make his rulings -- Rice's behavior isn't even particularly unique.
Since 2000 more than 100 NFL players have been charged with violent crimes against women. That statistic sounds awful until you realize that the NFL's rate of domestic abuse is actually much lower than the national average of domestic abuse for men of the same age in this country. So, the NFL, if anything, actually does a better job of dealing with domestic violence than our country does.
The NFL doesn't have a domestic violence problem, our country does.
The NFL reflects our societal failings. But these are facts that don't square with our child-like desires for heroes and villains; Rice is evil, there's no point in considering his position in a nuanced or contextual way. There's also no point in considering that just about every NFL locker room has someone with a more troubling criminal background than Ray Rice. Nope, this confuses the issue, RICE IS EVIL! FIRE EVERYONE!
Mobs don't want facts, they want blood. They're angry, they demand that someone be fired. (A firing is a modern day Internet execution). The mobs are offended, the mobs are angry, they're like the Incredible Hulk on steroids, tossing around catty retweets and clicking like buttons so hard their computer keys are going to break.
Look at what has happened to Ray Rice since Monday, it's eerily similar to what happens when a coup occurs in a foreign country, pictures come down, all references to prior regimes and rulers are excised from the history books.
Wouldn't it be more instructive to students at Ray Rice's high school to sit down with them and talk about how even good people can make bad decisions? Of course it would. But the mob's not sated by that, the pictures have to come off the wall of honor. At a damn high school. Or else the high school is enabling a wife abuser. Think about how crazy this is.
We should be scared that things like this happen in America today, but being scared would require some people to stand in front of the mob and say, "Wait a minute, does this really make sense? Should we really judge the fiber of a human being based entirely upon a single act, good or bad?" But most people aren't willing to do that, because the mob will readjust its anger in real time, decide to come after someone new, envelop them in its hot embrace of distilled virtual anger.
The social media mob doesn't come for context, analysis or justice, they demand a Disneyfication of our universe, a place where everyone is good or evil, where every single act defines our character in all facets from this day forward until the day we die. You're either good or you're evil on the Internet. The fact that no one in America is actually either today doesn't matter. That just gets in the way of OUTRAGE.
Of course social media mobs believe they represent the best in truth, justice, and the American way, but what they really represent is a further dumbing down of our society, a twenty second hot boiled opinion that must be the exact same as everyone else's.
You want to change the world? Just a hunch that's going to take a bit more than clicking a like button or sending a mean Tweet. But that's just the thing, people don't want to change the world, they just want to be a part of something larger, if it's a mob, so be it.
Social media mobs are the modern day guillotine, drag up the next victim and execute them for the cheering crowd. It feels so good to see those heads get lopped off. Except, the mob eventually dissipates and leaves everyone feeling empty. Nothing's really changed, the mob has just left the town, moving to the next outrage du jour. Next time you feel compelled to join an Internet mob look around, if everyone has the same opinion as you, it's a pretty good sign your position is probably far too simplistic for the issue at hand.
Internet mobs like to believe that they're the mature adults in the social media universe, but their behavior tells us otherwise -- they're the children in an adult's world, stuck forevermore trying to decide who are the heroes and who are the villains when neither description ever fits real life.