Mobs have been very much back in the spotlight over the past couple of weeks. The Cooks Source saga was followed up by the lesser Dairy Goat Journal bunfight, while in the physical world students demonstrated in London and the Fitwatch blog providing advice to those students was shut down by police. In each case onlookers conjured up the spectre of “the mob” – a term whose primary definition – “A large disorderly crowd or throng” – belies the array of discourses that underpin it, partly related to its secondary definition – “The mass of common people; the populace”.
In other words, “mob” is a term used to frame a debate in emotional terms, to dismiss what may be a genuine outpouring of anger or resentment as invalid or illegitimate. For those reasons, I flinch when people talk about mobs instead of crowds.
Last week the video above was uploaded to YouTube. It shows a presentation describing the events leading up to a fatal flash mob. The story is fictional but the events it is constructed from are real*.
The prospect of such a series of events happening is terrifying and rightly thought-provoking: I would recommend it as a way of exploring journalism ethics in a networked age.
But the video is a syllogism – it makes an apparently logical (implied) argument that because these events have all happened and they are connected in technical terms, they could, eventually, all happen together.
The obvious flaw here is statistical: the probability of all those events leading to another is of a different order. We can all imagine all possible worlds.
It reminds me of Eric Morecambe’s joke, when pulled up on his piano playing, that he was playing all the right notes “but not necessarily in the right order”.
But the major flaw is logical. We are led from cause to effect, major to minor premise, but the ultimate event really has no connection with its beginnings. When large numbers of people gather in one place, sometimes it turns into a riot and people get killed. Technology has not changed that. Perhaps it makes it easier to do so – perhaps it makes it easier to disperse crowds when things go awry, or to call for assistance. Most likely all of the above. It’s the same technologically determinist mindset that blames Google Maps for terrorist attacks. As Douglas Adams put it in 1999:
“Newsreaders still feel it is worth a special and rather worrying mention if, for instance, a crime was planned by people ‘over the Internet.’ They don’t bother to mention when criminals use the telephone or the M4, or discuss their dastardly plans ‘over a cup of tea,’ though each of these was new and controversial in their day.”
In short: Don’t Panic.
*In the comments on YouTube Danosuke points out: “The one instance they cite as “already happened” was not a riot at all. There was no reported property damage or injuries. This is pointless fear mongering.”