Crowds and Technology

Crowds and Technology

September 15, 2016 By Guest

This is a guest post by Renee DiResta

“There is no other hope for the survival of mankind than knowing enough about the people it is made up of.” – Elias Canetti

Two closely related themes have proved very newsworthy over the past several months: the candidacy of Donald Trump, and harassment mobs on the Internet. The overlap between them is interesting because in the past we haven’t typically associated American Presidential campaigns, no matter how close or contentious, with online mobs. This time, however, we have stories about the election intersecting with the rise of online harassment mobs, anti-Semitic Twitter trolls, and even Kremlin influence bots.

Illustration by Grace Witherell

Illustration by Grace Witherell

Although this weird election cycle has made them more newsworthy, mobs, demagogues, and populist movements are obviously not new. What is new and interesting is how social media has transformed age-old crowd behaviors. In the past decade, we’ve built tools that have reconfigured the traditional, centuries-old relationship between crowds and power, transforming what used to be sporadic, spontaneous, and transient phenomena into permanent features of the social landscape. The most important thing about digitally transformed crowds is this: unlike IRL crowds, they can persist indefinitely. And this changes everything.


“There is nothing that man fears more than the touch of the unknown.”

There are two canonical, and complementary, works for understanding crowd dynamics, and how masses of people interact with power: Crowds and Power, and The True Believer.

Crowds and the Unknown

Crowds and Power, written by Elias Canetti in 1960, is a study of crowd psychology, the need to belong, and the desire of some to seize and consolidate power. It’s more literary than academic, and reads like a passionate, often angry study of human behavior. Canetti spans time and cultures to find specific examples of crowd behavior ranging from ancient tribal societies to the French Revolution and the Third Reich, and uses them to paint a picture of how humans form crowds, mobs, and packs marked by paranoia and a drive to destroy.

Canetti anchors the book with the claim that people expect encounters with the unknown to be negative. An unknown substance is likely to harm; an unknown being is likely to be dangerous. This is an evolutionary adaptation: an animal unafraid of the unknown was unlikely to live very long. But within a crowd, this fear dissolves. People no longer fear being touched by strangers, in either a literal or figurative sense. They are emboldened. There is safety in numbers.

In Canetti’s framing, crowds come in two main forms: open and closed. Open crowds, are spontaneous; they naturally attract everyone who observes them, and grow by drawing people in with an almost gravitational force. Open crowds typically gather to perform an action, one that is generally destructive. After their aim is achieved, or when they no longer attract new energy and stop growing, they dissipate. Closed crowds, by contrast, are permanent, although their size is often purposely limited in some way. They have boundaries, and in-group/out-group dynamics. Closed crowds sacrifice spontaneity and organic, chaotic growth in favor of staying power — one example would be a church. Closed crowds can transform into open crowds by means of what Canetti calls “the eruption” – energy reaches a frenzied state and more people suddenly rush to join – but most often, closed crowds evolve into institutions.

All crowds share a few common traits. First, there’s always a common goal — a mission, or direction. Second, there is a sense of persecution; members feel that the crowd is under constant attack from without and within – it’s always “us” against “them”. Fighting outsiders reinforces the mission, strengthening the crowd as it unites against the “other”. Attacks from the inside are actually more dangerous, because they threaten to destroy the crowd’s unity. The belief that there is a threat from within takes the form of false flag conspiracy theories, accusations that fellow crowd members are spies, or that a crowd member is “X in name only”. Members often feel a continuing need to prove their loyalty and demonstrate doctrinal soundness, particularly in a closed crowd; challenging the prevailing opinion is a risky undertaking.

Homogeneity is key; within the crowd, everyone is equal. There is a sense of camaraderie; the distance between haves and have-nots is temporarily eliminated. To maintain the warm, positive feelings of fellowship and belonging, the crowd must continue to exist. If the crowd dissipates, the sense of distance between individuals returns and the fear of being touched returns. So, in order to stave off a return to the uncomfortable, socially stratified, drifting world of “real life”, the crowd is remarkably willing to accept any direction, any common goal, any common enemy, in order to keep growing.

To summarize, in Canetti’s words:

  1. The crowd always wants to grow
  2. Within the crowd there is equality
  3. The crowd loves density
  4. The crowd needs a direction

Crowds and The Need to Believe

“All movements, however different in doctrine and aspiration, draw their early adherents from the same types of humanity; they all appeal to the same types of mind.”

Eric Hoffer’s True Believer, written in 1951, looks at the personalities and psychologies of the individual people within crowds. It’s a study of mass movements, and the people who facilitate them, grow them, and ultimately lead them. To Hoffer, mass movements are interchangeable. It doesn’t matter if they are religious, social, or nationalistic — the motivations, behaviors, and, ultimately, the underlying fanaticism of the people drawn to such movements, are universal.

All mass movements generate in their adherents a readiness to die and a proclivity for united action; all of them, irrespective of the doctrine they preach and the program they pursue, breed fanaticism, enthusiasm, fervent hope, hatred and intolerance; all of them are capable of releasing a powerful flow of activity in certain areas of life; all of them demand blind faith and single-hearted allegiance.

The people who participate in mass movements share certain characteristics as individuals (micro), which are magnified and become hallmarks of the crowds they form (macro): paranoia, discontent, and a deep-seated, burning desire for change. Doctrinal soundness is paramount; mass movements indoctrinate, using coercion, persuasion, and propaganda. Facts cease to matter; the movement is the primary source of hope for the future, and any point that threatens that hope is ignored or actively rejected by its adherents.

Neither Crowds and Power, nor The True Believer identify new phenomena; they simply unpack ancient, ingrained behavior and presented its application across time and cultures. Taken together, the two books suggest that all crowds emerge as a combination of a fear of he unknown, and a need to believe. Together they make crowds a source of power to those who seek it.

Today’s crowds exhibit all the qualities described by Canetti, and the mindsets and circumstances described by Hoffer. They continue to function, as they always have, as forms of weaponized sacredness catalyzed by egregores .

What technology has done is transform them into even more complex and capable entities, increasing the speed with which they form, their ability to make an impact, extending their reach, and making them even better instruments for wielding power.

What Technology Does to Crowds

Social networks are the greatest facilitators of crowds that the world has ever seen. The best-run platforms have taken the human predilection for organizing into mission-driven, passionate groups and turned it into multi-billion dollar businesses. Social platforms are The Great Enabler. They eliminate the need for physical proximity, yet provide a readily available standing group of individuals to call to action at any moment in time. The effort required to participate in a digital crowd is much lower than in the real world: you don’t have to yell or march or carry a sign, just click the Share or Retweet button from your couch. The cost of participation is also much lower: you’re unlikely to be physically harmed, arrested, or killed as a participant in an online crowd. In fact, you can usually participate anonymously.

Different platforms have specialized in serving and hosting the different crowd types. Twitter, for example, is a swirling plaza-like open crowd which allows people to quickly gather into sub-crowds, around hashtags that summarize a #mission or articulate an instance of #persecution. These sub-crowds are largely spontaneous, and quick to form and dissipate, often in response to some perceived offense or insult. But the broader crowd persists — and this is important. There is camaraderie and a shared sense of mission in the word-wars between those with opposing views about a given hashtag (Canetti described war as “an eruption between two crowds”). There is paranoia: allegations that other participants are shills, bots, or false-flaggers are rampant in Twitter mobs.

And most importantly, the hallmark destructiveness of the open crowd is fully present.

While there is no physical statue to tear down or victim to stone, online harassment, dogpiles in particular, are the digital manifestations of these very ancient rituals.

Facebook, despite having a billion users, functions as a closed crowd (or, perhaps more accurately, a warren of closed crowds). People orient into friend networks or affinity groups, typically in true name. Permanence and trust are paramount. Closed sub-crowds have a strong sense of group identity and culture and establish their own norms. Most people don’t look to Facebook for mob justice, or to experience collective instantaneous rage. They’re there to participate in a community focused on an ongoing shared interest or mission. And this is likely why we see fewer thinkpieces about harassment on Facebook. Sure, the moderation tools are better (bidirectional block and identity verification), but the distinction comes down to the temperament of closed vs open crowds: Facebook doesn’t need rage to grow. That’s just not what people are there for. Facebook groups aren’t grasping for a new mission in a frantic attempt to avoid dissipating; they’ll simply be there the next time you log in.

The underlying social and psychological motivations that drive crowds have remained constant over time. But our new technological scaffolding has changed the way that they form and exist in the world. Today’s crowds can grow to unheard-of proportions and never dissolve. Their members are no longer equal. And for the technologically savvy, their power they embody is easier to wield, and the members are easier to manipulate.

The New Crowd

Persistent and Large

Whereas the open crowds of the past convened in physical locations, and were limited by biological needs and space constraints, the digital crowd has no such concerns. When one member temporarily halts participation to sleep, those in a different time zone can pick up the slack. Even if the #mission has shifted by the time the original group wakes back up, they can easily rejoin the crowd through the permanent, easily-searchable record that is digital communication. The new open crowd is increasingly persistent, and can grow to massive proportions without ever needing to dissipate. Since there is never a full dissolution, cathartic emotional release – the kind that would be achieved by actually tearing down the statue in the town square – is never achieved. Instead, there is a perpetual state of simmering crowd-fury and crowd-paranoia.

Unequal, and easy to manipulate

While social platforms make us all equal in terms of having access to megaphones and publishing tools, they simultaneously allow us to very easily mask our identities. On the Internet, nobody knows you’re a dog. Or a Kremlin bot. Or a paid commenter. We no longer physically look at the fellow participants in our crowds. The sense of camaraderie remains when there is an active, shared mission — but there’s also chronic vague undercurrent of suspicion that perpetually feeds the crowd’s natural inclination toward paranoia and distrust.

This distrust isn’t necessarily unfounded, because the digital crowd is also far more easily manipulated. The company, government, or wannabe-demagogue most adept at using technology to harness the energy of the digital crowd becomes the master of a phenomenally lucrative source of dollars or votes. Facebook is a particularly powerful tool for manipulating activist passions because of its personalized targeting tools and mechanisms for engineering virality: if organic virality doesn’t materialize, pay-to-promote is cheap and effective. All sorts of actors have benefitted from zero-cost publishing and the demise of the fact-checking gatekeepers who controlled Old Media; to make something real, you only have to make it trend. We live in a post-fact society; every issue is a digital marketing campaign and radicalization happens via the recommendation engine.

To translate Canetti’s main observations to digital environments:

  1. The crowd always wants to grow — and always can, unfettered by physical limitations
  2. Within the crowd there is equality — but higher levels of deception, suspicion, and manipulation
  3. The crowd loves density — and digital identities can be more closely packed
  4. The crowd needs a direction — and clickbait makes directions cheap to manufacture

Translating Eric Hoffer’s ideas to digital environments is even simpler: the Internet is practically designed to enable the formation of self-serving patterns of “true belief.”

The Impact

Technologically enabled persistent crowds impact society in four principal ways.

First: we are likely to increasingly find ourselves in a battle of polarized extremes. The persistent digital crowd is still ultimately a crowd, driven by emotion rather than rational thought. There is a greater tendency toward extremes; moderates aren’t driving the roiling fury of Twitter mobs. And since public conversations now happen on social platforms, we’re likely to see the polarized, passionate, organized ends of the political spectrum increasingly dominate the conversation.

The silent, moderate majority seems likely to be rendered even more silent, as it’s flanked by persistent digital crowds on both sides. It will either have to discover some passionate fervor and form its own activist crowd, or it will need to attempt to influence the structure and design of the technology itself.

Second: we will likely see an increase in the ability of crowds to influence opinions. The evolution of public opinion looks something like this: mob → social movement → opinion current. Another way to look at this progression comes from The True Believer: Men of Words → Fanatics → Men of Action. Men of words seed mass movements: the writings of the propagandist, the muckracker, the novelist, influence the opinions those prone to becoming True Believers because of dissatisfaction with their circumstances. The fanatics — unified by anger, discontent, hatred, and a willingness to believe the unbelievable — spread the message, creating the gravitational pull of a crowd. Men of action eventually appear to helm the mass movement; they begin to build the power structures and institutions necessary to achieve the culmination of the grand vision.

Social media has reduced friction for the men of words. It is much easier to spread a message (any message; veracity is optional), and there’s a more readily available, persistent, and already-organized group of potential fanatics waiting to receive it. There is no shortage of angry, discontented, frustrated individuals in our current political climate, as Andrew Sullivan notes in a recent thought-provoking essay looking at the rise of Donald Trump (a man of action). Given the more permanent nature of today’s digital crowds, the speed with which information travels, and the ease of propagating an idea, we can move from a mob to an opinion current faster than ever before. This is not purely negative development by any means: but it has resulted in some very surprising recent political trends.

Third: the relationship between crowds and power will shift. Even small crowds, such as special-interest groups, will wield increasing influence over traditional institutions of power. It’s very difficult to measure the true size of a virtual crowd. In Canetti’s day, leaders could gauge how passionate the masses were about an issue by looking at the number of people climbing the fences. In the modern era, sockpuppets and bots surreptitiously attempt to shift public opinion and conversations.

This means there is an increased asymmetry of passion and leverage between the niche digital crowds, and the moderate mainstream. Niche groups are often very small in number, but persistent and loud when it comes to spreading their message. By leveraging the reach of social networks, they can have a disproportionate impact in shaping policy. The pre-digital power of special interest groups looks benign by comparison. Even the smallest digital crowd can masquerade as a majority, and when enough messaging is targeted at a particular person (for example, a legislator), it becomes extremely difficult to determine whether a campaign is a rising opinion current that should be taken seriously, or the work of dedicated and noisy small minority. Also, creating the perception of mass approval around an idea can result in actual increased legitimacy in the battle for public opinion: people who are exposed to an idea repeatedly often begin to believe it; at a minimum, they believe that many others believe it, so it must be worth considering.

Fourth: online harassment mobs will become a weightier issue, because the dynamics of participation will have higher stakes. For most of history, participation in crowds was largely anonymous by default. Besides the police (occasionally), no one really cared about the name of the person next to them at the rally. This has changed in the era of doxing. A digital crowd is only effective when its members participate by speaking up. Therefore, online harassment and intimidation are the new most effective tools for shutting down a crowd. American culture is built on the premise that that the best antidote to repulsive speech is more speech. But in the era of digital crowds, the threat (or perceived threat) of backlash, harassment, intimidation, or outing mean that many choose to remain silent. And so, the group that is most willing to apply repulsive tactics has the potential to achieve the largest share of the conversation, and have the loudest message.

And all this is further compounded by a media establishment that is incentivized to cover the sensational.

Where does that leave us?

Digital crowds and mass movements are not all bad. We’ve all seen uplifting examples of people coming together on the Internet to effect truly positive change. Technology has helped to increase the speed of change in opinion currents that have resulted in policy shifts that have made society more equal and tolerant. But there are some troubling indicators that the downsides are increasing, unchecked, because the platforms themselves don’t believe that they bear responsibility for how they are used, or what individual and crowd behaviors they facilitate.

A good analogy may be the early Industrial Age. The new technologies of the time offered phenomenal potential, but also created great unchecked amounts of environmental damage until environmentalism emerged as a check and balance. Digital technologies too, are full of phenomenal potential, but are unfortunately creating social environments that are as polluted as the physical environment was a century ago.

Perhaps it is time we began the hard work of cleaning it up.

You may want to review the Weird Crowd slides by Renee and Megan from Refactor Camp, which covers the ideas of Canetti and Hoffer in greater detail.


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