Ronson began to wonder if group madness was the explanation for the steadily escalating desire to see flawed individuals publicly shamed. Ronson reflects on the 2011 London riots, which began after police shot and killed a man named Mark Duggan. Five days of protests, riots, and looting took hold of the city and even came near to Ronson’s own home. Sociologists and epidemiologists claimed that “emotional contagion” had kept the riots going for so long—and even though they fizzled out, the concept of group madness stuck with people like Ronson for a long time.
Here, Ronson tries to understand why vitriol, anger, and the desire for punishment can spread so quickly on social media—and why people become so eager to participate in the destruction of others. Regardless of what the original intent behind a social media shaming (or any public shaming) might be, this passage implies that intent can quickly become lost in the shuffle, and he wants to understand why.
Gustave LeBon, a 19th-century French doctor, pioneered the concept of group madness—he cemented his ideas while watching riots seize Paris throughout the mid-to-late 1800s. LeBon set out to prove scientifically that mass revolutionary movements were nothing more than “madness”—he believed that drawing such a conclusion would allow him entry into the upper echelons of Parisian society. LeBon’s work took him into the field of eugenics, and an 1879 paper he wrote suggesting that women and Black people’s brains were inferior to those of white men was a “disaster.”
While Ronson was initially interested in the idea that internet mobs might be caused by group madness, he found some troubling things when he dug further into the idea. The person who pioneered the notion of group madness was merely trying to undermine revolutionary movements in order to ingratiate himself with elites, and he also was strikingly racist and misogynistic, which all casts doubt on the validity of “group madness” as an idea. But the mere fact that Gustave LeBon was, hundreds of years ago, trying to account for the mysteries of group behavior shows how pervasive and persistent this problem has been—obviously, crowds behave very differently than individuals do, but it’s difficult to figure out exactly why.
LeBon continued to travel the world and write racist, eugenics-infused screeds—and in 1895, he published The Crowd, a book whose thesis was that communism, feminism, and other collective movements were nothing more than madness. It was a success—and, in Ronson’s estimation, it proved only that “we tend to love nothing more than to declare other people insane.”
Ronson is deeply suspicious of LeBon’s work because it seems so self-serving and infected by reprehensible and debunked ideas, but he does admit how seductive it is to people to dismiss the behavior of others by calling them insane.
Another example of humanity’s willingness to declare others “insane” is the Stanford Prison Experiment, which took place in 1971 under the supervision of psychologist Philip Zimbardo. Zimbardo seized on crowd theory (or deindividuation, a proposed phenomenon in which uninhibited behavior becomes more common in an excitable crowd setting) and set up a 2-week experiment to prove his point. He set up a mock prison in a windowless basement, complete with constructed cells and solitary confinement rooms. He hired male college students, categorized them as either guards or prisoners, and let them loose. Zimbardo ended the experiment after six days, claiming it had turned violent and spiraled out of control. But Ronson wanted to find out what had really unfolded in the basement.
By contrasting LeBon’s older research on crowds and madness against Zimbardo’s more recent attempts to uncover the relationship between group settings and loss of the self, Ronson shows that there is a pervasive need throughout human society to understand how the self is impacted by the presence of a cacophony of voices. The internet is now the space where large groups of people rally around a single cause—but these real-world experiments, while perhaps not entirely accurate in their findings, set the stage for inquiries into how decreased inhibition enables internet pile-ons.
Ronson tracked down one of the men who’d been involved in the experiment as a guard. The man’s name was John Mark, and he confided in Ronson that the experiment was, in fact, uneventful. Only one of the guards, Dave Eshelman, had seemed to truly go off the rails. So Ronson contacted Eshelman—who then bragged to him about what a good acting job he’d done throughout the experiment. He deliberately imitated the film Cool Hand Luke, believing that he was “doing something good” at the time. When Ronson brought Eshelman’s statement to a pair of psychologists, they found it interesting that he claimed to be doing something good.
It’s not clear what actually happened during the Stanford Prison Experiment, as the researcher’s observation about the behavior of the guards isn’t corroborated by the participants themselves, while the guards’ accounts of their own behavior might simply be self-serving attempts to clear their names. But Ronson does fixate on the supposedly brutal guard’s explanation that he thought he was doing something good by being brutal to others. This shows that the impulse to do something good—whether that thing is objectively good or simply perceived as good because it’s what someone wants—can be the driving force behind a lot of violent, unacceptable human behavior.
Ronson concluded that the people who’d piled on Justine Sacco weren’t “infected with evil,” but rather perceived themselves as arbiters of what was good and what was not. There are patterns and anomalies even within violent crowds—so “contagion” isn’t the answer to the question of why people come together on their own and act as one.
Here, Ronson theorizes that it’s not “contagion” or “infect[ion]” or even a loss of identity that creates such virulent internet mobs—it’s the (sometimes false) belief that one’s thoughts and actions are morally right. That belief in one’s own righteousness can lead someone to see themselves as an arbiter, or judge, of other people’s actions and behavior.
Zimbardo’s assistant refused to schedule an appointment for Ronson to speak with him, but Ronson did receive an email from Zimbardo himself, in which Zimbardo insisted that Eshelman didn’t do anything good. In fact, Zimbardo asserted, Eshelman singlehandedly created an “evil environment.” Ronson did even more research and concluded that many psychologists had already written about how Zimbardo’s participation in the experiment as the “warden” greatly impacted how subjects behaved. Young men assigned to roles as guards assumed that they needed to behave a certain way. Prison guards had a reputation for being violent and gruff, so the boys acted like their concepts of guards to fit what they assumed the researcher’s expectation was.
This passage shows that when people change their behavior to fit with what they believe is expected or desired of them, bad things can happen. Ronson uses this passage to imply that when people join a social media pile-on, they’re doing what they believe the originator of the mob and all those who have joined the fray since want them to—but this isn’t necessarily good or moral behavior, and in fact it can spiral out of control.
To Ronson, Twitter isn’t really a crowd—it’s a group of individual voices. Some called for violence against Sacco, others sought to redirect the internet’s attention to good causes like AIDS charities, while others tried to profit off of her suffering by hawking in-flight WiFi. But, without leadership, they’d all come together spontaneously around one central issue. Ronson knew that he’d played a role in piling on people like Sacco in the past, and he wanted to figure out from what “weird dark well” that impulse came.
Even though he’d figured out that “mob mentality” or the “madness” of a crowd might not be the right way to describe social media shamings, Ronson was still disturbed by how quickly and how fiercely these attacks went off the rails. Ronson’s disturbance—and his need to know more—reveals the complex psychological roots of our contemporary public shamings.