Today’s WTF: Angry mobs in the 21st century

I’ve never been a part of a full-on, old-school, angry mob, and neither has anyone I know. Come to think of it, I’ve never even seen one. I’m talking specifically about the classic angry mob, where there are throngs of people with pitchforks and torches angrily marching to confront some person or entity that has pissed them off. They usually end up at a castle somewhere, to lodge a passionate complaint about someone’s monster getting loose and wreaking havoc on a village. Since that scenario doesn’t tend to occur too often these days, there really hasn’t been much call for that type of thing. In any case, if a neighbor were to tell me right now that an angry mob was being formed and that we had to meet in 15 minutes, I honestly don’t think I could even find a pitchfork on such short notice.

The thing is, angry mobs still serve a function in our society, so they do still exist. They have just evolved and morphed into a newer and more tech-savvy version of what they once were. Instead of torches, we have smartphones, and instead of pitchforks we have internet connections. Because of these technological advances, angry mobs don’t even have to gather in the same geographical space anymore. They can form in cyberspace, and people can participate from anywhere. Where we once might have marched ourselves over to a castle, we now meet up in comment threads, or on Facebook, or on websites that focus on a particular cause or organization. Though you can’t see them most of the time, people are angrier and mobbier than ever.

I was thinking about this over the past couple of days, while reading more about the story of Trayvon Martin, a 17-year-old young man who was shot and killed last month by a self-appointed “captain” of a Neighborhood Watch program. Except, as we have since learned, the man in question, George Zimmerman, wasn’t actually part of any formal Neighborhood Watch organization. He had been patrolling the area without having the authority to do so, and without following rules laid out by the national Neighborhood Watch organization (one of which states that their members should not carry weapons). For no other apparent reason than the fact that Trayvon was young, black and “suspicious” in Zimmerman’s opinion, he was killed with a single bullet.

This happened in my home state of Florida. I live a decent way away from the town of Sanford, where Trayvon lost his life, but the buzz about it is certainly reverberating here too, just as it is across the country and even internationally. If ever there was a time and a reason for an angry mob, this would be it.

And there are some angry mobs already, with protests in and around Sanford, including a rally organized by the Rev. Al Sharpton which will take place there on Thursday. But there are many hundreds of thousands more reacting to this incident, although you can’t see them. They are online, sharing their thoughts on Twitter; signing online petitions to demand that George Zimmerman, who hasn’t yet been charged with a crime, be prosecuted; and posting video tributes and commentaries to remind the world of what happened and who was lost that night. So many people who might not have known about this tragedy have found out about it by links shared in emails or on social media, and they have come together in huge numbers to raise their voices in protest, despite the fact that they are not physically there in Sanford.

This phenomenon is one that we have seen developing over time, as we become more interconnected online. When the O.J. Simpson trial ended and he was acquitted, there were many who reacted angrily to what they saw as a miscarriage of justice. But the internet did not exist the same way then as it does now, and most of the dismay or disbelief people may have had about that situation was reserved for conversations at the office water cooler or feature stories on nightly news programs. In contrast, the Casey Anthony trial took place in a different climate, where one-woman angry mob Nancy Grace dedicated her TV show to whipping up public sentiment against the woman she dubbed “Tot Mom”, and the decision to free Anthony triggered a tidal wave of online anger. On thousands of websites and in countless comment sections, people all over America were united as they unleashed their fury against the jury, against Anthony’s parents, and against Anthony herself. The angry mob was alive and well and living on the web.

The world saw more evidence of this during the “Arab Spring” uprisings across the Middle East and North Africa. Protests in Egypt and Tunisia caught the attention of the whole world, due to the fact that a great deal of the protesters’ actions were planned, publicized and documented using social media. Twitter, Facebook and text messaging played a vital role in allowing those who opposed the government to find one another and organize meetings and public protests. And the online transmission of videos from places where the protests were taking place helped to inform those outside the area about what was going on, while also solidifying support from around the world.

The “Arab Spring” movement was based on justified anger, as are the protests and rallies for Trayvon Martin in Sanford. Those who take to the streets to fight for justice or for freedom are right to do so. Sometimes, however, people gather in anger for reasons that are less defensible. It could be argued (and it was in fact argued, by many in the press) that much of John McCain’s 2008 run for the presidency was based on support from angry mobs. The people who gathered to see him on the campaign trail often used the opportunity to vent their rage at the state of America, and at those who they held responsible for the way things were. There were widespread reports of vicious, and often racist, outbursts by supporters, which McCain’s team didn’t always handle effectively. The longer the campaign went on, the uglier things got.

Many of those same people later gathered in support of the Tea Party and its candidates, in the period leading up to the 2010 midterm elections. Just as had happened during McCain’s run, the people who came out to Tea Party rallies sometimes used inflammatory speech or signs to express their contempt for President Obama, Nancy Pelosi and others, with Nazi or racist imagery and language creeping in on occasion. According to one report from a rally in Kentucky in 2009, the angry mob mentality was acknowledged in a sign that read, “AK-47s: today’s pitchfork”. Since that time, we have not seen the same sort of gatherings on the same sort of scale. Perhaps this is because voters became disenchanted with the Tea Party candidates once they took office, or perhaps it is because the Republicans vying for the presidency this time around are simply not the same types of personalities that McCain and Sarah Palin were.

The most effective version of the angry mob that I have seen in recent times was a physical gathering, but its power was multiplied exponentially once it went viral online. After student protesters at UC Davis in California were pepper-sprayed during a peaceful demonstration, many in the student body gathered outside the administration building on campus to confront the school’s Chancellor, Linda Katehi. It could have been an explosive scene. Instead, the hundreds of students lining the path from the building to the parking lot stood silently, doing nothing more than staring directly at Katehi as she walked to her car. The silence, and the hurt and disappointment in their stares, spoke volumes:

In this era of instant connections between individuals and nations, angry mobs aren’t what they used to be. But what they have become is far more potent. When Al Sharpton and others make their way into Sanford to raise their voices on behalf of Trayvon Martin this Thursday, untold numbers of people from all over the world will be joining them, via technology, to form an angry mob too big for one town to hold. Let us hope that those united pleas for justice will be heard, and answered, so that George Zimmerman will at last be held accountable for what he has done.

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