I’ll be brief, but I want to explain how social media mobs provide people with a religious experience. Without this bit of understanding, I don’t think we can make proper sense of the new phenomenon.
To put it simply, social media mobs transmute painful emotions into a belief in one’s own righteousness. This is also what religious experiences do.
To explain, I’ll use a fairly standard religious experience, the Evangelical conversion, as a comparison (with my apologies to Evangelicals):
- The convert is deeply affected (usually guilty) by the less-than-ideal facts of his or her own life.
- They are given a reason to believe that they can be something better (by the sacrifice of Jesus to redeem them).
- Once they accept that, they emerge as a “new creature,”with righteousness conferred upon them by God Himself.
The person going through this comes to the other side feeling newly righteous. And so, the process can be summarized as the transmutation of base emotions into righteousness. And the process turns upon the reason to believe.
Bear in mind, please, that I’m not saying this is fraudulent, or that it’s the only religious experience; I’m just using it as an example.
My point is, this is the same process we see in the Twitter mob.
The Covid Experience
The best example of this are the Twitter mobs centered on the Covid event. I’m not trying to slam either side with this; it’s just such an overwhelming example that I can’t begin with any other.
Let’s go through it in stages:
- The beginning state of this religious experience was fear. The social media algorithms ramped it up, of course (maximizing “engagement”), creating large groups of very frightened people.
- Because there is no God in this process to confer righteousness, righteousness had to be manufactured, by creating Satan figures to oppose. (Opposition to pure evil = righteousness.) That role fell to those who resisted wearing masks, then passed to the unvaxxed.
- Next came the reason to believe, and for the social media mob, it was behavioral, rising to the level of chemical. The confirmation of others has been a factor in all sorts of group experiences, but it was taken to a new level by the Facebook and Twitter algos (and the bots pushing those algos). Likes, shares and thumbs up are little shots of dopamine; they are addictive and they are powerful. This provided a more than sufficient reason to believe.
- In the end, reviling the non-compliant conferred righteousness upon the mob.
What we see in this process, then, is fear being transmuted into righteousness.
It’s also worth noting that breaking out of these groups can be very difficult. Here’s a passage from Sam Keen’s The Passionate Life, to make the point:
It is disturbing for an individual to reject the tribe’s claim to self-righteousness because it excludes him or her from the civil religion, the social immortality system, and the ritual of scapegoating, in which guilt is alleviated by being assigned to an outcast or enemy that the tribe may destroy in the name of God.
From One To The Next
It’s important to see that one religious experience of this type rolls directly into another. In this case, the mobs moved directly from the declining Covid experience into the new Ukraine experience.
And again, I’m not picking sides, I’m merely pointing out that the response to the war in Ukraine became an instant, world-wide phenomenon, while the war in Yemen never did. Even World War II didn’t start out with millions of young people carrying around the flags of a foreign country.
With fairly few exceptions, the people who now hold Putin as a devil figure are the same ones who held the unvaxxed as devil figures: The process has been the same, just the devil figures have changed.
Having made my point, I’ll stop here. I don’t feel nearly as good writing “what’s wrong” articles as I do “what’s right” pieces. I simply thought this one was important enough to publish: I don’t want to look back, years from now, and think that I really should have done more.
I’ll give you one last fact, by noting that “policy-makers” are also part of these social media mobs, and that their choices generate feedback that loops back to themselves, amping up with each iteration and leading to decisions that are badly out of proportion.
Even if you don’t like my religious assertion for some reason, these social media systems very clearly furnish people with pre-packaged, group virtue. In the end, the whole exercise boils down to a simple assumption: that complaining in the prescribed way makes you righteous. And that’s just foolish.