Social media anonymity encourages and nurtures the herd mentality

It seems to me that the anonymity afforded by social media encourages and nurtures the “herd” mentality in human behaviour. A herd mentality is the essence of “mob behaviour” and it would seem that social media – like mobs – remove or suppress the controls and judgement calls that individual behaviour is usually subject to. I suspect that it is the anonymity available together with the potential for a “flash, online crowd”  which together contribute to reaching the “critical mass” needed for the establishment of an “unthinking mob”.

Mob behaviour is characterised by being reactive and where individuals try to “outdo” the behaviour of their fellows under the cover of being anonymous. But it needs a sufficient number of individuals to reach some critical mass to qualify as a mob. It is visible in the positive sense during rapturous calls for an encore after a concert and in the reaction to high oratory. Or it shows up in a negative way in the behaviour of a lynch mob or in the reaction to the speech of a demagogue. It has shown up in the on-line, “mob-bullying” by social media of some vulnerable teenagers which has even led to their suicides. It shows up with the internet trollls hovering on the fringes looking for a “mob” to join on-line.

A member of a mob gains anonymity in the crowd and his individual actions – while contributing to the behaviour of the mob as a whole – are no longer identifiable as the actions of a specific individual. More importantly the individual behaviour is not subject to identification or to being sanctioned. Just as with a stampeding herd of impala being chased by a predator, it is anonymity and running faster than your neighbour but still staying within the mob which provides this perception of protection. It is this feeling of being protected – I think – which switches off the normal human need for risk assessment and rational judgement to be applied before actions and which shifts behaviour away from the conscious plane. Aping and “outdoing” your “neighbour” from within the mob is then prioritised over the exercise of mind and judgement.

A new study shows that what we “like” on social media clearly exhibits a “herd mentality” and depends mainly on what others before us and around us have “liked”. It seems that random “dislikes” however are compensated for.

Lev Muchnik, Sinan Aral and Sean J. Taylor, Social influence bias: a randomized experiment. Science. Vol. 341, 9 August 2013, p. 647. doi: 10.1126/science.1240466

(The paper is paywalled but there is a related discussion here  with the authors about “The effect of free access on the diffusion of scholarly ideas”)

AbstractOur society is increasingly relying on the digitized, aggregated opinions of others to make decisions. We therefore designed and analyzed a large-scale randomized experiment on a social news aggregation Web site to investigate whether knowledge of such aggregates distorts decision-making. Prior ratings created significant bias in individual rating behavior, and positive and negative social influences created asymmetric herding effects. Whereas negative social influence inspired users to correct manipulated ratings, positive social influence increased the likelihood of positive ratings by 32% and created accumulating positive herding that increased final ratings by 25% on average. This positive herding was topic-dependent and affected by whether individuals were viewing the opinions of friends or enemies. A mixture of changing opinion and greater turnout under both manipulations together with a natural tendency to up-vote on the site combined to create the herding effects. Such findings will help interpret collective judgment accurately and avoid social influence bias in collective intelligence in the future.

ScienceNews writes:

When rating things online, people tend to follow the herd. A single random “like” can influence a comment’s score at a social news site, researchers report in the Aug. 9 Science.

Users of the site discuss news articles and rate each other’s comments with “up votes” (positive ratings) and “down votes” (negative ratings). Votes affect each comment’s overall score. To test whether previous ratings sway users, Sinan Aral of MIT and colleagues randomly assigned all comments submitted to the site over a five-month period an up vote, a down vote or no vote.

An unearned up vote packed a surprising punch. The first person to view a randomly liked comment was 32 percent more likely to rate it positively than to do the same with a comment that had received no vote. In the long run, boosted comments’ final scores were 25 percent higher than scores of untouched comments. Random negative votes did not affect a comment’s final rating because users compensated with extra up votes.

The findings may help researchers analyze herding behavior or manipulation in other kinds of rating systems, including electoral polls and stock market predictions, the authors suggest.

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