A dangerous weapon in the wrong hands.

Photographer: Chris Ratcliffe/Bloomberg

Sadism and the Online Mob

Noah Smith is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was an assistant professor of finance at Stony Brook University, and he blogs at Noahpinion.
Read More.
a | A

Slate magazine has a wonderful feature about online outrage, and you should check it out. You can read a story by someone whose career was wrecked by a careless tweet, or another by a writer who started a flood of outrage by accident. You can read about liberal outrage or conservative outrage.

But I think there’s an important aspect of outrage that the Slate writers mostly left out -- the connection between outrage and sadism.

There are three common theories of why people join online outrage mobs. The first is that they are simply angry. Blogger Adam Gurri calls this “telescopic morality”--– the tendency of people to get emotionally worked up about things that are far away. The second theory is that participating in an outrage mob allows people to feel social acceptance -- it demonstrates that there are a lot of other people who are on our “side,” who share our values and who are willing to march alongside us. The third theory is that outrage is a form of social performance -- that we profess outrage to show other people that we’re on their side.

I’m sure all of these are real. But joining an outrage mob also gives you a fourth benefit -- a chance to indulge the natural sadism that is the birthright of every human being.

Humans are naturally altruistic -- there is a pleasure we get from seeing other people be happy. But we are also naturally sadistic -- in certain situations, we get pleasure from seeing people in pain. This is a common theme in literature. Recall the way that children turned to human sacrifice in "Lord of the Flies," or that the “Two Minutes Hate” diverted society’s animus toward an imaginary villain in "1984."

Those stories reflect an element of reality. In the famous Stanford Prison Experiment, psychologist Philip Zimbardo found that it didn’t take long for college students in a simulation of prison life to begin abusing each other. In another famous experiment, psychologist Stanley Milgram found that most college students would willingly shock someone to death if ordered to do so by an experimenter (the “shocks” and “death” were faked, but the subjects believed they were real). In his book “The Better Angels of Our Nature,” psychologist Steven Pinker describes more research along the same lines.

As poet Nicholas Christopher wrote, “All the history you’ve ever read tells you this is what men do.”

Participating in an outrage mob gives us a chance to inflict pain on a stranger in a socially acceptable manner. The target of the outrage feels despair as he sees his career crumbling before his eyes. He feels the pain of a thousand brutal insults. She experiences fear, as anonymous attackers post her address and satellite photos of her house online. She feels socially rejected, outcast, forsaken.

Meanwhile, the members of the mob bask in their anonymity. Even if they use their real names, they are hidden by dint of their insignificance. They become droplets in the sea.

People sometimes use the term “witch hunt” to describe outrage mobs. This is accurate, in the original sense of the term -- when a primitive community decides that one person is a witch, the communal act of doing violence on that unfortunate individual binds the community closer together. Another example is the lynch mob. The extreme example, of course, is genocide.

Try the following exercise next time you get the urge to join an online outrage mob. Imagine that there was no mob, that it was just you and the person you’re outraged at, alone in a room. Assume there’s no way the other person can harm you. Now imagine if you’d say the same things to that person one-on-one that you would say as part of an online mob. I bet you wouldn't. The mob gives you strength. It gives you permission to release your inner sadist.

In her 1973 short story “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas,” science fiction author Ursula K. LeGuin describes a paradise that -- for reasons never explained -- can only be sustained by the pain and suffering of a single outcast individual. Is the paradise of the Internet something similar? Can we only feel companionship and camaraderie online if we periodically solidify it by attacking some faraway moral transgressor?

I hope not. That’s not the kind of online community I want. But history and psychology show that although the sadistic mob instinct may be repressed, it never dies.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Noah Smith at nsmith150@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
James Greiff at jgreiff@bloomberg.net