The Madness of the Crowd

by Tim Hwang

A decade ago, the internet was praised for empowering the smart, collaborative crowd. Now it’s blamed for unleashing the stupid, malicious mob. What happened?

As the Trump Administration enters its first year, the 2016 election and its unexpected result remains a central topic of discussion among journalists, researchers, and the public at large.

It is notable the degree to which Trump’s victory has propelled a broader, wholesale evaluation of the defects of the modern media ecosystem. Whether it is “fake news,” the influence of “filter bubbles,” or the online emergence of the “alt-right,” the internet has been cast as a familiar villain: enabling and empowering extreme views, and producing a “post-fact” society.

This isn’t the first time that the internet has figured prominently in a presidential win. Among commentators on the left, the collective pessimism about the technological forces powering Trump’s 2016 victory are matched in mirror image by the collective optimism about the technological forces driving Obama’s 2008 victory. As Arianna Huffington put it simply then, “Were it not for the internet, Barack Obama would not be president. Were it not for the internet, Barack Obama would not have been the nominee.”

But whereas Obama was seen as a sign that the new media ecosystem wrought by the internet was functioning beautifully (one commentator praised it as “a perfect medium for genuine grass-roots political movements”), the Trump win has been blamed on a media ecosystem in deep failure mode. We could chalk these accounts up to simple partisanship, but that would ignore a whole constellation of other incidents that should raise real concerns about the weaknesses of the public sphere that the contemporary internet has established.

This troubled internet has been around for years. Fears about filter bubbles facilitating the rise of the alt-right can and should be linked to existing concerns about the forces producing insular, extreme communities like the ones driving the Gamergate controversy. Fears about the impotence of facts in political debate match existing frustrations about the inability for documentary evidence in police killings—widely distributed through social media—to produce real change. Similarly, fears about organized mobs of Trump supporters systematically silencing political opponents online are just the latest data point in a long-standing critique of the failure of social media platforms to halt harassment.

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Tim Hwang is a writer and researcher based in San Francisco. He is the author of The Container Guide—a field guide to identifying the contemporary shipping container—and is currently developing a LARP inspired by competitive arm wrestling.