Mindset of the mob can sway citizen journalism


IT IS a conventional wisdom that citizen journalism, blogging, interactivity and other new forms of communication are changing our communications media, and by extension our democracies, in radical and, it is implied, positive ways. But I wonder whether those who eulogise these developments ever take a close look at the content of some of these allegedly shimmering new elements of the democratic discourse.

Let’s take a random example from the online edition of last Sunday’s Observer newspaper – an article which, as is becoming mandatory, opened up at the end to “posts” from readers.

The article, by Jamie Drummond, was about Ethiopia 25 years after the famine that spawned Band Aid. Drummond went to Tigray in northern Ethiopia to look at the impact of Band Aid funding. He had last been there in 1999, when he encountered drought and desperation. Since then, aid administered through “food for work” programmes had helped transform the village.

He extrapolated from this and other evidence that the influence of Band Aid had broadly been positive. He mentioned the halving of malaria deaths in Ethiopia and the increase in economic growth – 7 per cent for the past three years. He was critical of the West’s failure to invest in African agriculture, but praised the efforts of Bob Geldof, Bono and politicians such as Gordon Brown in promoting initiatives enabling Africans to take control of their own destinies.

It was an interesting enough overview of a subject that will be much analysed in the coming weeks. More interesting, though for the wrong reasons, were the responses in the thread of posts from readers that grew on to the article. Of the 89 posts I could find, only four were vaguely and somewhat unenthusiastically positive about the article, aid, Geldof, Bono or indeed anything at all. A further eight might be called neutral, in that they sought to make some elliptical points about the issues raised, without rubbishing anyone.

The rest – roughly 85 per cent – were abusive, expressing rage, scorn, hatred, jealously, cynicism and an authorial self-righteousness lacking any visible means of support. Not a single post indicated that its author had been to Africa, or had any special knowledge of, or even interest in, that continent.

Several contributors grasped the opportunity to vent their spleens about Geldof and Bono. One post called them “an absolutely monstrous pair of f***ers who have made millions off the backs of the starving”. (The word was fully spelt out in the original.) Another contributor wrote that he was “relieved to learn that Bono isn’t just a posturing, monstrous, tax-dodging cock who could write a cheque which would dwarf the original Live Aid fund – and then drop it in the street without bothering to look for it”.

“Let’s start making poverty history,” declared a fairly typical post, “by preventing people like Bob Geldof’s and Prince Charles’s offspring from procreating, shall we? I really don’t want another multi-millionaire tax-dodging mouth to feed, grabbing 99 per cent of the world’s resources whilst the rest of the world goes to hell in a hand cart, do you?” There was no evidence of any vetting for accuracy, taste, defamation or even spelling. There were plenty of four-letter words. One post began: “I have never heard such crap”. Another ended: “F**k it! [asterisks added]. This thread is just getting plain weird. I’m off to bed.”

There was nothing representing the enthusiasm with which peoples around the world participated in Band Aid, Live Aid and Live 8, or reflecting the respect in which Geldof and Bono are held worldwide.

Most contributors were pseudonymous. Almost all appeared to be young men of similar outlook and mode of expression. I doubt whether any of the posts would have been published as a letter in the hard copy Observer.

The most interesting thing about such threads is the mob mindset that seems to underlie them. They are not neutral conduits for spontaneous opinions, but channels dedicated to forms of disgruntlement from people with, for perhaps good reasons, no other outlet. Contributors appear to come to the process with a mindset possibly symptomatic of the isolationism involved in internet relationships generally, and anticipating a certain group dynamic. The tone of a thread seems to be set by the early contributors.

Most contributors appear mostly to want to draw attention to themselves, seeking to convey strength, cleverness, cynicism or aggression, while pre-empting the possibility of hostility or ridicule by pushing these responses in front like swords.

I am at a loss to perceive any intellectual or democratic distinction between most of this stuff and public urination.

Responses from readers are an essential part of journalism. But in my experience, the kinds of communications you get in letters or even e-mails are quite different to what is to be found in these web threads. As well as abuse, traditional reader-to-author feedback offers constructive criticism, passionate and informed argument, useful information and even praise.

I do not suggest that the new developments are not representative of something occurring in society, but I believe we should be looking more closely at what this trend might represent rather than unthinkingly absorbing its bile.