Mob Creation

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In the interest of full disclosure, I want to start by saying I have no strong feelings about Duck Dynasty as a show.  Until about three weeks ago, I barely knew what it was.  And now that I do, I still don’t really have any strong feelings other than that Phil Robertson is quite the bigot and appears to have some ridiculous opinions about a great many things.

I do, however, have strong feelings about the online mob that was created in response to his suspension.  As an anger researcher who is particularly interested in the way people express their rage online, I watched with fascination as an angry, online mob gathered their pitchforks  and went after A&E, non-Christians, and liberals.

I watched as Twitter erupted with angry tweets from Duck Dynasty fans.  I watched people I’m friends with on Facebook, who almost never post anything, post article after article in defense of Phil Robertson.

It quickly became about much more than whether or not the show would air or whether or not his comments were appropriate. In reading through the tweets, it was clear that to his fans his suspension was an attack on hunters, the first amendment, and all Christians everywhere.

These memes flooded Twitter in the days after his suspension:

One could, of course, go through and pick these apart, as they all defy basic common sense.  Had liberals really been defending Miley Cyrus?  And were liberals the ones who suspended Robertson?   When were his constitutional rights violated, when did this become about Islam, and are you really comparing the Robertsons to the apostles?

Some of this can be explained by basic social psychology.  When members of any group (in this case, hunters, Christians, conservatives, etc.) feel attacked, they tend to lash out at the perceived attackers.  In this case, the perceived attackers were liberals, A&E and the rest of the media, non-hunters, and non-Christians.  Robertson’s supporters circled the wagons and responded the way groups that feel threatened often do.

But some of this was manufactured and that’s the part that concerns me most.  In the days after Robertson’s comments, the following was said by various Republican leaders across the country:

Former Vice-Presidential Nominee Sarah Palin (December 18th, 2013, via Facebook): “Free speech is an endangered species. Those ‘intolerants’ hatin and taking on the Duck Dynasty patriarch for voicing his personal opinion are taking on all of us.”

Governor Bobby Jindal (December 19th, 2013, via a statement released by his office): “I remember when TV networks believed in the First Amendment. It is a messed up situation when Miley Cyrus gets a laugh, and Phil Robertson gets suspended.”

Senator Ted Cruz (December 19th, 2013, via Twitter): “If you believe in free speech or religious liberty, you should be deeply dismayed over treatment of Phil Robertson”

So we have three (and there have been many others) prominent conservatives who are actively working to fuel the fire.  That alone isn’t a problem.  Politicians often try to drum up anger as a way of gaining support (here’s why, by the way).  What is a problem, though, is that they are lying to their followers as they do it.  Robertson’s first amendment rights were absolutely not violated in any way and Palin, Jindal, and Cruz must know that (see here for an explanation of how free speech doesn’t guarantee you a TV show).  I supposed it’s possible their understanding of the first amendment is so limited that they actually think this is a violation of Robertson’s first amendment rights.  But I doubt it.  Their position on this is actually inconsistent with the corporate-personhood cause they have been championing these last years (i.e., if corporations have rights, why doesn’t A&E have the right to suspend an employee for voicing something that may damage the company image).

What’s more likely is that Palin, Jindal, and Cruz knew their supporters would have a knee-jerk reaction to the idea that liberals were attacking the constitution and they deliberately lied to them in order to feed the rage and create a mob.

Such behavior is shameful and dangerous.  To that point, on December 20th, A&E had to increase security at their headquarters due to death threats and “suspicious looking packages” in response to the Robertson suspension.  It’s not fair to suggest a direct link between their comments and these death threats, but it is fair to say that their dishonest comments escalated an already emotionally charged situation.  There are consequences to mob creation.

I’m not asking them to keep quiet.  They have every right to express their opinions on this and anything else.  I’m just asking them to be honest as they do it.  I’m asking them to recognize the responsibility that comes with having so many supporters and not to fan the flames of the online mob with their dishonest rhetoric.

By Ryan C. Martin