Tribalism with Instant Global Communication, 4/2
moral panics at Internet speed
Definition: Neo-Social Group (NSG)
A group of humans characterized by the following three traits:
Hyper-connectivity – Rapid messages (within minutes) between any two members of the group is possible and messages can be sent (directly or indirectly) to a majority of key people in the group within minutes via the same process.
Homogenizing Force – There is a social force which pressures members of the group to conform to a certain position or face separation from the group and possibly other consequences
Total or Near Total Lack of Rigor – On the positions in (2.), the vast majority of the members of the group do not consciously consider the positions they are taking. They do not factually investigate them, nor do they check whether those positions are consistent.
He argues that (1) is relatively new and significant. Accordingly, he wants to use “NSG” instead of “tribe” or “cult.” I think the term is unlikely to stick, but I get the motivation for the concept.
In the context of social media, the life cycle of moral panics speeds up. Around the end of the 19th century and the early 20th century, there was a moral panic among progressives about “demon rum,” which culminated in adding Prohibition to the Constitution in 1919. It was repealed in 1933. This process took decades. Nowadays, the cycle is much more compressed—who would have thought five years ago that the question of defining a woman was of consequence for a Supreme Court nominee?
Various moral panics of the early Progressive movement died because they were discredited. Prohibition failed spectacularly. Eugenics became associated with Nazism.
“Cactus” argues that modern moral panics die by dropping out of the spotlight. He gives the example of 9/11 “truthers,” who claimed that the terrorist attacks were a hoax.
People simply cared less about 9/11. They cared less about the history, which no longer seemed hot to the touch. They cared less about the people who died. The emotional triggers that worked time after time simply did not work any longer. The core ideas behind 9/11 Truthers could not survive by merging with other conspiracy theories, either.
I am not sure that this is such a great example. The interesting thing about 9/11 is the moral panic that emerged over fear of terrorism. And that one is still with us, eating away at our liberty every time we wish to get on an airplane or transfer a large amount of money.
The way that I describe what has changed in the environment is that we no longer separate the intimate world from the remote world. The intimate world used to be our family, friends, and co-workers. The remote world used to be celebrities, criminals, and politicians. We used to connect with the intimate world in person, and we used to follow the remote world in mass media. Now, we connect with both the intimate world and the remote world on our phones.
Fifty years ago, few American citizens would have given a %^*(#@ about Ukraine. Elites would have had a lot of degrees of freedom in choosing a policy response. Maybe they would have imposed sanctions, and maybe they would not. Maybe they would have aided Ukraine militarily, and maybe they would not. Maybe they would have tried to force a negotiated settlement, and maybe they would not. Today, the Twitter mob drives foreign policy. (Perhaps the role of media is not completely unprecedented. “Remember the Maine!”)
Contemporary moral panics end indecisively. They end when the focus on social media shifts elsewhere.
There was never a specific endpoint for the COVID panic. It has faded as an issue. I could see the moral panic over Ukraine ending before the war concludes. If the virus comes back strongly, or if another police killing of an apparently innocent black man takes place, or some new issue arises, then Zelensky will find it hard to get face time, and the moral panic over Ukraine will fade. That will be a good time for the rest of us to remember the refugees.