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Social Media: The New Salem

Social Media: The New Salem

Freedom of expression is dying and it’s your fault

A new mob mentality has steadily been forming for years, with the rapid growth of social media platforms such as Twitter, Facebook and Reddit fuelling this growth. An anonymous, negative, collective consciousness that exists within the grey area around the lines between one’s actions and personal accountability has arisen and it is here to stay. Hiding behind keyboards and touch-screens, their anonymity inflates their egos and any sense of self or accountability slips away between ones and zeros. Their existence within the ever growing ‘New Salem’ only serves to allow these individuals to legitimise their behaviour, allowing the mob to continuously grow. 

A quick history lesson is required to fully understand how the social media age we live in now can be compared to the horrific crimes committed in Salem, in colonial Massachusetts between February 1692 and May 1693. The Salem Witch Trials were a series of hearings and prosecutions of people accused of witchcraft. More than 200 people were accused, nineteen of whom were found guilty and executed by hanging. It was the deadliest witch hunt in the history of the United States and it was fuelled as a result of mob mentality, allowing the individuals who partook in the murders of fourteen women and five men to separate themselves from the reality of their actions. 

The repeated nature of history, in relation to Salem and the witch hunts, has shown itself throughout history with the period of the ‘second red scare’/McCarthyism during the Cold War being a key recent example. During the period of McCarthyism and the witch hunt for Communists in American society, many famous people were persecuted simply on the basis of their political views. Many famous victims of this period of time include Charlie Chaplin, Arthur Miller and Orson Welles. It is in this context that we are better able to view the contemporary social media age as a reincarnation of Salem and McCarthyism in a new form.

There’s something about being part of a collective, which social media provides, that dissolves personal accountability and causes people to behave in ways atypical to how they’d normally interact with others. Psychologists call this ‘deindividuation’. Being part of a group not only makes us commit acts that we wouldn’t commit as an individual.

The ‘Bystander Effect’ is a phenomenon where individuals don’t offer any means to help a victim when other people are present. The hypothesis is; when there’s a group of people, responsibility and accountability are diffused therefore people are less likely to act. It’s been clear for many years that being part of a group makes us behave differently to how we behave alone, but how has the internet changed this? 

We now have giant, global, virtual mobs which have totally changed the social psychology landscape. There’s now a new mob mentality arising. The internet is not only allowing us to easily dissolve our sense of self through anonymity, it also exposes us to many ‘mobs’ and allows people to become easily influenced by others’ ideals. In some cases, extreme ideals. It’s as if, with no sense of self, our egos subconsciously desire to attach to something, a false-self, even if it’s hateful and negative group-think. It’s now easier than ever to get infected by negative thoughts that are fuelled by this mob mentality.

A study by Leeds University has shown that it takes just “five percent of people to influence a crowd, while the other ninety-five percent follow without realizing it”. It is as though the world is just one big narcissistic cesspool, where everyone is looking in mirrors echoing one another, and if the mirror doesn’t look like them or sound like them, then there’s an uproar, a sort of disbelief that someone might disagree with the herd. Such actions are leading to people losing their jobs and being condemned (due to social media) by millions around the world.

So what does the future hold? Face-to-face interactions are on the decline, so what will become of our individual self in an expanding virtual, online existence? We need disagreements and debates to sharpen ourselves. Succumbing to conformity quashes growth, creating stagnation which brings upon a sort of putrid rot, a veil of toxicity that seems to be permeating every society due to social media.

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