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Online anonymity creates a mob mentality

They say the sole survivor of a boat capsizing must have hoarded the life jackets. They say a Mexican baby saved from a kidnapping should be deported, along with her parents. They say a legendary St. Petersburg barbecue cook who died should be remembered for his arrests, not his spare ribs. They say a state veterinarian who tried to explain policies on injured wildlife should have his arms and legs broken. • All these are postings from recent Web-published news stories in the St. Petersburg Times. The anonymous authors constitute an Internet phenomenon that psychologists describe as something like lynch-mob behavior. They are cyber necktie parties that vent anger and dispense frontier justice through millions of anonymous e-mails and Web postings. They have become a growing force as all forms of media — newspapers, TV, the blogosphere — seek instantaneous interaction with readers and viewers.

The most vivid recent national example was a gruesome threat e-mailed to AIG executives who just received $165 million in bonuses. As AIG's CEO was pressed to "name and shame" the bonus recipients, he told a congressional committee that the exposure could endanger lives. "All the executives and their families," one e-mailer wrote, "should be executed with piano wire around their necks."

The only psychological models for the phenomenon are old ones, based on studies of lynch-mob behavior at the turn of the century. There's a lot about Internet communication that's still not well understood.

University of South Florida psychologist Jennifer Bosson can cite numerous classic studies, but can't be sure how they apply to the rage that seems to be overtaking e-mails, chat rooms and Web postings.

She asks, "Are people that angry all the time?"

• • •

The USF Psychology Department has been abuzz with theories since a recent e-mail attack on one of its own.

The trigger was an appearance on the Fox news show, The O'Reilly Factor, by USF social psychologist Jamie Goldenberg. She had been invited on the show to talk about a study she co-authored on how a woman's looks influence perceptions of her intelligence. The study focused on Sarah Palin.

The show aired twice. Each time, Goldenberg got a wave of e-mails.

"It must be really humiliating to be made a complete and utter fool of on national television. BTW, I'm guessing . . . um . . . lesbian? Jealous beotch."

Goldenberg said she was surprised by her own reaction. Even with her professional training, she couldn't help but take the attacks personally. "It got to me. It threatened my sense of anonymity."

One morning, a neighbor joked that CNN had called him, asking questions about her personal life. He had to quickly explain he was kidding when her face registered panic.

"I completely freaked out."

• • •

The angry Web postings on news stories defy predictability. They show up on stories of loss, or heroism, often stories that outwardly seem void of any controversy. A recent posting referred to a Tampa baby who was caught by a rescuer as she fell from a burning two-story building. It suggested the story would have been better if the baby had fallen from seven stories.

The drownings of three football players whose boat capsized in the Gulf of Mexico triggered attacks on the one man who survived. "Steve from Clearwater" posted this:

"i think hes lieing, he knows what really happened to the other 3 and isnt talking, he could have murdered them for all we know, only sky and god knows what happened."

The rescue of a 2-month-old baby kidnapped from her Mexican parents in Plant City inspired comments like this one from "St. Pete":

"Did the mom think she was selling the baby and then didn't get paid or what?"

And this one, from "Penny from Largo":

"Glad the baby made it home safe. Now deport the whole family . . ."

After Thursday's obituary of Timothy Walters, owner of Big Tim's Bar-B-Q, a 41-year-old landmark restaurant, "James from St. Pete" wrote:

"Of course the 'locals' will most remember him for the 'barbq', not the auto theft ring and chop shop which is legally well documented."

• • •

USF psychologist Bosson and her colleagues fall back on several classic theories to explain what's happening.

People who form mobs "de-individualize" themselves. They lose their sense of self, and all the values and filters that modify their behavior. The larger the mob, the more brutal lynchings tend to be.

In a sense, the Internet is the largest mob ever assembled. It sometimes transforms otherwise inhibited people into unrestrained, faceless "conduits for emotion."

"They don't know what they're angry at, and they don't care if it makes sense. It's just a rage that has to come out."

Mobs also tend to view their targets as objects rather than people. The more physical distance there is between an attacker and his target, the more pronounced the dehumanization. That could explain the AIG piano wire threat, or the e-mails to Goldenberg from people who have never talked to her or met her.

The psychologists say some Internet vitriol may be unintentional. Sarcasm doesn't translate well. Nor does ordinary hyperbole. A lot of it is honed in chat rooms where aggressive, angry language comes with the territory.

Even Goldenberg said she doubts the e-mailers would say the same hateful things to her face.

But that's one theory the psychologists don't care to personally test.

John Barry can be reached at jbarry@sptimes.com or (727) 892-2258.

The psychology of cyber-lynching

Story, XE

"Did the mom think she was selling the baby and then didn't get paid or what?"

"Glad the baby made it home safe. Now deport the whole family . . ."

Online anonymity creates a mob mentality 04/11/09 [Last modified: Saturday, April 11, 2009 4:31am]

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