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The social media pile-on taps into ancient instinct for scapegoating

The scapegoat acts as a proxy for the group’s insecurities, tensions and rivalries. As long as the scapegoat can be painted as “different” and as having done something wrong, then the group can feel justified in its violent activity. The most effective scapegoat is the one who blames him or herself and even inflicts the mob’s violence on their behalf. This seems to have happened in the case of Wilson Gavin.

Scapegoating is usually preceded by intense rivalries, which are cast onto one antagonist who is blamed for the conflict. Scapegoating, then, is a powerfully cathartic and transcendent mechanism that allows a group to bond intensely and feel morally superior.

These same dynamics are evident in online abuse and bullying, and they are magnified by the nature of online platforms. People can use online anonymity to make outlandish, hurtful and abusive statements with little fear of repercussions. These statements may bear little resemblance to the facts of events or to the truth of who someone is. These statements easily gain a momentum by the imitation and reinforcement of others in different places and time zones. This imitation becomes contagious.

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Moreover, the distance that the internet produces from real people means users can ignore social restraints and not be bothered by feelings of empathy. These factors, along with the maliciousness of public discourse, combine to make social media an easy option for scapegoating.

But we might ask, why do humans engage in such violent behaviours at all? The answer to this question is the second reason why people engage in malicious online behaviours. Social media is conducive to highly imitative behaviour. It is about comparing and copying what others do or desire. New York University’s Geoff Shullenberger comments that: “Social media platforms … are machines for producing desire. Their equalising structure – what is most widely celebrated about them – converts all users into each other’s potential models, doubles, and rivals, locked in a perpetual game of competition for the intangible objects of desire of the attention economy.”

Girard identified how this imitative pattern of human behaviour is grounded in desire, which he defined as “mimetic” (dynamically imitative). Apart from certain appetites (required for survival), humans do not have pre-programmed objects of desire. Rather, human desire is stimulated by the desires of others. Thus, human desire is social by nature, freed from the dominance of biological instinct but subject to social contagion. Social media is a direct outgrowth of our social-mimetic nature, and even to some degree, of Girard’s ideas.

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Peter Thiel, the first major investor in Facebook and a student of Girard’s, saw Professor Girard’s theories being validated in the concept of social media, according to an obituary for Girard in The New York Times: “Facebook first spread by word of mouth, and it’s about word of mouth, so it’s doubly mimetic,” Thiel said. “Social media proved to be more important than it looked, because it’s about our natures.” That is, human nature as highly social and imitative.

Yet, because of social media’s appeal to human desire, it is highly susceptible to the more malicious forms of imitation. A contagion of desire – stimulated by accusation, rivalry and resentment – can be easily whipped up on social media. The promise of social media, then, becomes an ugly form of ‘connection’ that results in real-life violence.

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