The Digital Acceleration of Herd Mentality

“A person is smart. People are dumb, panicky dangerous animals and you know it.”

It’s a memorable, often quoted line from the 1997 sci-fi comedy, Men in Black, where Agent K (Tommy Lee Jones) explains to his apprentice (Will Smith) why it would be a very bad idea to reveal to the public that space aliens are living secretly among them.

While there are many great one-liners in the film (that still draw a laugh), that particular one has been remembered for the inherent, societal truth it spoke. When an individual alone is presented with new, consequential information, that person is more likely to process it logically and rationally than if he or she had consumed it in a group setting.

This paradox goes by lots of different names, but for the sake of this column, I’ll use the term herd mentality.

Herd mentality is a product of peer influence. It compels people to adopt behaviors and sentiment, not from autonomous reason, but from the passion and emotions of those who surround them. These emotions, in turn, lead to impulsive (and often bad) decisions that wouldn’t have otherwise been made.

It’s been pretty easy to spot herd mentality throughout this nation over the past few months, most graphically in the rioting, looting, and vandalism we’ve seen in major U.S. cities. What began as protests in the name of social justice have turned into an excuse to spread violence, destroy businesses, and destroy lives.

We’ve also seen it with the uptick in the cancel culture, where dissenting, objectionable views are increasingly treated as infectious diseases deserving of eradication.

And we’ve of course seen it in the way mask-wearing (to mitigate the spread of COVID-19) has been turned into a ridiculous culture war, with one side insisting that it’s a heinous violation of their freedoms.

Herd mentality has a far wider reach today than even 20 or 25 years ago because of the virality and boundlessness of the Internet and the 24-hour news cycle. In virtually no time at all, something as simple as a contextless image or video clip can create and accelerate a deeply misleading narrative among a population.

We were reminded of a pretty famous example of this last week with the settlement of Nicholas Sandmann’s defamation lawsuit against the Washington Post. Sandmann was the kid we all remember wearing a “Make America Great Again” hat in front of the Lincoln Memorial, “smirking” as a Native American man (Nathan Phillips) beat a drum and sang a chant just inches from his face. The two were surrounded by other students from Sandmann’s school, who joined in with the chant, smiling and laughing.

I would argue (and did at the time) that a smart, reasonable person watching that video for the first time — even if he or she had a preconceived notion of someone who would wear a MAGA hat — would want to know more about the incident before forming an opinion of what they were seeing. A reasonable person would wonder (not merely assume) what it was that brought those people together, and why they were acting as they were.

But blasted across the Internet at light-speed, filtered through the political instincts of millions, and recklessly reported on by media outlets (who suffer from their own form of groupthink), Sandmann quickly became a national poster-child for racial intolerance. Even after the facts came to light, and it was clear Sandmann hadn’t done anything wrong or even inappropriate, herd mentality kept many from ever accepting that truth.

Another example from last week had to do with the aforementioned war on protective masks. Dr. Anthony Fauci was the target this time, after he threw out the first pitch at the MLB season opener. Fauci, who has been vilified by many on the right for putting forth COVID-era health recommendations that are often politically and economically unhelpful, was later captured in the stands by photographers not wearing a mask.

Being that Fauci has been expressing the importance of masks for months (while acknowledging that he downplayed it in the early days of the health crisis out of a supply concern for medical professionals treating the infected), detractors decided that the photographs had exposed the effectiveness of masks (which has been proven in study after study) to be a hoax:

It didn’t take long before I saw these same photos (accompanied by the same sentiment) popping up all over my Facebook feed.

Fauci’s a fraud!

Look, even he knows masks don’t work!

Why do I have to wear a mask if he doesn’t have to?

I suspect it’s not coincidence that this stuff came from the same friends and acquaintances who’ve been insisting from the beginning that COVID-19 is no biggie, and that every societal sacrifice (or even mere inconvenience) we’ve endured for the health crisis has been based on a delusion created by the power-hungry elite. Even as tens of thousands of new cases of the virus are reported each day, with the death count now around 150,000, these folks keep feeding the narrative to each other, and stoking conspiratorial doubt in others.

As a different buddy said to me, about the reactions to the Fauci photos, “Don’t you love how people suddenly can’t discern any obvious details when they smell a gotcha?”

As Agent K might respond, “A person would pick up on the details… but people? Not so much.

Those “obvious details,” in this case, would include the fact that Fauci and his two companions were outside (where the virus is far less transmissible), that no one else was seated around them (aka socially distanced), that the woman to his left was his wife (who he lives with and breathes the same air as every day), and that the friend to his right was still wearing a mask.

Additionally, a reasonable person might also consider the length of time Fauci was without his mask. Could it have been just a few seconds, perhaps right before or after he took a swig from that water bottle pictured on his lap? According to Fauci, that’s exactly what happened. He also revealed that he had tested negative for COVID-19 just a day earlier.

But when people are frustrated or scared (as many of us are right now), herd mentality impedes the ability of individuals to take a step back, and look at things in an open-minded, rational way. Perhaps this is why Fauci, U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Jerome Adams, and the CDC felt they couldn’t be upfront with the general public about masks when they were concerned about shortages in March. I still think it was the wrong thing to do, and created unnecessary confusion (that’s unfortunately still being used by others as political propaganda), but perhaps I’m a little more sympathetic to their predicament than I once was.

Regardless, what makes herd mentality on the Internet particularly concerning right now is that, with physical gatherings remaining potentially dangerous for the foreseeable future, the pre-existing cultural trend of social media replacing our traditional institutions has been accelerated. Many of the more focused organizations and establishments in our lives, that bring us together and keep us grounded (whether it be church, sports, live music, community celebrations, etc.) are on indefinite hold. That means people are spending more time online, latching onto viral themes and joining righteous revolts against all kinds of perceived injustices.

It’s not healthy, and in several cases (some described above), it’s contributing to the prolonging of this crisis by promoting reckless behavior that only adds to the spread of the coronavirus.

If there were ever a time when people (especially those with time on their hands) needed to further explore their own individuality, it’s right now. Maybe that means taking up a new hobby, going on some camping trips, or doing some (safe) volunteering in the community.

If it keeps people from subjecting themselves to countless hours of social media and cable news, it’s almost certainly a good thing.

Order John A. Daly’s novel “Safeguard” today!