How Online Mobs Act Like Flocks Of Birds


Key takeaways


  • Biology has a word for this undulating dance: “murmuration.” In a murmuration, each bird sees, on average, the seven birds nearest it and adjusts its own behavior in response. If its nearest neighbors move left, the bird usually moves left. If they move right, the bird usually moves right. The bird does not know the flock’s ultimate destination and can make no radical change to the whole.
  • The behavior is determined by the structure of the network, which shapes the behavior of the network, which shapes the structure, and so on. The stimulus — or information — passes from one organism to the next through this chain of connections.
  • A growing body of research suggests that human behavior on social media — coordinated activism, information cascades, harassment mobs — bears striking similarity to this kind of so-called “emergent behavior” in nature: occasions when organisms like birds or fish or ants act as a cohesive unit, without hierarchical direction from a designated leader. How that local response is transmitted — how one bird follows another, how I retweet you and you retweet me — is also determined by the structure of the network.
  • For humans, signals are passed from screen to screen, news feed to news feed, along an artificial superstructure designed by humans but increasingly mediated by at-times-unpredictable algorithms. It is curation algorithms, for example, that choose what content or users appear in your feed; the algorithm determines the seven birds, and you react.
    • Note: The medium is the message. How Twitter’s architecture is designed determines the available properties.
  • In the 1910s, a rumor may have stayed confined to a village or town. In the 1960s, it might have percolated across television programs, if it could get past powerful gatekeepers. Now, in the 2020s, it moves through a murmuration of millions, trends on Twitter and is picked up by 24/7 mass media.
  • In an information-rich world, the wealth of information means a dearth of something else: a scarcity of whatever it is that information consumes. What information consumes is rather obvious: it consumes the attention of its recipients. Hence a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention and a need to allocate that attention efficiently among the overabundance of information sources that might consume it.
    • Note: Attention economy
  • A single re-tweet or share or like is individually inconsequential, but the murmuration may be collectively disastrous as it shapes the behavior of the network, which shapes the structure of the network, which shapes the behavior.
  • But the daily aggrievement cycles about individual pieces of content being moderated or not are a red herring. We are treating the worst dynamics of today’s online ecosystem as problems of speech in the new technological environment, rather than challenges of curation and network organization.
  • Trying to litigate rumors and fact-check conspiracy theories is a game of whack-a-mole that itself has negative political consequences. It attempts to address bad viral content — the end state — while leaving the network structures and nudges that facilitate its reach in place.