Mobbed: Communicators & The Madness of Crowds

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Simon Erskine Locke, Founder & CEO, CommunicationsMatchTM 

When crowds rush to judgment they quickly become mobs.

We don’t have to look far to be reminded that crowds don’t have wisdom and mobs don’t follow logic.

In today’s polarized world of “political tribes” on the right and left there’s little room for dissent or nuance in the great pile on of opinion.

Mobbed: Communicators & The Madness of CrowdsMob behavior is clearly not restricted to party politics.  Civil war monuments, education and advertising are just some of the issues that have become politicized in the broader sense of the word and subject to mob think.

As communicators, we know what it feels like to be at the sharp end of public ire – when our companies or clients have been subject to attacks whipped up by activists or media coverage.

Despite this, chances are at one point or another we’ve also been carried along by the crowd.  We’ve likely all followed the impulse to weigh in, judge others and situations more quickly and harshly than we would probably want to be judged ourselves.

I know that I’m not immune.  This is the easy path.  It’s a very human thing.  And, I know from experience, that being the dissenting voice is a path beset by risk.

As communicators, we need to be on the lookout for these behaviors and be mindful of their social context and drivers.

The famous Asch conformity experiments in which individuals can be persuaded by others in a group that a line or pencil, clearly shorter than others, is in fact longer when everyone in the group tells us it is, is a case in point.

Add into the mix, that as social beings we tend to seek out like-minded people who share our values.  And, the more people who are part of the group the greater the peer pressure and reinforcement of these views.

With a support structure for our ideas, confirmation bias kicks into play.  We select the information that fits into our worldview and discard what does not.

A cognitive neuroscientist at University College London, Tali Sharot’s, upcoming book, “The Influential Mind,” shows how hard it is to change these ideas.

Research from the University of Michigan reveals that when presented with contradictory facts, people tend to adhere to their original belief even more strongly, something called backfire.

We’re all subject to these forces.  Few of us want to be or are willing to be the nail that stands out – a term used in Japan for people who are willing to go against consensus. But that’s exactly what we must do as communicators. It’s not always easy to separate ourselves from the crowd.

One way to think of ideology, whether right-wing or left-wing, is as the organization of ideas around which groups think and define themselves.  This process can be organic or imposed. Corporate culture is a form of ideology.  Groupthink is encouraged and fostered around the core values of a business.

The most powerful exercise of power is when people don’t know when power is being exercised.  Ideology that feels organic, meets this definition.  It’s only when we feel ideas are being pushed on us that we see power being exercised.

Through the lens of the crowd, one group may not see ideology at work because it aligns with their thinking, while another may see it as an overt attack on their values. For communicators, it is important to look at all sides to a story and think outside ideology or at least see it for what it is — as much as this is humanly possible.

We have to resist the urge to look at issues through the polarizing filter of “political tribes” or corporate culture if we are to have any chance of seeing the core “truth” of an issue in ways that will allow us to develop messages and approaches that resonate.

This is hard. In a digital communications world, with traditional and social media as amplifiers, crowds and mobs gather quickly.

While this can be for the good – calling out hatred – it can also be dangerous.  Polarized uncritical thinking has consequences that go beyond the squashing of alternative views.  The team that developed the now infamous Pepsi commercial with Kendall Jenner received death threats.  This has become all too common.

The ancient Greeks and Romans understood that the function of democracy requires an educated population, not a mob.  Or, in other words, people who can make informed decisions. This means listening.  By hearing all sides, we are less likely to be swayed by others’ or our own worst instincts.

Does this mean that we as individuals need to be open to or seek to understand extremist views from groups such as white supremacists espousing anti-Semitism or racism?  No.

But it is important to have opinions based on facts and principles.  We need to be open to perspective and arguments that may differ from our own, potentially from unlikely places, if we are to successfully persuade others to a different point of view.

Take for example the defense by the American Civil Liberties Union of the right of the white supremacists to organize the Charlottesville march as part of its mission to protect free speech.  Or former Atlanta Mayor and civil rights leader Andrew Young, who was with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. the day he was assassinated, who recently called the focus on confederate monuments a total distraction undermining the progress made by the civil rights movement.

As communicators—when we engage with business leaders, audiences with diverse perspectives, or are subject to a social media mob—we need to keep this in mind. We need to take a step back and not retreat to our ideological bunker of group or corporate think or believe that, if we, or our companies shout loudly enough, we’ll be heard.  That’s mob behavior.

We need to do our research, listen, do what’s right and be the nail that stands out.

 

About the Author: CommunicationsMatch is a search tool that helps companies find, shortlist and hire communications agencies and consultants by industry and communications expertise, location and size.  The site has 5,000 agencies and consultant profiles in areas including: crisis communications, public relations, internal communications, government affairs, investor relations, content marketing, social media, SEO, website development, photography and video.  Listing and Search are Free.  See more articles on our Insights Blog.  Prior to founding CommunicationsMatch, Locke held senior corporate communications roles at Prudential Financial, Morgan Stanley and Deutsche Bank and founded communications consultancies. 

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