Over the past two centuries, our Constitution has done a good job of curbing the menace of mob behavior. Unfortunately, social media has created new challenges by re-empowering political mobs - notably, but not exclusively, the “Twitter Mob.”
In this essay, I discuss the risks mobs pose to republican political systems. I explain how the American Founders addressed those risks and how modern social media has re-created some of them. At the end, I propose two partial remedies. I encourage readers and policymakers to think of others.
The Historical Background
Most early republics—such as the democratic republics of ancient Greece, the Roman Republic, and various Swiss cantons—relied on mass citizen assemblies to elect magistrates and approve laws. In theory, these assemblies were deliberative. In fact, they often degenerated into irrational fury. Later generations referred to them as “mobs,” an abbreviation of the Latin phrase vulgus mobile, meaning “the fickle common people.”
Mobs proved to be terrible decision makers. A military victory might inflate a citizen assembly into thoughtless arrogance and overreaching. A military defeat might foster a panicked and foolish response.
A voting mob could make a wild decision in the heat of Monday and regret it in the cool dawn of Tuesday. In 427 BCE, for example, the Athenian assembly voted to slaughter all male citizens of the city of Mytilene and enslave the rest—only to reverse its order the following day. Mobs issued decrees of exile against Aristides and Cicero, and later rescinded those decrees.
But sometimes a foolish mob action could not be reversed, such as the execution of Socrates by a 500-member “jury” or the Athenian decision (in 416 BCE) to massacre the inhabitants of the island of Melos.
Mob mischief often was not entirely spontaneous. Some people (today we euphemistically call them “activists”) learned how to raise and direct mobs. They planted rumors and gossip and spread panic and misinformation. They became adept at fostering “momentum” to persuade others to join the cause. They employed bribery as another form of persuasion. They intimidated, exiled, and crushed dissenters.
Activists might do such things for their own purposes or as agents for ambitious demagogues or wealthy paymasters.
If such events sound distant, recall the Black Lives Matter/Antifa mobs of less than two years ago: Activists—funded and facilitated by donors, demagogues, legacy media, and social media—stoked mobs that destroyed property, intimidated public officials, stifled dissent, and killed people.
More on modern mobs below.
The American Founders Recognized the Risk of Mobs
The American Founders favored republican government, but they also knew of republics’ turbulent history. In the ninth essay of “The Federalist,” Alexander Hamilton observed:
“It is impossible to read the history of the petty republics of Greece and Italy without feeling sensations of horror and disgust at the distractions with which they were continually agitated, and at the rapid succession of revolutions by which they were kept in a state of perpetual vibration between the extremes of tyranny and anarchy.”
In No. 10 of “The Federalist,” James Madison described the related concept of faction:
“By a faction, I understand a number of citizens, whether amounting to a majority or a minority of the whole, who are united and actuated by some common impulse of passion, or of interest, adverse to the rights of other citizens, or to the permanent and aggregate interests of the community.”
Factions often operated through mob-like behavior, promoting, Madison wrote, “[a] rage for paper money, for an abolition of debts, for an equal division of property, or for any other improper or wicked project.”
The Founders Addressed How to Curb Mobs
Unlike Marxists, the Founders recognized that human nature remains relatively constant. Mob activity appeals to many people because humans are gregarious (a word derived from the Latin word for “herd”). Most people like to be part of a group, especially a group with a cause. It makes them feel virtuous and secure. Because many people are unsure of their own critical faculties, they are comforted by the belief that thousands of others feel the same way they do.
Thus, Madison concluded that “the causes of faction cannot be removed … [so] relief is only to be sought in the means of controlling its effects.”
The Constitution’s framers studied history and political systems carefully to determine what institutions and laws could reduce mob activity, or at least reduce the damage it caused. They adopted a system of “mixed” government—that is, government comprised of democratic, monarchical, and aristocratic elements. They created a representative, bicameral Congress. They adopted fixed terms of office, checks and balances, and specific protections for dissenters and other minorities.
Because mobs could upset small polities more readily than large ones, the framers favored lodging additional power in a central government.
New technology can either reduce or increase dangers from mob activity. For example, 19th-century developments in telecommunications enabled states to adopt systems of direct democracy (initiative and referendum) without the need for thousands of voters to assemble in one place. On the other hand, 21st-century social media technology has made it easier to raise and manipulate mobs—a situation the authoritarian left has been quick to exploit.
Of course, the Twitter mob and its counterparts are not made up of people physically together in one place. Moreover, because of the American Founders’ reforms, they can’t control government policy directly. But in other respects, they resemble traditional mobs both in their behavior and the risks they pose:
Intra-mob communication is very fast;
rumors, half-truths, and disinformation are spread before they can be rebutted;
ambitious or ideologically driven activists feed the fury, often facilitated by demagogues and wealthy donors;
an illusion of momentum pushes people to join the movement;
dissent is crushed—or, in modern parlance, “canceled;” and
the causes promoted usually meet Madison’s classification as “improper and wicked;” recent examples include attempts to corrupt the courts and intimidate the police, promotion of race hatred, demands for race-based property redistribution, and (particularly on campuses) suppression of free speech.
Addressing the Problems
As the Founders recognized, the human impulse toward mob behavior is not going to disappear. But reforms can limit its influence. Here are two partial responses to the risks posed by social media mobs:
First: Political decisions have become far more centralized in Washington, D.C. than the Founders envisioned. Modern mobsters take advantage of this. Decentralization is one way to counter them. The more political decisions are made at the state and local level, the less influence nationwide mobs will have.
Experience tells us that the only way to bring about decentralization is through a constitutional amendment proposed by a convention of the states.
Repealing or Enforcing Section 230
We must remove the legal immunities social media enjoy when they quash dissent. Canceling is immoral and, when carried out in conjunction with government officials, unconstitutional. And by fostering an echo chamber of mutually reinforcing views, cancellation provokes mob behavior.
Illustrating the heavy hand of social media company censorship is the experience of my fellow Epoch Times columnist Roger Simon. As he reported on May 6, he had been recently “canceled by Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram, all without explanation.”
Social media companies based their right to cancel on Section 230 of the federal Communications Decency Act. Section 230 protects social media companies from damages caused by untrue and harmful content, but only if they comply with certain standards of impartiality. Social media companies point out that Section 230 allows them to remove “otherwise objectionable” material without losing their immunity.
I rebutted their position in a previous essay. As both the text of the law and its legislative history make clear, “otherwise objectionable” doesn’t mean “whatever the company doesn’t like” or “whatever the company disagrees with politically.” Rather, “otherwise objectionable” refers solely to material harmful to children.
Once Republicans re-take control of the federal government, they should either enforce Section 230 or repeal the protection it gives to social media companies for the damage they cause.