In January this year President Trump presented his “Fake News” awards, The New York Times led the list. But fake news is all the rage: a modern phenomenon which seems to have been born at the last presidential election. And it is true that the modern world is particularly vulnerable to it, although it has a somewhat longer history. Pontius Pilate arraigned Jesus citing fake news and in the Middle Ages fabricated stories of murderous Jewish activities were circulated successfully, and ultimately bloodily. Ironically, similar stories with similar objectives and similar outcomes were used by the Nazis, and believed as readily. The idea that we upright Brits would not have been fooled by such propaganda, in the same circumstances, is dangerously optimistic.
The target of course is mobile vulgus or the “fickle crowd”. It has always been with us – as the use of the Latin phrase indicates. Its characteristic is its tendency to believe the evidence which supports what it would like to be true. There is no doubt that while the universal mob response can be tracked through history it has become more common through the press, the radio and television. Today we can add social media.
Fortunately, none of us belong to a mob. Really? The tendency to accept evidence which supports our own view is shared by the educated, the politicians and the man in the street. And I include myself. The only hope of defence is an internal scepticism through which we continually interrogate evidence which appears to support what we think to be true. That’s difficult.
The difficulty is reinforced by the discovery that our brains are set to reward us when we find that our opinion is shared amongst the groups to which we belong. It appears that in the earliest times, safety required that communities should be united in their views. Conformity was safe, disunity was dangerous. Moving, as I do, between various Catholic groups I find that only a few minutes are needed in order to know what kind of opinions are acceptable in that group. It is ironic that the Catholic Herald, the first Catholic newspaper to have an uncensored letters page, was criticised over sixty years ago, often from high places, for encouraging the laity to express their views, and to have a liturgy in their own language. If the Herald had had its own way there might have been no need for Vatican II!
If the mob response has always been with us we should note that available methods of communication may be the key to its extent. Remember how the power of printing enabled the Reformation to publish the Bible in the vulgar tongue, and the circulation of other key documents. Without printing power that great cultural change might never have taken place. Perhaps its most powerful stimulant is social media: enabling a staggering capacity for the mob to communicate to thousands of people. It may well change the culture of our society, and indeed of our democracy, as did the invention of the printing press. As an example, a tweet, originally sent to about 40 people, which declared that anti Trump protesters were being bussed in for disrupting pro Trump demonstrations, went viral. It was shared some 16,000 times on Twitter and 350,000 times on Facebook. And so a new mob was formed. Trump himself is no fool: he uses twitters, absurd as they may seem to some, because he knows the predilections of his own mob.
Another example of the mob instinct is the principle of “safe places”, sadly found in our universities. Speakers on sensitive topics may not be acceptable to university societies, and speakers not pleasing to the students may not be invited. A similar mob demands that statues and monuments of historical figures associated with unacceptable activities should be removed. Do we not need their memorials to remind us of the dangers of allowing cultures to influence our moral values without questioning them? As the philosopher Santayana said “Those who cannot remember the past are destined to repeat it.” We appear to be bringing up a generation which cultivates its prejudices and takes care to avoid any challenging questions.
When Churchill spoke of democracy as the worst form of government except for any other he warns us implicitly of the dangers of democracy. The danger today lies in the capacity of social communication to form overnight enormous mobs whose members are blind to any values outside those of their group. Mobs don’t think: they emote. But each member has a vote. Much importance is placed on the democratic vote to choose Brexit. I accept that, but did you feel that you had enough reliable information to make a rational choice? Or were you, like me, forced to rely on your emotions, or the emotions of the mob to which you belong?