Terror attacks are always shocking, and the first terror attack on American soil since September 11, 2001 evoked all the shock that could have been expected. Also as expected, the Internet was deluged by reports and theories as well as prayers for the victims of the Boston Marathon bombing.
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But there was also something new: Instead of just crying together and sharing posts on Facebook and Twitter, web users went into action. Some say it started on Reddit.
Tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands or even millions of social media users began to comb through still and video images from the explosion sites, like so many self-deputized CIA agents.
They searched every photo and video uploaded to the Internet, looking for clues to the identity of the terrorist who had left two pressure cookers filled with explosives near the finish line of the Boston Marathon.
The instant vigilantes not only shared images and theories on Reddit, Imgur, Tumbler and countless blogs but also fingered (innocent) suspects, most of them dark-skinned, as potential terrorists.
No one claimed credit for the attack. With the authorities seemingly at wits’ end social media communities set out to solve the crime, in the best tradition of their favorite television cops.
But the vast majority of these amateur detectives weren't police officers. Among the innocent individuals they implicated in the first hours and days after the attack were a man they dubbed Blue Robe Guy, two young dark-skinned men whose backpacks were judged to be particularly heavy and someone standing on the roof of a building near the explosion site.
One day after the marathon and an ocean away, the Hebrew-speaking Internet world geared up to mete out some justice of its own. Here, in contrast to Boston at the time, the identity of the guilty party was known to all: Bank Leumi.
The report that Leumi (or its human embodiment, CEO Rakefet Russak-Aminoach) planned to forgive NIS 150 million of Nochi Dankner's debt to the bank spread through Internet like wildfire.
Within no time it gathered more than 2,500 Facebook "shares," 301 comments and hundreds of tweets. Politicians fulminated on Facebook, websites reported the imminent debt agreement and more than 6,000 people promised to attend a Facebook event called Bank Leumi Consumer Boycott.
In the end, Leumi gave in to public pressure and suspended the debt deal.
The hive mind goes on attack
Both cases are illustrative of a new revenge culture emerging on Internet. The Web 2.0 revolution that gave rise to the social networks not only created a "hive mind," or collective consciousness, over the Internet, but also made it possible for large numbers of people to organize and, in certain cases, to attack.
It was this hive mind that reminded tyro Finance Minister Yair Lapid that his middle-class icon, "Riki Cohen from Hadera," is not middle-class, that accused him of being disconnected and that translated that disconnect into memes that were shared in the millions, much to his embarrassment.
And it was this mob that mercilessly attacked Lapid over his decision to raise university tuition: except that within hours, after the damage was done, it turned out that Lapid did no such thing.
The new culture of Internet revenge over is the product of a deeper process, by which the center of gravity of the news cycle has shifted to social media. Today it is the hive mind, an anonymous, amorphous entity identified only by the number of "likes," that decides what is news.
The hive mind, and the mob’s perfect faith in its rightness, is a pillar of the social-media revolution. In his 2010 book "You Are Not a Gadget," computer scientist and Internet pioneer Jaron Lanier defines as an essentially religious faith the utopian belief that collective online consciousness will one day lead to a new plane of awareness.
For Lanier, this belief resembles the noosphere of French philosopher Pierre Teilhard de Chardin or the technological singularity theory popularized recently by futurists such as Ray Kurzweil.
Outing the bad guys
Often, the hive mind reflects the desire of good people to mete out justice, such as raising money for a needy Holocaust survivor. That same collective desire for justice also leads people to share posts from customers who received poor service at a restaurant or store.
In the past two years it has also been used by thousands of people to take the law into their own hands by exposing alleged perpetrators of sexual assaults.
In the summer of 2012 a 17-year-old girl from Kentucky named Savannah Dietrich posted the full names of the teenage boys who had raped her and photographed themselves doing so the previous year, when she was just 16. Her action constituted a violation of a court order. “There you go, lock me up,” she tweeted. “I’m not protecting anyone that made my life a living Hell.”
Dietrich’s case is an excellent illustration of the complexity inherent in the new power of social media. On one hand it affords rape victims the opportunity to obtain justice and to prevent those who destroyed life from escaping punishment. On the other hand it is a blatant violation of privacy, and innocent people have been harmed.
On the Internet there is no room for complexity or for due process, no time for a police investigation. Internet users tend to see things as black or white, with no shades of gray, which can be dangerous.
The power of social networks to democratize the sharing of information exposes the darker aspects of human nature: Every dark-skinned person caught on camera near the finish line of the Boston Marathon suddenly becomes a potential terror suspect.
One morning the U.K. prime minister wakes up to find that a British princess has been kidnapped by unknown perpetrators. They demand, in lieu of ransom, that he be filmed having sex with a pig and the images broadcast to every home in Britain. He refuses, and at first the public, as represented on Facebook, Twitter and the blogosphere, supports his refusal to give in to terrorism.
But public opinion changes after a video of the weeping princess is leaked to the Internet, a rescue operation fails and a finger, ostensibly that of the princess, is sent to a television station. The prime minister is trapped in a public debate he cannot win.
Thus begins Charlie Brooker's dystopian British miniseries "Black Mirror," which demonstrates the dangers of abandoning the mainstream media in favor of the wisdom of the masses.
Although the plot is rather extreme parts of it resonate today, says Kobi Gamliel, the CEO of Israeli social media consulting firm iSocia, adding, "The fear of not being able to control the conversation is certainly there."
As the force behind the online campaign to effect the release of abducted Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, Gamliel demonstrated the positive aspects of social media. He mobilized millions of people in order to keep Shalit's five-year ordeal on the public agenda until his eventual release.
“The only rule in social media is that there are no rules,” says Gamliel. “It’s a changing medium, a technological Darwinism people don’t know what to do with. There’s a certain process here that’s part of life, and it’s getting stronger.”
The greatest fear is that what seems like the complete democratization of information and news reporting could lead to a tyranny of the mob, even erupting into "virtual" and perhaps even physical violence.
“People sometimes forget that what looks to them like democracy, in this context of surfers’ discourse and social networks, could actually be the most twisted kind of dictatorship,” says Adam Shuv, founder and CEO of Refresh, an Israeli digital marketing agency.
“Imagine that every citizen had a button in his home he could use to vote on political and public issues, and the politicians would have to make their decisions in accordance with the citizens. But citizens who don’t work in those fields don’t have the information or the tools to make decisions about the budget. They don’t have time to read the entire budget and decide whether they’re going to transfer NIS 20 million to Holocaust survivors or to the basket” of subsidized medicines and health services, Shuv says.
“Last year a large Facebook group was created against [then-Environmental Protection Minister] Gilad Erdan, claiming he had allowed the shooting of stray dogs. There was just one problem: it never happened. But because of Facebook everybody was against Erdan,” Shuv says.
He says the positive side of social networks is that they have made the public more involved and less apathetic. “If public protest makes a corporation or regulator take a closer look at themselves, that’s great,” Shuv says.
“But that’s not always the result, and the crowd isn’t always right. You don’t see crowds going out to Rabin Square to say they’re doing well and feel great, do you? It’s the same thing in the virtual square. The silent majority, for example, doesn’t get upset over Lapid’s little slip-ups.”