29 November, 2013

Online lynch mobs - a flow chart for scientists

"Too often the online audience separates into a series of rival gangs, each of them patting each other on the back and throwing stink-bombs at the other side. In this environment civility can disappear, with the result that those who do not take an extreme approach in offering their views decide that online forums are not for them." - James Harkin, The Guardian.

We are truly entering a brand new world.  Many scientists - young and old - are embracing the power of social media as a venue to interact with the public and discuss research.  In many cases, this accessibility has broken down the stereotype that scientists are secretive loners, and has lead to impressive citizen scientist driven projects.  However, in equally as many cases, this accessibility has had a serious negative consequence - the phenomena of the online lynch mob...

Soon, achievement will be measured by how early in your career you attract the attention of an online lynch mob.  They are a growing trend in forums and facebook groups, occur in every field, and target any level of seniority - from Richard Dawkins to high school girls.  

For researchers, online lynch mobs can be extraordinarily stressful, as the same genes that makes us attentive to detail and semi-obsessive also leave us socially inept.  If I can't even ask the sleeping guy sitting next to me on a plane to please remove his arm from my leg (and let him leave it there for the whole 3hr flight ), how will I ever process a dozen angry online entities making illogical arguments or slinging personal insults?  

So, I've done what any scientist would do when faced with a series of difficult decisions - develop a flow chart.  I hope this will help you and encourage you to carry on interacting with the public on social media platforms even when a mob is chasing you down...

EDIT - There's been a very nice discussion on some of the oversights in this blog.  Obviously, anytime one faces criticism, you should always take time to re-evaluate.  This by no means states that when someone criticizes you, just ignore them.  Rather, if there is a professional in your field that you know, who is well educated on the topic, but will only express their criticism through an abusive online gang, rather cut that person out of your life because they are indeed not a professional.  Remember, this blog is not about general online criticism, it's about the derogatory and often threatening groups that are growing in popularity.

I also appreciate the concern over the term 'online lynch mob' and how it is overused and evokes the connotation of racially motivated murder.  I don't know of any online groups murdering anyone yet, but there are several cases of them organizing and physically injuring people (for a recent example, check out this post on the South African Shark Conservancy group).  While 'online lynch mob' may be too harsh to some, I fail to find a term that captures the "target an individual to suppress their voice or end their work via abusive language, personal insults, and/or physical violence" mentality.  Suggestions for a better term?