Recently, the Indian National Congress announced its intentions to recruit an army of more than 500,000 "social media warriors" to face down the Bharatiya Janata Party in the online space, according to a Yahoo!News report.
This is the latest in an increasingly frequent trend of social media collectives rising to create a real-world impact in the lives of the general public. Typically, we associate the idea of "internet mobs" with negativity, like the incident on Capitol Hill in early January.
However, other examples, like "The Arab Spring" — when much of the Arab world used social media to organize protests and other actions against local governments — are harder to place clearly.
For better and worse, when people organize for action using social media, it has the power to reshape the fabric of society.
Internet mobs are reshaping the fabric of reality
The ostensible target for India's army of social media warriors will be the BJP's "IT cell," and India's Congress will soon announce a helpline number for people who would like to join its IT cell.
You don't have to takes sides in an intra-Indian online dispute to understand that hiring social media warriors to fight on the virtual frontlines will likely intensify the situation. But it's a difficult problem to answer, since social media has become a primary influence on public opinion.
In late January, Redditors gathered in the r/WallStreetBets subreddit to organize a massive coordinated "attack" via a GameStop stock short squeeze on Wall Street hedge fund speculators by buying massive amounts of GameStop stocks, sending the price high. Since hedge fund managers' profits ostensibly relied on the gaming retailer's stock price plunging downward, they stood to lose billions of dollars on short positions.
GameStop saga spilled into the real world in bizarre ways
This resulted in the hedgefund's losses surpassing $13.1 billion — a greater quantity than the hedge fund was worth. It has since declared bankruptcy.
The subreddit users used novel, no-fee apps like Robinhood — which democratize investing opportunities for armchair investors — to short the hedge fund managers. Even Tesla CEO Elon Musk — who is reportedly involved in another SEC investigation over his Dogecoin tweets to brokers — chimed into the GameStop discourse, saying simply: "Gamestonk!!" in reference to a meme euphemism for GameStop stocks.
At the peak of the GameStop saga, the online discourse spilled into physical reality in increasingly bizarre ways, like the political group "New York Young Republicans" attempting to "Re-Occupy Wall Street" in the frigid winter weather of Zuccotti Park.
Third parties can 'cash-in' on mass internet movements
There's also a growing tendency for third-party entities to cash-in on political movements. The summer 2020 protests against police brutality saw a rebirth of the Black Lives Matter movement, with untold thousands storming the downtown areas of cities like Minneapolis, Chicago, Portland, and many, many more.
This is when the Black Lives Matter Foundation (BLMF) — a one-person foundation with a goal of creating "unity between the community and the police" (sort of the opposite of the point of the BLM protests) — began receiving financial "gifts" from employees of major corporations like Microsoft and Apple.
Often, organizations coming to life in support of movements like BLM are registered as legitimate, 501(c)(3) charities. Another company called Benevity raised roughly "$4 million worth of donations between May 31 and June 5," but then froze the account when it realized the potential conflict of interests, according to an NPR report.
While BLMF has said it would redirect donated money to official charity partners of the actual Black Lives Matter movement like Thousand Currents, the BLMF founder seems hesitant to refund the money directly — possibly suggesting that they believe accidental gifts are a rare occurrence.
Internet mob activity goes back decades
A relatively smaller, less world-historical internet mob formed around a journalism student whose article was reprinted without permission on an obscure food-related publication. When the student writer reached out to the editor, the latter disregarded her with less-than-professional sarcasm.
Then the student writer went public with the exchange, and a massive internet mob coalesced in support of her and against the editor, putting the niche food publication out of business.
However baffling the events of the last several months seem, the phenomenon of internet mobs is nothing new. It was similarly shocking (although for different reasons) when a collective of activists created the Occupy Wall Street movement and built a small camp in Zuccotti Park to protest the increasing power of corporations in public life — for example, via the Citizens United bill that essentially gave private firms the legal privileges and rights of individual humans.
While the Occupy Movement's "internet mob" mentality took its cue from events like the Arab Spring, the idea of using the internet to mobilize massive populations was first made apparent during former President Obama's first election campaign — which at the time was hailed as the first national campaign to gain its power through social media outreach — mainly through Facebook.
Internet mobs are difficult to regulate
Going forward, it's difficult to imagine how regulations might prevent online mobs from forming around ambivalent causes, while also not becoming an overreaching block on citizen's basic rights to gather and protest en masse.
The fabric of society can be irreversibly damaged by internet mobs. One hot-button potential remedy lies in the potential revocation of Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act — which enables Big Tech Media platforms to enjoy near blanket immunity.
Social media websites and users are also generally immune to the laws, regulations, and liabilities traditional media face for putting information into the world — from potential libel lawsuits to other various forms of checks and balances.
Most worryingly is the possibility of passing overpowered regulations to combat the rise of internet mobs — like the way China blocked people within its borders from accessing Clubhouse, an up-and-coming virtual meeting app. The democracies of the world may have passed a point of no return, but the phenomenon of crowd mentality is thousands of years old, and will likely continue to find new ways of reshaping the fabric of society as laws or regulations emerge.