One of the interesting responses to the fires that raged through the Cape Town mountains the other week was the need to apportion blame. Understandable, but the sort of human response that is both unhelpful considering that Rome was literally burning, and dangerous considering how fast it got ugly. Because one of the ways the finger-pointing manifested was via social media. And it all started when one Cape Town Facebook user posted a picture of the woman who threw a lit cigarette butt out of her car window.
Angry girl (and rightly so, littering both careless and dangerous) took a photo of the woman’s licence plate (we have a police unit that cautions drivers for things like this and texting while driving). Then she got out of her own car, retrieved the butt and threw it in through the woman’s window. Smoker, picked it up off of her lap, threw it back out and drove off. Leaving her accuser fuming. So far, all fair reactions, if a bit flawed in the response.
But here’s where it started to get nasty. Angry went home and posted the picture on her Facebook page, made harsh comments about the woman and urging her friends to share the post, with the intention of ‘getting her’. Which they did. I received a total of 15 re-posts … and that’s just me. Who knows how far the images reached.
One of Angry’s friends then took up the cudgels and did some snooping – next thing we had more images of the woman. Stolen from her Facebook page and sent into the ether. This irritated me more than Smoker’s original carelessness. This was cyber-bullying.
I eventually responded after a Facebook friend of mine, who should know better, reposted the image for the second time. This woman has been through her own stigmatisation and hounding and I felt she would at least understand the threat it carried. But no – no empathy there. She simply removed my comment and reposted the image. For the third time.
In Dec 2013 a young woman sent out a tweet that destroyed her life as she knew it. She was flying home to SA for Christmas and, as she boarded her plane, typed “Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS. Who am I kidding. I’m white” and hit send. While she was in the air – her offensive (and inaccurate) remark was retweeted over 2,000 times – turning her into a Twitter superstar.
When she landed, her best friend was at the airport to meet her, shocked by the vitriol aimed at the Tweeter. Together they took down the Twitter site and tried to control the damage. But it was too late – they looked up into the flashbulbs of concerned citizens, prowling the airport for evidence of the Tweeter’s arrival. Which they then shared and posted and tweeted; keeping the conflagration going.
The young woman was fired from her job as communications director of a New York-based internet empire who specialised in social media PR. Irony? She had panic attacks, lost her boyfriend, went broke, had to move apartment and spent over a year looking for work. She learned a sharp lesson about the power of those 114 characters and another about the spite and malice of people who have nothing better to do than fan flames.
My pal Bill was telling me the other day that gossip may well have been one of the most important ways through which humans evolved to become the alpha species (though given the events I am describing … I wonder if that title is appropriate). Essentially chit-chat has bevame an instrument of social order and cohesion: much like the endless grooming we see in primates. Picking fleas and dry skin off each other is the way apes, chimps and monkeys tend to their social relationships.
In his book “Grooming, Gossip, and the Evolution of Language”, Robin Dunbar posits that our closest kin differ from other animals in the intensity of those relationships. Their grooming is less about hygiene and more about cementing allegiances, making friends and influencing others in their troupes.
However, for early humans, grooming as a way to social success posed a problem. Dunbar believes that most humans are only capable of dealing with a social group of 150. But even that would have meant our earliest ancestors would have had to spend almost half their time with combs in their hands. A bit of a burden considering the other challenges presented by cave dwelling. So, while anthropologists have long held that language developed during manly pursuits like hunting, where there was a need for communication; Dunbar thinks otherwise. He believes that language evolved to lessen grooming duties, yet still allow us to keep up to date with friends and family.
So – was that was this was? Did we revert to Neanderthal versions of ourself? With fire threatening our homesteads, did we look to find a way to relate and cement bonds? Ensuring that we would be saved by the rest of the troupe if push came to shove?
I’d like to believe that. But I can’t. The image that came to me while all this ugliness was going on was the Salem trials. Yes, I know it is not quite the same thing. But we were looking for a scapegoat and we found one. One that hadn’t had any hand in the devastation that was already underway. Still we each enlisted our 150 in damning her. We were safer in numbers.
Unfortunately – unlike the ignorant bastards at Salem, this time we didn’t have to show our faces. We didn’t have to get out there and watch the damage we had wrought. Instead we burned our witch from the security of our sofas, hidden behind our computer screens.
A dangerous, incognito mob. What an evolutionary achievement.
(Robin Dunbar is Professor of Evolutionary Anthropology and Director of the Institute of Cognitive & Evolutionary Anthropology at the Oxford University. Find out more about his work here.)