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Street Mobs and Cyber-Mobs

You know what’s bizarre and fascinating? All the horrible, bewildering cybermob behaviour we’ve been seeing online the last few years?

It has deep, striking parallels with how people behaved in London in the 1700s. The mobbing, the doxxing, the hacked nude pictures of female celebrities and defamation campaigns… none of it’s new, except for the change of venue. Our London street mob lives in social media, but they replicate the behaviours of the mobbing Georgian Londoners to an astonishing degree.

(Charles Green’s depiction of the Gordon Riots.)

That’s what this post is about.

If you’re looking for a demonstration of the toxic, misogynistic side of online life, well… even if they’d been trying, the assorted thugs and morons of the English-speaking Internet couldn’t have timed things better than what we saw in 2014.

If spent that year under a rock, I’m talking about:

Genevieve Valentine discussed all of this eloquently in Live Nude Girls, rightly characterizing it as “sandblasting” and reminding us that this is the tip of the iceberg, of a wider and deeper phenomenon than just these high-profile cases: part of an extensive cultural phenomenon that is mostly ignored by most people most of the time, until it erupts to the point it cannot be ignored. (Sort of like racism disappears as a social issue until it erupts in cases like that of Trayvon Martin, or Ferguson.)

Still, prominent cases are worth looking at as case studies. Here’s Sarkeesian’s experience, as of 2012, as she discussed it in a TED talk at the time:

Consider carefully to Sarkeesian’s comment:

Now, I’m a pop culture critic, I’m a feminist, and I’m a woman, and I’m all of these things openly on the Internet… so I’m no stranger to some level of sexist backlash. I’d sadly gotten used to sexist slurs and sexist insults, usually involving kitchens and sandwiches.

Sarkeesian’s point was that, out on the Internet, any woman who doesn’t make an effort to be inoffensive and congenial to men, or speaks out at all about sexism, is bound to run into “sexist backlash”.1 But it goes further than that: she talks about her experience of a “Massive Online Hate Campaign”—threats of rape, violence, sexual assault, and murder. Sarkeesian herself astutely notes, calling her attackers a “cyber-mob.”

What’s been most puzzling for me is that… well, in many ways, we’ve done all of this before.

Back in 2014, when I originally wrote this post while this stuff was still happening, I’d been reading about the London street mobs of the early Georgian era (particularly in Robert Shoemaker’s The London Mob), and let me tell you: the similarities are striking.

(Sure, sure, one always feels that there are parallels between the present and whatever historical period one is researching, but… no, this is really, really fascinating… and maybe illustrative of something useful, too.)

In London, back during the centuries that we now call “early modern” a new medium of communication was discovered: it was called the urban street.

It’s odd to think about it that way, but Londoners were still living in a predominantly oral culture, so the urban street wasn’t merely a place or venue: it was actually a new medium of expression, with an increasingly large, built-in audience that grew as the capital’s population grew. Urban streets? That was early Georgian London’s internet.

Now, for Londoners, the novelty of the street was that one could have an audience for any dispute, pretty much just by dragging whoever you were arguing with out the front door… just outside, on the street, awaited a built-in audience for any accusation, any argument, or any plea for retribution.

Hogarth’s The Enraged Musician.

Hogarth’s print above is cute, but it also suggests the breadth of use that public streets got in the London of his day: it was a urinal, a place of business, a site of revelry, a zone of religious proselytizing, and more. Streets were not there to be walked along quietly, but as a place for public disputes and conflicts to unfold, as a place for the public to be called to judgment, as a place where small business could be conducted.

Which is to say that as London grew into a proto-megacity, its streets served a function very much like the one served by the Internet today. After all, the internet is also treated as a urinal (say, Reddit, or Youtube’s comments sections), a place of business, a place of revelry, a site of religious proselytizing, and more. Both the streets of London and our internet enjoyed next to no organized policing, and were understood to be zones of radical “free speech”; and both could represent “public” spaces with audiences on an unprecedented scale.

And in both cases, one result that followed was a surge in both public defamation and horrendous mobbing. Indeed, the very word “mob” (from mobile vulgus, meaning the moveable or excited crowd) arose in London in the late 1600s—at the beginning of what people call “the long 18th century”—when mob violence exploded and began to really take off.

Now, this wasn’t necessarily all bad. Just like Anonymous sometimes lends a hand with in progressive politics (hacking for the Arab Spring, trying to help to circumvent Iranian censorship, their attempt to release the name of the shooter in Ferguson recently), the mobs on the streets of London actually did help enforce laws, as court records demonstrate.

At the beginning of the 18th century, people could cry out, “Stop thief!” (as many did, and not just for cases of theft but also for attempted rapes, violent assaults, and so on: “Stop thief!” was Georgian England’s equivalent of yelling “Fire!” in 1970s New York regardless of what crime was actually being perpetrated against you). If you yelled that phrase, you could reliably expect a mob to spontaneously form to pursue and seize the criminal, often handing him or her over to the magistrate after roughing ’em up to vary degrees. It’s a bit like the meme of civilians donning superhero garb to fight crime, except these people just did it in their street clothes.

A depiction of the “Mughouse Riots.”

But at the same time, those mobs weren’t governed by rules, and their definitions of “transgressions” unfortunately encompassed much more than just the law. Mobs formed to persecute (or battle with other mobs) over everything:

That last point is particularly noteworthy: sometimes groups of men mobbed brothels not out of complaint over sexual misdeeds, but because so many men were pickpocketed by prostitutes also were pickpockets (many of whom actually used the sex trade as a cover to gain access to the pockets of their clientele). Sailors were notorious for mobbing and rioting, and ransacking disorderly houses, for this very reason, as satirized in the etching below:

Charles Mosley, The Tar’s Triumph, or Bawdy-House Battery. Click for source.

However, there were also a number of men who hypocritically joined in on violence against sexual transgressors nor for moralistic reasons, but simply for the sheer gleeful misogynistic violence of it. For example, when the infamous madam Mother Needham died as a result of injuries sustained while standing in pillory, this was the comment in the Grub Street Journal: “She declared in her last words, that what most affected her was the terror of standing in the pillory to-morrow in New Palace-Yard, having been so ungratefully used by the populace on wednesday. Whitehall Evening Post — They acted very ungratefully, considering how much she had done to oblige them.” The point of the quip being that plenty of the men who had beaten her and flung and brickbats at her—to the point of mortal wounding—while she was in pillory in fact included the very same men who’d been her customers in the weeks and months and years preceding. These were not moral crusaders, just misogynistic thugs eager to beat down any woman at all, especially a rich and famous one, as long as social sanction were offered. The vitriol directed at any prominent woman online today is surely reminiscent of this.

With the exception of that last point—most crime doesn’t happen to interest cyber-mobs much—Internet mobs today tend to be focused on the same things in that list above, if you understand the context of 18th century London. Those religious rioters in the Gordon Riots weren’t concerned about doctrines and dogmas, so much as they were angry that their own group was losing power in London, as Catholicism got more accepted. Likewise, those who mobbed seeking to regulate the sexuality of other Londoners—especially women—lived in a world characterized by supernatural panic. Big storms, economic crashes, and wars lost all got blamed on the Devil, on the Wrath of God, and the “moral decay of England.” Religious language was simply a part of mainstream, rhetoric in that place and time, applicable and applied to everything.

However, the on-the-ground focus of these groups was what we today would regard as the radical changes London society was undergoing as it modernized, urbanized, and diversified: the re-admission of Jews into England, the relaxation of the oppression of any other religious minority in England, and the changing demographics on the street and in the public sphere.

Plate 3 of Hogarth’s famous series, “A Harlot’s Progress.” In the background on the left, the men are led by Sir John Gonson (d. 1765), a Justice of the Peace in Westminster and a major supporter of the reactionary religious organization The Society for the Reformation of Manners, infamous for his raids on “disorderly houses.”

Most prominent among those demographic changes was the fact that women were out in public a lot more than they had been in the past. They were more deeply involved in the commercial and social life of the city, running and owning shops, working in taverns, and so on on… and, of course, they were more involved in crime. (There were ridiculous numbers of female thieves and prostitutes alike in London throughout the century, and at least by perceptions of the time—and court records, for that matter—the overlap between thief and prostitute was pretty massive too.)

Half the panic was simply because women were more out in public.

Reactionaries seized upon the presence of women in crime, and women among those addicted to gin, as an excuse for their real agenda, which was to put women “back where they belonged”: the domestic space, essentially, which means, out of the public space and out of their sight.

They had, in other words, a lot in common with the “gamerbros” who have cyber-mobbed Sarkeesian and Quinn than you might think, and the context for cyber-mobbing has a lot in common with the context for traditional street mobbing.

So far, so simple. But it’s when you look at the tactics used by cyber-mobs that things really start to look troubling familiar.

Londoners, when they dragged someone out into the street, didn’t just “shit-talk” them. It was relatively common for mud, feces, urine, garbage, or other nastiness—all of it very readily available in the city’s filthy public spaces—to be added to the verbal accusation, by being flung at the accused. Another technique was to “pump” someone: to drag them from one water-pump to another, a form of public shaming that persisted into the 19th century. To bedraggle and enfoul one’s target was a technique used to amplify the defamation, a way of illustrating the corruption and wickedness being alleged.

Anon., A specimen of Light Horsemanship, 26th December 1795. Click for source.

Likewise, women who were accused of sexual misdeeds were often forcibly (if partially) disrobed before the public: the men (and, sometimes, women) who attacked them would tear at their clothes, exposing flesh if they could, meanwhile with pelting them with filth and shouting accusations. This public, forced disrobement was meant not only to draw attention to the accused, but to reinforce and literally “publicize” the accusations of willing, private, “illicit” disrobement—in other words, [private] “sexual misdeeds,” including prostitution:

Gillray, A peep into Lady W!!!!!!y’s Seraglio (1782). Click for source.

… but also such horrors as sexual relations of any kind outside of marriage, or even kissing a man who wasn’t one’s husband, or in some cases, being sighted alone in the company of a member of the opposite sex.

Sound familiar? It should: this phenomenon of partial public disrobement is, basically, the same dynamic we see in both revenge porn and higher-profile cases like the so-called “Fappening.” But accusations of whoredom and sexual insult weren’t used only on prostitutes or so-called “loose women”: they were used on thieves, neglectful mothers, female gin-sots and more. Indeed, at the center of William Hogarth’s most famous image is exactly the figure most reviled by the mobs:

Today, being a female celebrity, or even just being a Woman With Ideas Online, is enough to provoke cyber-mob reprisal, using the very same tactics: the pornographic imagery, but also a general use of visual insult and assault and bedragglement, including digital assault-in-effigy:

… along with countless other examples from a whole torrent of “imaged-based harassment and visual misogyny” which, collectively, sadly represent nothing particularly new: it’s just the digital update of a very old and very ugly tactic of visual defamation that was pioneered in the London streets in the 17th century. Instead of flinging actual shit and inflicting actual bruises, cybermobs photoshop in shit and bruises. (Well, so far.)

Next, there’s “doxxing,” an online harassment technique used to humiliate and terrorize individuals through the release of their personal details, often along with accusations and photographs of them (usually “compromising” photos—ie. more forcible public disrobement). It’s a standard tactic in “revenge porn,” but it’s also a bog-standard tactic used by anti-feminist cybermobs. It also has name that was clearly made up by people who fancy themselves computer ninjas.

In fact, the technique is really nothing new. As soon as a new technology becomes available to assholes, assholes use it, and the printing press is no different. As a technique of defamation and harassment, this was already in use in the 17th century… for example, in handbills like this one from 1695:

A defamatory advertisement that was distributed in Fleet Street (in 1695).

The “sodomite” called a “suck-prick” is not named, though even now his identity remains known: he was a man named John Stubbs. We know because he sued over this defamation, but contemporaries would’ve known because his address was given. London may have been the biggest city in Europe at the time, it wasn’t so big that interested parties didn’t know—or couldn’t figure out—who was being accused. Human nature being what it is, accusations of sexual misdeeds or of being a “Hoberde-Hoy” (a term that indicated some kind of gender ambiguity, being transvestitism or what we’d call transgendered identification) attracted attention, as did accusations of moral perniciousness: note the accusation of Stubbs not only being a pimp, but also an atheist! 

Another form of proto-“doxxing” and “revenge porn” in the 17th and 18th centuries was the commissioning of defamatory ballads: you could pay someone to write what was basically a nasty, tell-all (or fictional) song about someone, and pay others to sing it at market and sell off copies. This niche industry thrived increasingly as the century wore on, because it was an extremely effective form of rapid defamation, provided you had the required funds. One case discussed in Shoemaker’s book is of a jilted lover who commissioned a song which was sung publicly in the market of Southwark, ruining not only the woman’s reputation (and marriage prospects), but also severely damaging her father’s business (and ultimately the family’s finances).

A Girl Buying a Ballad (1778) by Henry Walton (1746-1813)

As mobbing and assault became less socially acceptable later in the 18th century, people increasingly sought out other forms of dispute resolution, and increasingly, defamation got prosecuted… sort of. That is, newspapers increasingly were reluctant to run straight-out defamatory advertisements (or to essntially facilitate doxxing), the kinds of conflicts that decades earlier might have exploded in the street were instead played out in more innocuous form in the waves of pamphlets. Such pamphlets increasingly choked London as the century proceeded. Still, pamphlets were, essentially, the equivalent of blogs, and, well… even the really interesting ones had relatively limited readership. As these forms of harassment and defamation expanded, however, mobbing declined, though it never really disappeared.

For women, though, the changes weren’t all positive: for one thing, as the 18th century proceeded, sexual defamation of women didn’t decline… but fewer women took men to court less and less over sexual defamation… because of the decrease in outright mob violence, yes, but mostly, it seems, because of changing attitudes towards the propriety expected of women. English society, or Londoners at least, had started to believe in that idea—familiar to us as stereotypically Victorian—that women were not supposed to be thinking or talking about sex at all. (Which makes suing someone over sexual slander or libel a little difficult.) The poorer a woman was, the more likely she remained subject to sexual slander and violence, albeit, at least, not so often to outright mob violence.

Still: the days when mobs were an accepted, common part of life in London declined by the end of the 18th century. By the 19th century, mobbing was much rarer, and through the rest of the English-speaking world, mobs only formed when people believed they either had a community mandate (and could act with impunity) or when their communal outrage pushed them past caring about consequences. (The former explained the persistences of, for example, lynch mobbing in the United States; the latter, explains the sort of mobbing one sees in, for example, race riots.) But the kind of persistent misogynistic street mobs of the early 18th century faded away… not to return till the mobile vulgus got itself broadband.

All of which is to say:

There have been assholes among us doing this stuff, and even using the same strategies, for a long, long time.

That’s the bad news: we’re grappling with the intersection of human nature, anonymity, media, and social change.

The good news—besides the fact that the internet isn’t subtly turning us all into inhuman monsters—is that people found ways of dealing with this sort of behaviour in the past, and successfully managed to vastly reduce the number of occurrences. If Georgian London could find ways of driving mobs off the streets in the 1700s—and, statistically, they did, though it took most of the century—then we ought to be able to drive the cybermobs off the Net in our own time.

How to do so is another question, of course. The decline in mobbing can be tied to several changes that happened in the 18th century:

  1. The invention of public policing, and the prosecution of mobs. Better law enforcement, yes, but also the development of law-enforcement systems specifically tied to the new media in play. Old fashioned law enforcement couldn’t cope with the new anonymity and strategies that evolved as a result of changing infrastructure, so new law enforcement systems had to develop. Perhaps the Internet needs some new, native system of law/ethics/etiquette enforcement. (Without tipping over into violation of freedom of expression.)
  2. The decline of the social acceptability of mobbing, especially after the Gordon Riots. Basically, that was the moment when Londoners were finally sick to death of mobs, and when the people in power realized that mobs could potentially destabilize the country… and that was when they started treating street mobbing seriously. In a democracy, theoretically at least, it only takes making the citizens sick of cyber-mobbing: if enough people speak out against it, then there will be a crackdown… but, also, if it becomes less socially acceptable, people will be more likely to avoid engaging in that behaviour.

Now, where that leaves us, I’m not sure. I’m reluctant to draw too many conclusions, because a parallel or a continuity isn’t really, necessarily, suggestive of solutions. But here are a few thoughts and questions:

  1. What would effective policing, of a kind that cracks down on these cyber-mobs, but doesn’t invade everyone’s privacy, or infringe ridiculously on freedom of speech, look like? I suspect there are new areas of law—or of rights implementation into software—that are unexplored, especially in terms of one’s right to block the use of one’s likeness for defamatory purposes.
  2. If the “effective policing” were internet-native, how would it work, and what would it achieve? Essentially, given how easily a “failed state” website can operate openly and freely online, I feel like it’d have to put the onus on site owners, and hit them in their bottom line, but it’s a very dangerous legislative slope, open to terrible abuses. One important parallel to remember is that mobbing was never completely wiped out: it was possible to vastly diminish it through reasonable means, where complete elimination would require a degree of authoritarian control that nobody was willing to attempt. It was enough to make sure mobs weren’t an accepted part of daily life, and to manage and/or prosecute their participants on the rare occasions when they did erupt.
  3. An argument for consciousness-raising: when people start being confronted by the real-life consequences of participating in cyber-mobs, they’ll stop doing it. Which is to say, sufficient consciousness-raising in the public sphere, combined with the permanence of Internet memory, might do the trick, given enough time. This would be a lot like the brand that was applied to the hands of thieves back in Georgian London: a permanent mark on your digital “body.” Consciousness-raising won’t directly dissuade people from mobbing, but it will change the minds of bystanders, slowly and by degrees, until suddenly, one day, most people think mobbing is obviously unacceptable, and people who participate in cyber-mobs will start finding it difficult to get jobs, or a car loan, or an ISP willing to give them an account, or a date. Imagine the day when potential employers, IPS admins, and university admissions offices start searching blogs like this one, or requesting Facebook friend status, to figure out whether their interviewees and applicants are raging assholes. It’s like a credit history for personal conduct. Speaking of which, maybe that will be the ultimate form of policing online behaviour anyway.
  4. Not every unpleasant, disgusting behaviour is cyber-mobbing. For example, a troll or even a small group of trolls, is not a cyber-mob. Sometimes an asshole is just an asshole. It’s important not to focus only on cyber-mobs, or to conflate other vile behaviours online with it.
  5. There aren’t really “good” and “bad” kinds of mobs: regardless of the mob’s aims and goals, mobbing in itself seems always to subtly reinforce the legitimacy of all mobbing behaviour. That said, I’ve only ever really seen reactionary cyber-mobs. I haven’t run across a single case of progressive cyber-mobs. I have seen progressives use shaming techniques en masse, and walk the line of public defamation, but I’ve never quite seen what I’d call a progressive cyber-mob. (Okay, maybe one: as someone who kept out of it, that all felt like two cyber-mobs clashing in the online streets, to be honest.)
  6. Public shaming can work as a countermeasure, if it’s done with class. Cambridge professor Mary Beard’s handling of her own cyber-mobs forms a pretty stunning example, though of course we cannot demand such forbearance of everyone targeted by online harassment or cyber-mobs. I think, though, there’s a difference between cyber-mobbing (where “attacking” is the operative verb) and mass-criticism (where the focus is one’s actions or claims, and not the target’s private live, sex life, etc.). Note, also, that the Mary Beard article is worth reading because it takes the point I’m making here so much further: not only is this stuff nothing new today, it was nothing new in 1695, too. Men have been doing (to women, to other men, to one another… but especially to women) for millennia.
  7. We mustn’t forget other factors. The peak of misogynistic mobbing coincided with the height of the Gin Craze and the economic chaos of the South Sea Bubble, both social crises that were popularly (but unfairly) blamed on women. Likewise, the very existence of the Society for the Reformation of Manners. While I don’t know gamer fandom is much of a parallel to the Society, I think there are very strong parallels between the Society for the Reformation of Manners and the Men’s Rights Movement, whose adherents are well-known (ie. well-documented) as active being, energetic propagandists of the same attitudes that seem to motivate cyber-mobs, as well, one can be certain, as participating in such cyber-mobs.
  8. We who wish to clear the “streets” have more resources at our disposal. Social sentiment can be shifted powerfully, if it’s directed at the right people. I’ve seen a lot of folks online get caught up arguing with assorted trolls, misogynists, and kooks, but that’s unlikely to do anything, just as Hogarth’s prints were intended for the well-to-do (but not elite) Londoner, not for plastering the streets of the gin-sotted neighborhoods. It’s never been easier to create satire and share it with others. One needn’t be a Hogarth today to create mass-replicable mockery of stupidity, as the image below indicates:

I think the take-home, then, is that we should take heart. While it’s likely our strategies will need to be rediscovered in a way that suits the media—the internet is also very unlike a street in Georgian London—we’re not the first to deal with these kinds of problems, and we’re likely not the last, either.

Leaving a clear record of this struggle may, in fact, be the best cultural innovation we can achieve as a civilization: perhaps a hundred years from now, when some other version of this behaviour emerges in some other medium of which none of us can even conceive at the moment, people will have some tools to start out with, and some idea of what to do.

  1. If you’re a straight white man on the Internet, this may be news to you. If you’re not, you know probably better. For the benefit of the straight white men out there: on the Internet, being a female celebrity makes the contents of your cell phone or its online backup public domain; it’s where we’ll focus on a 35-year-old man in the Netherlands and ignore the classmates who kept the bullying up both offline and online; where, if your famous father commits suicide, you need to brace yourself for vitriol directed at you over divorce law and the evils of feminism, or for other celebrity wankers gleefully drag his name through the mud; where if you’re not straight, you might be the next target of bullying and harassment; where cosplaying outside your race will enrage morons; where there’s a whole ocean of misogynistic outrage of those decrying so-called “Fake Geek Girls”; where death threats and public defamation get issued to female game developers and science fiction authors (as well as Hurley above) and technology commentators and atheists and feminists in general, well… if you’re not straight and white and male, you might be next. (Or have been through it already, probably.)

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