Organized ostracism

As I’ve discussed in previous entries, groups that are moving toward a single polarized expressed opinion on an issue, go through a number of transitions and evolutions. Familiar behavioral roles appear, and familiar patterns emerge as members jockey for consensus. Members of high rank exhibit opinions that lower ranking or new members rely upon because of a lack of information. Negative opinions hold more weight, because members of the group are attempting to avoid problems and conflict. So it is, that when a member of the group is declared to be aberrant by one or two members, the majority of members will often follow suit, to either maintain the “core” group, or to avoid conflict.

Religious groups, cults, and other extreme ideological groups often engage in shunning, or a kind of organized ostracism. If it were pursued on a one-on-one basis, it would be more commonly called bullying. Essentially, the leader or leaders of a group will make an argument—the validity of these arguments is irrelevant in this discussion, but in the case of polarized groups can be based on a mixed bag of supposed evidence, allegation, or outright lies—and then rally or cajole members of the group to participate in either completely ignoring the “offender”, or to participate in active censure.

Obviously, the experience of the bullied is important, and countless studies are done on the psychological impact of bullying and ostracism on victims. More importantly, in recent years, these studies have become an integral part of discussions about education reform, psychological counseling, and more pressing matters like gun control. However, what often isn’t discussed, is the impact organized ostracism can have on group members who perform the shunning, bullying, or ostracism. Even less explored is the negative psychological impact it can have on members of online groups, in situations that have a high degree of anonymity, and therefore deindividuation.

As discussed before, deindividuation is essentially a descriptor for the risky, increasingly cruel, deviant, or occasionally violent behaviors that members of a group engage in, when they feel they cannot be identified. But deindividuation isn’t merely I cannot be found out, so I can do as I please”. In a group, it can indicate that the actor feels so removed from their own identity, that they instead rely upon the group for identity. Therefore, a deindividuated person can often act on behalf of the group in extreme ways.

While it is true that leaders of extreme groups and cults organize the “corrective” actions of shunning, bullying, and punishment as a means of keeping an individual in line, the actions actually have multiple effects on the dynamics and psychology of the members. The obviously traumatic effects on the victim keep other members from deviating from the consensus, as they too do not wish to be punished. However, what has become increasingly clear in research, is that—I’ll refer to lower ranking members who are convinced to help ostracize as “participating bullies”—participating bullies suffer from horrible side effects themselves. Guilt and shame are frequently reported, and over time, the personality of the participating bully begins to break down.1 Multiple studies show that bullies suffer from lack of focus, inability to maintain relationships or jobs, increased risk for addiction and criminality, and so on2, but in the case of organized ostracism, the resulting breakdown of idenetity results in increased deindividuation, and therefore, a more controllable individual. Religious cults often insist that members bully any dissenters—and as may be expected, dissent is often any opinion that deviates from consensus—as a show of loyalty, but the side effect is, that as time goes on, and negative psychological effects occur, the participating bully becomes even easier to use in the service of the group. As the personality is broken down, the group member deindividuates, which almost ensures that as time goes on, they can be convinced to carry out more and more extreme actions.

A model for expected output or action from a deindividuated group member; Group Dynamics seventh edition, Forsyth

The table above loosely describes how specific stimuli can effect a person who is a member of what is called a collective group—a mob, audience, or other emergent group. However, with some slight alteration, it also applies to members of other types of group. in the case of a group that is closed, or has a high interdependence, like a cult, “reduced responsibility” can often mean “lower rank”, for example. “Arousal” can also be seen as the emotional response to sermons, arguments, or targeted censure.

But how does this function online? Do internet-based groups also indoctrinate members to regimented abuse of dissenters? Do so-called “trolls” experience the same deindividuation and psychological breakdown? Will they, if their actions are undertaken on behalf of a group?

My instinct is to say of course, and that the anonymity and open social network structure of online groups actually contributes to greater deindividuation, and therefore more extreme bullying than would be performed in an offline setting. If the ostracization is organized or spear-headed by a leader or group of leaders, it may have almost identical effects as within groups like cults. For an example, I’d emphasize the social media platforms of beauty drama bloggers. Their specific role within the online community, the web of interweaving social media platforms, is to speculate, churn out rumor with little factual backing, and their own personal opinion. As their followings grow, the members, who cannot be identified by anything other than an online handle, participate in comments in an increasingly abusive way. If encouraged by the content creator, some even become violent. And because each member can have multiple platforms and multiple accounts on these platforms, a small group of “trolls” can appear to be much larger. This works toward the false consensus integral to polarized opinion.

While it’s true that a troll can be a part of many open groups (groups with little connectedness or organization) that doesn’t mean the negative psychological effects won’t take place. I think what is a good hypothesis to make is: the longer a person participates in trolling, especially on the basis of information put forward by a group or group leader, the more negative psychological effects take place. This almost ensures that their behavior will become more erratic, extreme, and could result in them being more easily mobilized by any online person they feel is an authority.

This is one reason I have always insisted people not defend me to any online presence. Interestingly only some platforms facilitate this kind of organized ostracism.






The psychological threshold for a social media group

In Group Dynamics, there is a concept called interdependency, which refers to the structural reliance on which a group depends. For example, in a factory setting, an assembly line worker cannot perform their step until the previous step is accurately completed. This is a high rate of interdependence. Conversely, a group that has no real tasks to perform but simply allows people to participate when they wish to, would not have a great deal of interdependence.

Interdependence doesn’t merely have to do with tasks. It can have a great deal to do with social identity, or how a person perceives themselves as part of or in relation to a group. If a person has no external connections outside the group, or is isolated from the core groups of their life like family, they are more likely to become dependent upon the group for their support. This is the sort of interdependence that is sought and indeed used as a control mechanism within cults.

The more interdependent the group becomes, the more a kind of connectedness must take place. The cohesion of the group depends on it. Groups in which every member has a close connection with every other member have the most cohesiveness and longevity. For example, in a family of two parents, three children, and four grandparents, this kind of cohesion can easily be achieved. It is not unreasonable to expect that one of the children can form connections to both the parents, both siblings, and all grandparents. These connections formed and maintained, the family unit is stable for the long term and interdependent on one another for support.

There is a mathematical equation that can render the total number of connections that must be made in a group, for any group to reach that familial style connectedness of all parties to all parties. It is:


Where n is the number of members in the group. So calculating this for a family of say, 10 members, one gets a total number of connections at 45.

The larger the group, the more connections must be made to achieve that kind of cohesive longevity.

However, there appears to be a very well-defined limit to how many connections a human can form and maintain, and while individual members may have lower or higher thresholds (for example someone who is socially anxious would be more likely to hit their limit earlier) it seems fairly consistent across numerous studies with both observational and empirical data. Humans do not seem to be able to maintain connectedness, interdependence, reliance, or cohesiveness past groups that are 150 members in size as described by Dunbar in 2008. For centuries, humans have organized in increments of 100-150 members, from Battalions and legions to villages, and there was never a descriptive model to explain why. Dunbar’s research points to this cognitive limit as being essentially evolved into the species.

Plugging 150 into the above equation, we can see that a group of that size would have to have over 11,000 individual connections in order to behave like a family or core group.

Once that threshold is reached, members tend to leave or opt out of activities. The group fragments into smaller groups (usually before 150) and controversies arises between these. More conflict occurs and cannot be as easily mediated. This is a kind of chain reaction that can be seen, in which people fall into the predictable roles either to maintain the group or find fault with it. Maintenance roles tend to create new norms or rules and govern disagreements and reactions to the loss of members. As mentioned in a previous entry, blocking roles begin to make an appearance also. But the question is why. Why would a conflict in a group with a high rate of interdependence produce negative behaviors rather than positive? How would those behaviors trigger collapse of the group? And my personal question—how does the construction of the platform contribute to this cascade?

For me, classical ideas of “groups” tend to ignore social media networks, even refusing to define them as groups. This may have been applicable in the 90’s or even as recently as a decade ago, but in all honesty it no longer holds true. The platforms, however, have strictures to communication and gathering that the offline world does not. Thusly, classical models of behavior have to be shifted and changed not only to discuss online groups, but also to account for their growing impact on the lives of people.

Social media programs like chat rooms allow for a great many group dynamics to play out, and often, the size of the group is a factor in that. On platforms like Discord, for example, ranking members can be given authority, special roles that can create sub groups, and even the ability to kick or block others from the group. Direct messaging ensures the ability for individual relationships to form. Rules can be voted upon or determined by the server owner. All these features make it possible for a server to be run in a variety of ways, in accordance with any Parameter selected, but none of these offset the fact that the construction of the environment is essentially primed and ready to initiate negative effects.

The interactions, both intimate and large scale, can create a sensory overload, as can the speed of communication or subjects discussed. The group can police this, members taking up maintenance roles to effectively manage it, but once it reaches that psychological threshold, rules cease to matter. Controversies that had been dealt with will be used as justification, strategic positioning occurs, members who are confused will make a snap decision as to which person is right and which wrong. People will simply immediately fall into blocking roles, all logic aside, and the group will collapse.

It is somewhat arguable as to whether or not the sub groups that may form are still technically part of the larger group. They have dynamics of their own, but much of this may be either dependent upon the original group’s method of construction or in opposition to it, both of which are directly related to the original group. There is no data on how dynamics may continue to break down within smaller groups, if at all, but if blocking roles persist into extended groups, it may be possible that the cascade continues.

Social media may present users with the chance to make connections they wouldn’t otherwise, but very little understanding exists on how they can be constructed to best be in line with positive psychology. Much data shows that if the platform allows users to organize in a large group, the standard boundaries of group dynamics and group size still play out eventually, if in modified forms. It may be that some networks allow for a far higher psychological threshold, or even a far lower. Some other aspects of a platform, like Tumblr’s anon feature, may actually lower the threshold. The ability to tag people in posts—good or bad, can immediately trigger dynamics that might otherwise result more slowly within an in-person group.

More study is needed.