Scapegoating and social media networks

Psychodynamically, scapegoating is defined as a “process by which the mechanisms of projection or displacement are used to focus unwarranted levels of aggression, hostility, frustration, etc., on another individual or group.” Aggression, hostility and frustration are behaviours, as is the act itself of scapegoating. What underlies them is emotional energy and it is the pain of experiencing this energy within that leads an individual or group to seek to displace it unconsciously. This is why scapegoating is seen as a defence mechanism (aka coping strategy).

I wrote about scapegoating in a previous article.

For the last thirty years or so, there have been virtual communities accessible online, whether as the original USENET and bulletin boards, the early forums hosted by Yahoo or self-hosted using software like phpBB. More recently the phenomena of the 2000s, Facebook and LinkedIn, are further examples of virtual communities.

In the early days, a popular image was created that such groups were prone to malicious behaviour, with maverick individuals acting inappropriately and disturbing the quiet of the group. Rules were evolved, administrators and moderators were given special privileges. Historically, these roles were voluntary, and even in subscription forums the power to regulate behaviour is often delegated to ‘volunteers’.

There are many processes at work here, including a variety of mythologies about the sanctity of the groups and their spiritual power, but it is at the dynamic level that we can see scapegoating at play. Follow a thread as it unfolds when someone poses the possibility that the group is not all it could be and needs to change. Where the proposal for change is purely about the software platform, then individuals will often be met simply by silence. If the person seen as the source of the idea is liked by the group, then they will sometimes be pedestalised [another group psychodynamic process that I’ll blog about on another occasion] by the group.

However, when the group feels threatened, especially if it is being told that its behaviour is wrong, then we can often see scapegoating kick in. One (very rarely more) key member will engage in the debate, challenging the individual with a statement that doesn’t address their concern at all but introduces some other dimension entirely. A distraction tactic.

A: “It seems to me that it is time we changed the rules and stopped this kind of behaviour…”

Such an intervention is almost always subjective, which makes it unlikely that the poster will be able to quantify the problem or the software makes it hard to produce the evidence to support their concern.

They are responded to with…

B: “Have you even tried the new features? [Which have nothing to do with the original issue.]”
C: “This is something that was discussed a long time ago and was resolved then.” [Which begs the question why has it happened again?]
D: “I’m a super-user and I’ll talk to you offline about this.” [IE don’t you dare challenge my authority in front of other people]
E: “I’m a super-user – I don’t [want to] understand what you mean. Prove it.”
F: “I tried the new features and they are REALLY fantastic – I wish everyone would do so, they would be so impressed.”
G: “I tried the new features and I want you to know what an amazing person the ‘owner’ of this system is and what cute puppy dogs or kittens he/she has…”
and so on.

Quickly a volley of reinforcing statements supporting the new statement appear, or ‘likes’ are given to the responses. Rapidly the original point of the thread has been lost in a barrage of people saying how lovely the founders’ dogs, cats, or children are.

Soon afterwards, the criticism disappears – either the original poster just doesn’t bother to respond and is inactive for a while or forever, or their criticism is dwarfed by a discussion about the different topic. It takes a very sturdy individual to persist with their idea for change.

The impact is that the social standing of the original poster is demeaned. The group status quo is preserved. A few other members have been reinforced through positive feedback on their smokescreen comments. The problem that had been identified is not addressed and an opportunity for the network to evolve is undermined.

The original poster has become the scapegoat for the group.

Again, the indication that scapegoating is at play is when it repeats itself whenever a similar perceived threat is made.

Today, already more people exchange messages using social networks than do so by email. While large corporates have been slow to follow, soon they too will find that most communication is via these ‘community-based’ systems. With social media taking an increasing role in digital communication, large organisations need to be aware of, and to influence, the psychodynamic processes going on both on internal networks and external ones. It won’t be long before someone who has been the victim of such behaviour sues the owner of the platform. It is one thing when these are the major open-access platforms, such as LinkedIn and Facebook, but it will be a very different story when it is an in-house system.

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