Amplification and glamorization

I like to get useful advice, and helpful suggestions for how to learn more about things so that I can understand better and not be wrong. I saw some advice on Twitter about what to do about internet trolls.

If you want to understand why jumping up & down in outrage isn’t the best reponse to internet trolling, you could do worse than learn about old-style Chicago School subcultural theories of deviance. Albert Cohen & Walter Miller, in particular, would be relevant.

In one way that advice is odd, because it comes from someone who has done a lot of “jumping up and down” (which I think means talking or writing) in outrage about “FTBullies” for many months…but then again maybe the best response to internet trolls is radically different from the best response to bullies (FT or otherwise), so that the advice is not odd at all. Or maybe the best response to internet trolls is exactly the same as the best response to bullies – which would be my guess, since I think they’re pretty much the same kind of thing – so the advice is odd in that way but still good advice. Maybe the jumper up and down suddenly remembered about subcultural theories of deviance, and realized the jumping had been a waste of leg muscles.

So anyway – who knows lots about Chicago School subcultural theories of deviance and can fill us in? Of course I consulted Google and Wikipedia, the library being closed today, but I need more.

In criminology, subcultural theory emerged from the work of the Chicago School on gangs and developed through the symbolic interactionism school into a set of theories arguing that certain groups or subcultures in society have values and attitudes that are conducive to crime and violence.

Looks like a tautology to me, but whatever.

The reformed jumper also offered a dark warning about deviance amplification, which is something I had heard of. Wikipedia is more helpful here.

According to Cohen the spiral starts with some “deviant” act. Usually the deviance is criminal, but it can also involve lawful acts considered morally repugnant by a large segment of society. With the new focus on the issue, hidden or borderline examples that would not themselves have been newsworthy are reported, confirming the “pattern”.

Reported cases of such “deviance” are often presented as just “the ones we know about” or the “tip of the iceberg“, an assertion that is nearly impossible to disprove immediately. For a variety of reasons, the less sensational aspects of the spiraling story that would help the public keep a rational perspective (such as statistics showing that the behavior or event is actually less common or less harmful than generally believed) tend to be ignored by the press.

As a result, minor problems begin to look serious and rare events begin to seem common. Members of the public are motivated to keep informed on these events, leading to high readership for the stories, feeding the spiral. The resulting publicity has the potential to increase the deviant behavior by glamorizing it…

Ah yes, I get it – this is the sociologists’ version of “Ignore the trolls.” There’s a problem with that, which is that a particular behavior may be minor in the great scheme of things (and internet trolling certainly fits that bill), but that doesn’t mean it’s minor to the people splashed by it. Most behaviors are “minor” compared to something else. This planet is minor compared to the universe, but it’s not minor to us because we live on it. Also – blogs aren’t the same kind of thing as The New York Times or CNN.

Jason has a related post, on The scope of the problem and the availability heuristic.




  1. LeftSidePositive says

    The model as described is also inadequate because it assumes the consumers of the media describing the problem are entirely passive and are just fraught with impotent worry. It doesn’t address what happens when people decide to try to address the problems that are discussed, much less the difference between constructive and destructive responses.

  2. says

    Hmm, good point. One could have said the same thing about the Civil Rights movement, for instance – oh all that pesky segregation was just a minor thing, and all this protesting and shouting and reporting was just amplifying it. Well yes, it was, and that was the point.

    I have always quite liked the “moral panic” idea, and one does see it in the media all the time. But your moral panic may be my life’s work, or vice versa. It depends…

  3. Aratina Cage says

    So, basically, whoever that was was trying to tell us that prominent members of the atheist/sceptic community are not harboring or or mollycoddling or egging on misogynists and vicious bullies. It’s all in our heads.

    Good to know!

  4. says

    I’m thinking along the lines of Ms. Daisy… the Chicago School of economics helped crash the planet, so I’m automatically skeptical of anything else coming out of that “school.”

  5. says

    Well, if you tell a group of people that your wallet just got stolen, people will swap stories about stolen wallets. One got theirs stolen on their holiday, the other one in the mall, third person’s grandmother had it stolen in the park (did I mention that she lives in Florida…). Basically everybody has an experience of stolen wallets. Because the life-time risk for that is probably 100%
    But if tell that story about your wallet and the mall yesterday, and the next person had theirs stolen in the mall on Tuesday, and another one last week, and grandpa, too, you’re fucking justified to say there’s a problem with thiefs in the mall, don’t you think?

    It’s also the idea that microagressions don’t count.
    A tweet here, a reference there, silence another time and suddenly when the victim says something they’re overreacting, probably hysterical.

  6. Nick Gotts (formerly KG) says

    There are claims (I don’t know how well-founded), that police campaigns against minor offences such as littering and graffitoing cut the rates of more serious crime in the same area.

  7. hoary puccoon says

    I have three degrees in sociology and I didn’t recognize that presentation of symbolic interactionism at all.

    The basic idea of symbolic interactionism is that people in groups interact by means of symbolic language (duh!) Value systems in subcultures are developed by the participants interacting with each other, not taking their cues from an outside authority

    And that is *exactly* what I see going on in the atheist community, with people telling each other it’s really all right to hound “uppity” women in the movement because– whatever the excuse of the week happens to be. As in– “Elevator guy never stepped forward. So he never existed. So RW is a liar. So if *she* lied it’s okay to make rape and death threats against her, because she should know we’re just lying, too, ’cause we’re such swell guys we’d never do anything really bad….”

    *That’s* symbolic interaction. What Ophelia described above is one aspect of it. But it cuts both ways. People can manipulate symbols to make a minor issue into a crisis. But they can also use symbols trying to make a real problem into a minor issue people “shouldn’t” get upset over. Which exactly what’s been happening in the atheist community.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *