Crowds, we are often told, are dumb. They obliterate reason, sentience and accountability, turning individuals into helpless copycats. Commentators on the riots offered different explanations but most agreed that crowd psychology was part of the problem. “The dominant trait of the crowd is to reduce its myriad individuals to a single, dysfunctional persona,” wrote the novelist Will Self in the New Statesman. “The crowd is stupider than the averaging of its component minds.” The violence was said to have spread like a “contagion” through the crowd, facilitated by social media. For those who wanted to sound scientific, the term to drop was “deindividuation”: the loss of identity and moral responsibility that can occur in a group. But do crowds really make us more stupid?
Earlier this year, the world watched a crowd bring down an autocratic government, by the simple act of coming together in one place, day after day, night after night. Egyptian protesters created a micro-society in Tahrir Square, organising garbage collection, defending themselves when they needed to, but otherwise ensuring the protest remained peaceful. As well as courage, this took intelligence, discipline and restraint. Few international observers accused the crowd in Tahrir Square of being dysfunctional, or of turning its members into animals. The Tahrir protesters also used social media, but rather than calling for a ban, as some in Britain did after the riots, people wrote eulogies to the liberating potential of Twitter. It seems that not all crowds are bad. But when bad things happen, the crowd gets the blame.
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