Thursday, December 14, 2017

What Happens When the Wisdom of the Crowd Becomes the Frenzy of a Mob

by Nomad

There was a plot twist when TV show's premise recently played out in real-time. It opened up the question: what are the actual effects when the wisdom of the people is put to the test? 

Wisdom of the Crowd

One of CBS' new TV shows for the fall season was called "Wisdom of the Crowd." Despite its high-tech twist, this crime-fighting drama is pretty standard fare. See if you agree. Here's the sales pitch:
Driven by a need to find his daughter's killer, Silicon Valley tech innovator Jeffrey Tanner takes crowdsourcing to a new level, creating a digital platform for people around the world to publicly share and evaluate evidence for criminal investigations. 
Thanks to smartphones and other connected gadgets, anybody can become a crime-fighting hero, a private detective on a stake-out or an amateur Sherlock Holmes or Jessica Fletcher. Criminals are stopped dead in their tracks, courtesy of millions of watchful eyes and pecking fingers.

If all of it sounds as cheesy as Greek feta, then listen to this trailer. (Warning: prepare to have your eyes rolled.)

Upon its premiere of the pilot, the Hollywood Reporter gave its review of the show. The critic called it "noxious" and "nearly unwatchable."
Top of the list of his complaints? It's a really dumb idea.
One's ability to tolerate even the smallest amount of CBS' new Sunday drama Wisdom of the Crowd is likely to hinge on how you feel about the series' big hook. If you think that the idea of taking crime-fighting out of the hands of organized law enforcement and turning it over to strangers on social media with no accountability and no responsibilities to protect privacy and due process is a good one, probably you'll be all jazzed by the show.
In the real world, the idea would be "ethically problematic" and that's an understatement. As the critic points out, enlisting social media as law enforcement would undoubtedly lead to endless court actions.
And, paradoxically, that facet would have been a more interesting idea for the show writers. Had the TV show focused on the questions about the ethical and legal implications- rather than "gee-whiz, ain't technology grand?" and "the power to the people"- then the show might have been a lot more relevant and timely.
But then who would want to watch that?

Alas, that question will remain unanswered.


The first episode premiered on 1 October and it is now consigned to the garbage bin. It has already been canceled. Surprisingly, it was not (just) because the show stank.
The terminal problem had nothing to do with lousy writing, a half-baked idea or even third-rate acting.

Jeremy PivenCBS executives dropped the show at the end of last month because the actor who plays the Elon Musk clone, Jeremy Piven, became one of the latest celebrities to be accused of sexual misconduct.
According to a press release, the network will air the remainder of its original 13-episode order, but it will not produce any new episodes.

A woman who once worked with the Entourage actor claimed that he forcibly accosted her and grabbed her their breasts and buttocks. Here's the tweet from the first of Piven's accusers, Ariane Bellamar.

Her claims reportedly predictably led to online criticism of Bellamar. She faced backlash because of her past, working as an adult film actress. Others have questioned why Bellamar never went to police back when the incident happened.

Then, a second accuser came forward and another and another. A total of four women came forward.

For his part, Piven has come out swinging. The accusations against him are 100% false, he has said. A representative for Piven said that the actor was currently "looking at legal options.”
In early November, he tweeted this public statement.


On 13 November, Piven passed a lie detector test which he claims proves that he has never used force to take sexual advantage of a woman.
It doesn't really matter what he says or does. The people's verdict has already been delivered.
With that, his new show died a slightly premature death.

"Dark Times" and Spotlights

Given the theme of that series, there's quite a bit of irony in Piven's statements about "rushing to judgment," "lives being put in jeopardy without a hearing, due process or evidence," and "destroying careers based on mere allegations."

He has a point, of course. In the eagerness to remove "creeps," tweeted allegations have become the new due process. 

Still, I imagine that Piven was perfectly okay with the idea of the wisdom of the public when he read the first script of his TV show. This was not a show about giving people the "benefit of the doubt." It was much more about the satisfaction of an all-out feeding frenzy, something social media had demonstrated that it is very very good at.

There's very little that Piven can do to save his career. He is part of the Franken-Keillor-Weinstein-Spacey crowd now. Of course, Piven could do as the silent comedian Fatty Arbuckle did 100 years ago. He changed his name to Will B. Goodrich. (Arbuckle was, incidentally, cleared in the courts of the horrendous scandal that left his career in shreds.)

When it comes to sexual harassment, the present mood of the public is unforgiving, especially the mood of women. They have every right to be satisfied that finally some attention is being called to this long-standing problem. And make no mistake, it is a problem.
The Quinnipiac University poll of American female voters showed that 60 percent of women had experienced some form of harassment—with 70 percent of those encounters taking place on the job.
One man's "dark times" are many women's bright light of public exposure. With an altogether unrepentant accused sex offender in the White House, it is unlikely that atonement for people like Piven is even possible

Given that the problem has been around literally for decades, the truly shocking part is how quickly the allegations led to action by network executives. The stars aligned and off came the heads of the former masters of the universe. 

All of this really should not have come as a surprise to Piven. After all, the CBS executives that fired him without even wincing based on unproven allegations are also the same people who approved of a TV show about an enraged mob delivering justice.   

The Tripathi Incident

Lately, the idea of the wisdom of the crowd has taken a beating.

Last year, American crowd online didn't seem too awfully wise. They were fairly easily fooled into believing whatever nonsense the Russians pumped out, from pizza shop conspiracies about Hillary Clinton to polls showing Trump with double-digit leads before the election.
Because of that deluge of fake news direct from St. Petersberg, the vox populi was babbling a lot of nonsense.

Even before that, there was another incident that should have set off warning bells.

In March 2013, twenty-two-year-old Brown University student, Sunil Tripathi vanished. His mother Judy, father Akhil, and sister Sangeeta also sought help from the university and the FBI to find him for almost eight weeks. Naturally, his family reached out to social media for help in locating Tripathi.  

They created a Facebook page, "Help Us Find Sunil Tripathi," in case Sunil logged online. There he'd find messages from loved ones praying for his safe return. They need Sunil, who had been beset by depression, to know his family was there for him.  

Public Radio International journalist Anders Kelto reported:
They received lots of messages of support. News organizations picked up the story. But three weeks later, they still had no leads. They were exhausted. So Sunil's brother and sister went to the Boston Marathon to cheer on a friend who'd been helping in the search.
On that day, 15 April, the story took an unexpected twist. That was the date of the Boston Marathon bombings. The attack killed three people and injured several hundred others. Like the citizens of Boston and the nation itself, the Tripathi family was stunned by the terror attack.

The following day, a member of the online community, Reddit,  (username "OOPS777") established a so-called subreddit in order to collect information about the bombing in the hopes of identifying the perpetrators.  In 24 hours, over 3000 people had joined in the online pursuit.

On 17 April, the FBI officially released photos of the suspects. Within hours, amateur detectives on Reddit noticed the similarity between the suspected bombers and Tripathi. This resemblance was soon confirmed by a woman claiming to be a classmate at Brown. That was all that was needed to set the ball in motion.

The Tripathi family immediately began receiving phone calls from the news media, asking for a comment on the breaking reports that their missing son had been implicated in the attack. Moreover, hysterical messages began appearing on the FB page set up to find Sunil.
Ravi, Sunil's brother, recalled:
This is not just one or two comments that would make Mom cry. It progressed to having as many laptops open as possible and deleting every single post. It almost felt like a - you know, a case study in mob mentality - in virtual mob mentality.
According to Kelto, that mob mentality included the media.
The Tripathis had been waiting for their phones to ring with information about Sunil. Now they were getting questions about his alleged involvement in the bombing. Between 3 and 4 a.m. on Friday, April 19, his sister Sangeeta got 58 calls from the media. News vans lined up outside their home and reporters were knocking on their front door.
Other than a slight similarity in appearance, all of this mob hysteria was based upon irresponsible accusations and the dangerous echo chamber effect of social media, like Facebook and Twitter and other websites. 
Nothing more.

Still worse, the baseless claims of Reddit amateur sleuths were being used by the mainstream media. For example, a Redditor claimed that Sunil had been identified as a suspect by Boston Police, it was picked up and repeated by a Buzzfeed reporter and eventually the false accusation made its way to more reputable news sources. According to the BBC, Tripathi had soon become the "standout suspect" in social media. 
This was simply untrue.
On that same day, the FBI identified the actual suspects: brothers Dzhokhar and Tamerlan Tsarnaev.

Immediately the anger and outrage directed at Tripathi family fell silent. Their ordeal was not quite over. A few days later, Sunil's body was recovered from the Seekonk River. It was assumed that the young man had taken his own life in the days before the bombings. There was never any connection whatsoever between Tripathi and the Boston bombings.   

In March 2015, filmmakers released a documentary about the events called Help Us Find Sunil Tripathi. Here's the trailer for that.

Admittedly, the Tripathi incident was perhaps a rare convergence of coincidences.  A one-off event that hopefully will never reoccur. The circumstances do, however, show what can happen when the wisdom of the crowd is replaced by the madness of the masses.