Recent articles in the Star Tribune about the Great Pedaling Pub Attacks of 2015 are worth some additional attention. One lesson not to learn from this incident is that social media is to blame.
For readers unfamiliar with the story, PedalPub, a service in which beer drinkers pedal a wagon cart to bars, was recently the target of five bicyclists on a "Mad Max"-style attack in Minneapolis using water guns and water balloons. Unfortunately for the attackers, and fortunately for the PedalPub riders, the third PedalPub cart pelted with water had several off-duty Burnsville police officers on the pub crawl, who caught the Mad Maxers and pinned them to the ground until Minneapolis police arrived. The five attackers are now charged with misdemeanor crimes. Their capture has garnered many thousands of views on YouTube.
In trying to explain the bizarre incident, a Star Tribune article ("Pedal pubs made tempting target," May 27) indicated that a Facebook page, "I Hate the Pedal Pub," was the cause — that a social gathering on the Internet conveying spiteful words about the service generated the emotion and motivation for the five riders to carry out a water gun rampage. A University of Minnesota anthropologist was quoted as saying that social media has changed how Americans interact and has emboldened people to doing things they wouldn't normally do.
While research has found that social media is changing how Americans — and the world — interact, this situation illustrates instead how human interactions remain the same. The Great Pedaling Pub Attacks of 2015 present a classic example of people joined together in a group by a common belief doing things the individuals wouldn't normally have done on their own. The tools of communication have changed, but the behavior has been repeated throughout history.
The phenomenon is called group mind, or groupthink, a process in which a person gets caught up in the decisionmaking of a group with high cohesion around its values and sense of belonging. The individual sets aside rationalism, common sense and facts in favor of standing in solidarity with the group.
The persuasive appeals of a group can be communicated through a medium such as Facebook, but Facebook is not to blame. Such persuasion isn't limited to social media. In fact, research has shown the strongest persuaders are family and friends.
Consider the Tsarnaev brothers, convincing each other it was a good idea to bomb the Boston Marathon, or Somali youths persuading each other to try to join the Islamic State. It's easy to fault social media in these situations because it provides an easy solution: Shut down social media, shut down the problem. The reality is that the problem, and solution, are more complex.
The underlying problem with groupthink is the isolation of the group. There is no outsider perspective in a highly cohesive group; no one raises red flags when an idea is stupid, mean or criminal. If the Mad Maxers had bothered to check with people outside their bicycle gang about their plans, they may have believed someone warning them: "Bad idea."
The lesson to be learned from the PedalPub incident is not about the "evils" of social media, but about diversity. Groups need diversity, encompassing differences of gender and age, race and ethnicity, political and socioeconomic perspectives, etc., the more perspectives the better. The PedalPub attackers are the poster boys of groupthink. Every organization in America should post photos of the water-gun-slinging bike riders on office walls — and company Facebook pages — as an example of what happens when you don't consider diverse opinions. You go out guns blasting, thinking you're right — and end up facedown on the street.
The lesson applies to all sorts of groups. Consider, for example, the many "water balloons" launched by groups of wealthy, white, older men who gather as executives or officials to make decisions in guiding corporations and governments without hearing a diversity of perspectives.
Another important lesson from the Great Pedaling Pub Attacks of 2015 is that regardless of what happens in the courts, the five Mad Maxers' greater punishment has been the shame they have faced in the court of public opinion. The Star Tribune's news reports spread the story far more broadly than a Facebook page or YouTube video did, showing that traditional media can still hold more influence on a community than so-called social media.
Maureen Schriner, of Eagan, is an assistant professor in the Communication and Journalism Department at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire.