An Army of Fools

Armies, both for violence and social change, are costly. Costly to recruit, to train, to provision. But what of mobs? Mobs are cheap, if difficult to plan. Born of the moment, more opportunism born of wildfire than carefully orchestrated arson.

When I see footage of the attack on the Capitol and threads of the angry anonymous on Twitter, I see something in between an army and a mob. At first glance they appear like mobs, phenomena emerging from countless micro-interactions, absent an organizing force. Within the chaos of recent years, however, we’re seeing increased evidence of organizing agents. Within the scores of angry teenagers on the social media warpath for a stronger welfare state and MAGA zealots pushing white ethno-nationalism, we’re finding incepting Russian trolls and coordinating Capitol intruders equipped for ghastly violent theater. These mobs offer evidence of ambition. Ambition to undermine US governance; ambition to prove true the prophecies of some guy from Jersey.

Social media has radically lowered the cost of rousing a mob. Even in the face of technological advancement, however, it remains an unmitigated truth that you get what you pay for. The rabble are filled to the brim with fools, absent leadership, pulling from the tails of distribution. Those with the lowest opportunity cost of time and risk. If democracies are ruddered by the median voter, what guides the mob? The people with the most time on their hands? The least to lose? The most rage? The most bored?

If the median voter is on social media, they’re listening to the mob and also getting what they paid for. What I’m curious about, however is more statistical in nature. One of the points in favor of the median versus the mean is it’s resilience to outliers. But what happens when the median is endogenous to the outliers? What happens when the median voter finds its information increasingly filtered through an army of fools?

Armies are expensive, but mobs have never been cheaper. Why bother with the risk and investment of raising an army, or build a social movement, when you can raise a mob without leaving your home?

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