How Online Mobs Act Like Flocks of Birds

Still frame from a computer simulation of a murmuration of birds swooping and swirling across the screen.

Image credit: Noema

Have you ever watched a group of birds flying together, making swirling, looping patterns in the sky, and thought, “Wow! I wish we humans could do that!”? Well, we kind of already do, at least on social media. Renée DiResta, technical research manager at Stanford Internet Observatory, uses the metaphor of a murmuration of birds (that’s what it’s called) to describe our social media behavior. In this November 2022 essay in Noema, she analyzes some of our most problematic social media behavior and makes some recommendations for addressing the problems.

Read it here.


1. Near the middle of her essay, DiResta outlines a number of social problems that are caused or made worse by our social media use. For example, she asserts that the discourse about content moderation is “a simplistic debate that goes nowhere.” What are the other problems? List them. How does she describe and explain the damaging effects? Summarize her explanation. Do you find her description credible? Why or why not?   

2. DiResta employs an extended metaphor of a murmuration of birds to illustrate and explain our social media use, explaining how the principles of “collective behavior” in nature is highly applicable to how we behave on Twitter and other social media platforms. One of the ways that she reinforces the metaphor throughout the essay is with the repeated use of the term “flock.” In your opinion, is “flock” an effective term for what she is describing? Why or why not? How well does the metaphor of murmuration support her argument? Explain the reasoning behind your response. Would her argument have been equally strong without the discussion of murmuration? Why or why not? 

3. LET’S TALK DiResta asserts that our social media behavior is “determined by the structure of the network.” For example, how we repost one another, our occasions of coordinated activism, our responses to trending posts or topics, are not so much a matter of each individual user acting independently but rather of each individual as “a node in a system of influence, with the capacity to influence the behavior of [their] neighbors.” Reflect on DiResta’s assertion as it relates to your own social media use. Think of your last five posts on any platform (TikTok, Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, etc.). How does your participation respond to what you’ve just seen or read? How do other users respond to your posts? Can you detect any of the murmuration patterns that DiResta describes? Once you’ve reflected on your own use, discuss your impressions and observations with a few classmates. How similar or different are their experiences to yours? Do your experiences tend to validate DiResta’s assertion? Refute them?  

4. AND NOW WRITE In the final section of her essay, DiResta suggests a few measures that could be taken to improve social media behavior; these include eliminating trending features (Twitter), limiting follower count (Instagram), and limiting the number of users in a Group (Facebook). She doesn’t offer specific suggestions for TikTok, YouTube, Snapchat, or any others, but try to imagine what she’d propose. What do you think about these proposals? Are they doable? Do you think they might have the desired effect? Why or why not? Choose one platform—preferably one that you use and that you’re familiar with—and write an essay that argues a position about the feasibility and potential value of DiResta’s proposal (or the proposal you think she might make). Use your own experience as evidence; you may also want to draw on your classmates’ experiences as shared during your discussion about prompt #3.

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