The point of a public stoning is that everyone in the crowd has to pick up a rock. It is a team building exercise. At the end of the cathartic murder, all are equally guilty, which implies that they are all also equally innocent and quite convinced of their own righteousness. That is why Jesus’s intervention in the New Testament story of the woman taken in adultery is so devastating. He stops the stoning of a clearly guilty woman by saying ‘Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.’ The question disintegrates the crowd into individual people, individually responsible. This is much more subtle than it first appears. It is not a demand that only the sinless should exercise power. That would be impossible. But it is a reminder that even when we act as part of a crowd, or an army, a movement or even a newspaper, we do so as unique individuals, personally responsible for our actions.
I think this is a helpful way of thinking about Twitter and the other forms of mob cruelty with which the world now entertains itself online. To mock those less powerful is no longer an individual act of scorn but a collective one. Social media has made collective punishment easier than it has ever been. Even in societies that practised merciless public stigmatisation and shaming, like seventeenth century England, where criminals might not only be executed with enormous cruelty in public, but subject to lesser, brutal humiliations – having their noses split, or merely being placed in the stocks – these treats for the public were reserved to special occasions. But on Twitter, every day is now an opportunity to shame and mock and stigmatise. Obviously, it is better to be the victim of an online storm than a public execution. Still, Twitter can destroy people’s lives and livings as thoroughly as a spell in the stocks could do.
I myself take a shameful pleasure in a Twitter account called ‘Maomentum’, which mocks unsparingly the Corbynite faction of the Labour Party. This morning, for instance, it explains that ‘Can’t help feeling that this Harry and Meghan interview is a conveniently timed distraction away from Richard Burgon’s alternative budget.’