The Return of Crowd Contagion? 3 of 3

From the Brutality of the Crowd to the Docile Public

With Twitter, the business enterprise, now joining other social media companies in enforcing country-specific censorship of content, Web 2.0 will perhaps lose much of its revolutionary appeal (The Guardian,  Monday 30 January 2012). This failure to adhere to fundamental democratic rights certainly questions the willingness of social media to disassociate itself from state mechanisms of tyranny. In its rush to do business with dictatorships social media has become absorbed into the public. The question that needs to be addressed now then is not how social media changes the world, but how the desire-events of one crowd can be steered toward political revolution while the other heads straight for the shops. The answer in the UK will certainly not be found in the established media system.

Cameron and Murdoch

David Cameron and James Murdoch

In the wake of the riots the artifice that separates Labour from their Neo-Conservative foil is exposed to some extent. Indeed, while the corporate media endeavours to position the public on either side of an increasingly narrow and irrelevant political divide, the bourgeois domination of British “democracy” becomes absolute. On one hand, the neo-cons of course blamed the crowd, clamouring for vengeful payback in terms of long draconian sentences. On the other, Labour made a desultory effort to condemn the corrupted values of consumer society for the production of a disenfranchised mob hell bent on satisfying its desire for stuff.

Tony Blair and Rupert Murdoch

Tony Blair and Rupert Murdoch

Yet, more than that, the riots draw attention to the failure the neo-liberal Labour Party to connect with the poor. It was after all they who encouraged a deregulated City of London. It was Tony Blair who wasn’t that bothered by the ever widening gap between rich and poor. It was Labour who saddled up with the Murdochs. It was also Labour who began the process of dismantling the university. A new social and political arrangement of desire is needed that can challenge these political centres: an arrangement that can harness the kind of energy that the “desire for stuff” inspires and steer it toward new democratic forms of organization. Social media will of course play a part, but what must be reversed before any of this can happen is the continuing move away from the potential of the crowd toward an evermore docile public. As nineteenth century social contagion theory argued, more than it flatters the public corrupted institutional power fears the crowd.


Kate Hodal, “Thailand backs Twitter censorship policy,” The Guardian,  Monday 30 January 2012.

About Virality

Tony D. Sampson is Reader in Digital Culture and Communications at the University of East London. He has a PhD in social-cultural-digital contagion theory from the Sociology Department at the University of Essex. He is a former art student who re-entered higher education in the UK as a mature student in the mid-1990s after a long stint as a gigging musician. His career in education has moved through various disciplines and departments, including a maths and computing faculty, sociology department and school of digital media and design His publications include The Spam Book, coedited with Jussi Parikka (Hampton Press, 2009), Virality: Contagion Theory in the Age of Networks (University of Minnesota Press, 2012), The Assemblage Brain: Sense Making in Neuroculture (University of Minnesota Press, 2016), Affect and Social Media (Rowman and Littlefield, July 2018) and The Sleepwalker's Guide to Social Media (due 2020 with Polity Press). Tony is the organizer and host of the Affect and Social Media conferences in the UK (see archive on this blog). As a co-founder and co-director of the public engagement initiatives, Club Critical Theory (CCT) and the Cultural Engine Research Group (CERG), Tony has been project lead on a number of funded projects that bring impactful critical theories into the community and local political sphere to approach. These activities have included large conferences, symposia and informal lectures/workshops in pubs and community centres, co-organized with community groups and local authorities. Tony occasionally blogs at: Full academic profile:
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