Underestimating The Psyche Of A Mob: The Abuse Of Power

(By Dolapo Aina)

The event I witnessed wasn’t about politicians, prominent individuals or military men. The people consisted of everyday people (probably blue and white collar employees in the United Kingdom). The event laid credence without any iota/sprinkling of doubt to the psyche of a mob if left with unrestricted control.

“Never underestimate the power of stupid people in large groups.”-Oriental adage.
IN 2012, when the video of the lynching of the four undergraduates from University of Port Harcourt went viral on the Internet in October 2012, everyone from the citizens, academia to the intelligentsia, prominent individuals and the media, asked the same rhetorical questions: Why such heinous acts? Do savages still roam and reside amongst us? Have we as Nigerians lost the collective moral currency? Several questions that bordered on our collective moral and mental marbles were asked. Were Nigerians satisfied with the proffered explanations? Well, that is left for conjecture.

But I saw an event that resembled the ALUU 4 lynching and it dawned on me that what took place in the Aluu community in Rivers State, was an unambiguous case of the repercussions of unchecked control, power or authority in the hands of a mob or group of individuals (whether illiterates, quasi-illiterates, quasi-literates or the elite). History is replete with mobs (criminal, political and religious) whose mantra was institutionalised brute force e.g. Hitler, Goebbels, Heinrich Himmler and the Nazi cohorts, Bin Laden and Al Qaeda and at present some dictators and kingdoms in the Arab world to name a few.

The event I witnessed wasn’t about politicians, prominent individuals or military men. The people consisted of everyday people (probably blue and white collar employees in the United Kingdom). The event laid credence without any iota/sprinkling of doubt to the psyche of a mob if left with unrestricted control.

BBC Knowledge airs a programme called “The Experiment”, hosted by an illusionist by the name Derren Brown. Derren Brown is so good at what he does (and tries to demonstrate) that the viewer might periodically wonder what would have been if Derren were a fraudster or a member of a crime organisation/syndicate. Basically put, Derren showcases how with some strategic thinking and mind-distorting orchestrated events, people can be coerced to do absolutely anything, even confess to a murder not committed.

An episode of Derren Brown’s The Experiment readily comes to mind. On Saturday, January 5, 2013, Derren’s show had an episode purportedly called “Remote Control” which was with a live audience. Apparently, everyone on set was glad that Derren was having another new show “Remote Control” which was going to be different from The Experiment. In the Remote Control Show (with an audience seated like Who Wants To Be A millionaire), the audience would be watching real-time live feeds of an individual, oblivious to the fact that the next 50 minutes of his/her life would be remote-controlled by other people whom he/she has never met. For every incident in the next 50 minutes in the individual’s life, there would be two options to be chosen by the audience. One positive and the other would negatively affect the victim. But before the Remote Control Show began, Derren in another room let the viewers at home into a little information, which was the only twist which really turned the show on its head.
Derren strode into the ambience of the large studio with a vociferous audience and the new show “Remote Control” which was actually an episode of “The Experiment” began. Derren informed the live audience about the Remote Control Show, where as explained earlier, the audience would decide the fate of an oblivious individual (who would be monitored by surveillance cameras). The fate of the individual in several scenarios would be sealed via vote via control buttons-like the type you see on Who Wants to Be a Millionaire. The people in the studio were ecstatic and rearing to begin.

The live-feed of a bar appeared on big screens in the studio. Three friends were seated in front of the bartender, discussing. The man in the middle was the intended target. His two friends knew he was being watched. Some waitresses, waiters and customers were also in the know. His first test was when a lady came to order drinks and walked past Mark, only to turn around and accuse him of laying his hand on her backside. A confused Mark denied it. The lady’s man came and threw tantrums at Mark but it was resolved. The audience in the studio watched as the events unfolded.

Mark continued chatting with his friends. Some minutes later, some ladies from a previous UK version of the Big Brother Show came into the bar. Derren asked the audience if one of the ladies should spill beer on Mark’s shirt and the audience took their control pads and voted yes. After the incident, the lady apologised and left with her friends.
Some minutes later, Mark and one of his friends walked to a supermarket, Mark’s friend who was with a bag, handed the bag to Mark, informing him, he wanted to make use of the restroom, but Mark’s friend took to his heels, leaving Mark to do the shopping. When Mark was to pay at the counter, the cashier asked if there was anything in the bag, Mark said no and that the bag was for his friend. The cashier was adamant he wanted to check the bag, Mark gave it to him and alas female essentials were discovered to Mark’s utter surprise and to the cashier’s bemused chagrin (giving him free access to rain down abuses on Mark). The police were called in and when the policemen arrived, Mark’s fate was again in the remote controlled hands of the audience. They were told by Derren that they could decide whether the cops would watch the CCTV and declare that Mark didn’t shoplift any item or that the CCTV footage showed that he did. The audience voted for the latter.

The speechless Mark remained calm and was placed in the Police minivan. As this was happening, back at the studio, a female colleague of Mark, who was in the know, was on the show and the audience had to decide if she should call Mark and intimate him on the impending loss of his job by the following Monday. The audience voted for the call. She called and Mark received the news in his calm stride and informed her about his present predicament.

Again, Derrek told the audience that they could decide Mark’s fate by choosing between the policemen dropping him close to his home (on the pretext that a serious crime was being committed elsewhere) with a warning, making Mark walk home and being handed 10,000 pounds or him being dropped and again being kidnapped by balaclava-wearing men. The audience chose the latter. Mark was kidnapped but somehow escaped before he was dumped into the van. He ran for his dear life but as he ran out of the street, which was a close, a moving car hit him and Mark hit the floor motionless. But before this tragic accident, between when Mark was at the bar and being mugged by the abductors, the audience still played a sinister part in the destruction of Mark’s flat.

Derrek sent the purported producer of “Remote Control” to Mark’s flat to snoop around for incriminating materials. The producer did his part but found nothing. The audience told the producer (via a live stream) to search everywhere (history page on his laptop to find out if he visited adult sites or adult movies in his DVD collections-his history page was empty and no adult DVD was found) and upturn belongings, including smashing with a baseball bat Mark’s Plasma TV and X-box video game.

Back to the unexpected accident, when it occurred, everyone was tensed. Derrek was confused; the merciless people with the remote controls were stunned and silent. The fear was palpable that they began to take off the masks that they wore to hide their identities making them anonymous for 50 minutes. There was confusion amongst the cameramen in the studio and the live-feed was terminated. One of the participants in the audience, clutching her bag and her mouth ran out of the studio, one asked if Mark was alright. A dazed Derrek tried to re-establish audio and visual contact with the ground team to no avail. A distraught Derrek left the live set, left behind an apprehensive audience who for 50 minutes controlled and turned upside down an individual’s life, which culminated in a tragic accident with the lifeless body of Mark. So they thought.

A tragic event in reality only that viewers (like I) knew better. You see, the viewers knew better because the show wasn’t about Mark but about the audience. The real Mark wasn’t the one that was hit by the car-that Mark was a double. The real Mark was dropped off by the fake policemen, walked home to see a brand new Plasma TV and X-box in his sitting room plus 10,000 British Pounds and a letter detailing what transpired in his living room and explaining the events that happened to him.

Before the commencement of the show, Derrek Brown was in another room, where he informed the viewers that the show was about the audience-their reactions to the unfettered authority granted to them and its usage. The unsympathetic reactions oozing from the real “remote controlled” audience was alarming. I began to comprehend the real meaning of the quote, absolute power corrupts and power controls absolutely. I began to understand why military leaders, sit-tight presidents and ordinary individuals get to power and metamorphose into many a draconian Minotaur. This is possible because of feeble checks and balances in the system of government practised and most importantly, lack of self discipline by the individual.

The show reminded me of a research in the 60s at Harvard University, where a Professor wanted to find out the limit to human’s humanity. Several Harvard undergraduates who were friends were kept in a makeshift prison. Some were prison wardens while others were prisoners. Everyone accommodated each other but for less than a week. What transpired (the inhumane treatment meted out to the supposed prisoners by friends playing the roles of prison wardens) was so cruel; the experiment had to be terminated.

The unblemished truth oozing with immaculacy and resonating from the Aluu four lynching in 2012, the Nazi massacres and experiments, the Harvard experiments and the Derrek Brown’s experiment on the audience can be found in an Oriental saying “Never underestimate the power of stupid people in large groups.” After Derrek Brown explained the actual reason for the show, he left the stage and the show ended but the gloomy and ashamed audience couldn’t raise their hands, press their fingers to trigger any form of applause. The show ended with an uncomfortable silence which in itself was deafening.

• Aina lives in Lagos.

“Opinion pieces of this sort published on RISE Networks are those of the original authors and do not in anyway represent the thoughts, beliefs and ideas of RISE Networks.”

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