January 5, 2022 - 7:00am

Many more people turn to Google for information about the world than use Twitter, so when Google censors ideas, the societal impact is potentially very wide reaching. Last week one specific search term drew a speedy and surprising response from the search giant.

“It looks like these results are changing quickly,” a notice explained. “If this topic is new, it can sometimes take time for results to be added by reliable sources.”

The term is “mass formation psychosis”, a description of collective hysteria, and it had gained a sudden spike in popularity and searches after a talk by a Belgian academic discussing the phenomenon was promoted by anti-vaxxer Robert Malone in an appearance on the Joe Rogan show (which YouTube has since deleted).

Searches for a well-known concept yielded no results after it was promoted by Robert Malone

According to Professor Mattias Desmet of the psychology faculty at Ghent University, whose talk was extensively discussed by Rogan and Malone, a generalised sense of anxiety leaves a population in a hypnotic state, vulnerable to suggestion. It isn’t a new idea. Mass formation draws on work by the 19th century writer Gustave Bon, commonly credited as the father of crowd psychology. Le Bon was avidly read by Lenin, Hitler and Mussolini, and became a huge influence on Louis Bernays, Freud’s nephew and the inventor of modern public relations.

Talking about mass formation seems to be a freelance venture by Professor Desmet, whose published work focuses on psychotherapy for the individual, not social psychology. But it is not hard to see why it was seized upon by a spectrum of people broadly opposed to pandemic interventions, ranging at its extremes to conspiracy theorists (before Malone promoted it, it had been aired on a number of podcasts).

Besides the very obvious point that Google is editorialising, and therefore imperilling its safe harbour privileges — a point frequently made by former President Donald Trump — this latest intervention raises two questions.

You may think, as I do, that using individual psychological explanations to account for the behaviour of a crowd is a fundamental category error: a crowd is not a person. By attributing a condition such as hypnosis to the population, the individual’s internal motivations are brushed aside. But social psychology, for all its flaws, has been an influential field of enquiry.

In fact, studying how communications media can be used to totalitarian ends used to be a prime liberal concern. It was the motivation behind the establishment of the Radio Research Project in the 1930s by the Rockefeller Foundation. Hitler had risen to power through radio, using it to hypnotic effect, so the project invited researchers to consider the role played by new media, and how Hitler had exploited it.

But the intervention begs a more intriguing question – now that certain concepts need L-plates, where does this end? Google was prompted to qualify its results after a concept was promoted by a popular conspiracy theorist. So if Piers Corbyn now offers an opinion on the Nash Equilibrium, or the teaching of phonics, will the search terms for these ideas also get the plates? For consistency, they should. We shall see.