The Lord loveth not a lynch mob. OK, that doesn’t actually appear anywhere in Scripture but it is implicit, from the woman who would have been stoned had not Christ shamed her accusers, to the mob baying for Barabbas, to the crowd cheering on the stoning of St Stephen. Going further back there was the frenzied horde worshipping the golden calf.

The next 2,000 years did not see much of an improvement, with huge numbers turning up to witness executions and participating in witch-hunts. But today we have a more insidious form of mob mentality in which the crowd is invisible. We call the phenomenon social media.

Unless you are a seasoned politician or someone who wilfully courts controversy, mass hatred can be genuinely frightening. I often wonder how the two 11-year-olds who murdered Jamie Bulger must have felt when a furious crowd banged on the police van taking them to jail. They would have known only that the adult world had gone wild with hate.

Think of a lone Jew surrounded by Nazis in the 1930s, then think of a teenager alone in a bedroom bombarded by cruel comments on Twitter, by a barrage of hatred which is often incomprehensible to the target. It is merely a different sort of mob rule, virtually unpoliced, but a “Twitter storm” is often no more than a euphemism for a mob out of hand, with everybody joining in the insults and abuse, which can then descend into actual threats.

One problem is immediacy. Before social media let you join in the conversation before you have time to think, people used to mutter darkly in pub corners or work canteens and, yes, they probably did utter such sentiments as “he should be shot” or “I’d like to strangle her”, but nobody believed it because there was a tone of voice which clearly indicated metaphors. If somebody really did sound menacing, people coughed politely and moved away, but a bald, word-limited tweet can carry an undertone of threat.

More importantly, the victim wouldn’t have been there and would have been unlikely to hear the stream of bile. But now anybody can see what anybody else is saying at the flick of a thumb and it has driven some poor vulnerable souls to suicide.

​How to continue reading…

This article appears in the Catholic Herald magazine - to read it in full subscribe to our digital edition from just 30p a week

The Catholic Herald is your essential weekly guide to the Catholic world; latest news, incisive opinion, expert analysis and spiritual reflection