14 Jun How Social Media Outrage Is Turning Us All Into Keyboard Warriors
Go to the Facebook page of any newspaper and browse the comments of a few posts. It won’t be a pretty sight. It won’t take long to find complaints about how the quality of journalism is going down, that the article is wrong, or that the poster just doesn’t like the person or people being covered. But a step down from this litany of low-level complaints is something much uglier – a steady stream of outrage.
Emotion is a big driver for online content sharing. People mostly share things online because they’ve stirred something up in them, and the main attribute of an emotional driver is that it must be high-arousal. To some degree that explains why we share things we find funny, like Grumpy Cat, or awesome, like an article about an amazing scientific discovery.
Humour and awe are high arousal emotions that are usually positive. But positive emotions do not necessarily travel any better than negativity, and a key emotion on the negative side of the spectrum is outrage. Indeed, a 2013 study by Beihang University found that outrage was more likely to be shared on Chinese social network Weibo than positive high-arousal emotions.
Why Outrage is Easier Online
The more impersonal aspects of social media make expressing outrage all the easier. Offline, expressions of outrage are often constrained by the proximity from the wrong doer. If you are alone on a street in London and see someone urinating against a wall, there is considerable risk in either calling them out publicly there and then or recording their actions for later public shaming.
Proximity on social media is removed – the outrage can be expressed from anywhere, at any time after the wrong doing, so there is little risk. In real life, the shamer will quickly be able to see if the shamed is sorry from their reaction, which may halt further expressions of outrage.
But proximity is absent from someone’s online profile, someone can only respond when they log back in, and even then, their feelings about their behaviour are only likely to be expressed impersonally to a crowd. Additionally, because people can join the weight of an online ‘movement’ or mob, they can easily hide amongst an echo chamber of similar voices.
Discussion Becomes Impossible
Amongst the heavy weight of moral outrage, discussion is nearly impossible. Emotionally-driven and simplified expression drives facts to the point of irrelevance, making debate incredibly circular. It inevitably descends through predictable stages of irritability, distraction, anxiety of the impending reply, with a common outcome of outrage.
This is particularly the case if one side of the argument does not properly understand the subject of the discussion and refuses to acknowledge a different point of view. This descent into a hole of increasing extremity has been coined as Godwin’s law, ‘As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches one.’
What solutions can be offered in avoiding the whirlpool into outrage? When there’s strong emotion apparent in an online debate, it’s generally better not to get involved. Put your phone down, log off, try and listen to the world around you. Social media can be useful for relationship-building and connectivity – “How are you?” / “What are you up to?” / “Would you like to meet up?” but when you try and debate a contentious point online it will almost certainly go around in circles, wasting your time, attention and emotional energy.