Social Media and Moral Outrage
Justine is a woman I’ve never met. She has a decent job in PR. Well, as decent as a PR job can be. She has a small Twitter audience: just over 160 others follow her. Her Twitter profile is fairly average, a few complaints, an odd banal comment, a few jokes. Jokes can be the end of you. Especially if they’re not funny, or not funny to some, or untimely, or just not very well constructed. That’s why stand-up would be terrifying. I couldn’t imagine doing stand-up. To paraphrase Oscar Wilde, the only thing worse than getting laughed at would be not getting laughed at.
Justine is getting on a plane. She is on her way to Africa. She announces this on her Twitter with an ill-conceived joke: ‘Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get Aids. Just kidding. I’m white!’
Oh, Justine! That is a terrible thing to tweet. If it’s an attempt at a joke, it is not remotely funny. What is funny is what’s happening now. With glee, we monitor her flight path. With glee, we tweet jokes and insults and commentaries along with the hashtag that’s beginning to trend: #HasJustineLandedYet.
For 11 hours Justine sleeps on her flight, completely unaware of what’s about to happen. The world is tweeting about the imminent, the inevitable; by the time her plane lands she will discover she has lost her job. The ignorance of her fate is the most delicious. It is fun to imagine what her reaction will be to the thousands of replies and tweets about her terrible attempt at humour. It was an awfully racist thing to tweet. And to tweet it so casually? Justine deserves this. Justine is an effigy of white privilege and the hashtag is the cleansing fire that will burn away that bigotry.
Justine will be an example. Justine will be a lesson.
Social media craves reaction. Its business is a feedback loop of responses to responses. Facebook asks me ‘what’s on your mind?’ and Twitter wants to know ‘what’s happening?’ It puts me at the centre of experience with the platform, and tricks me into thinking I’m the customer when I’m the product, an aggregation of data sold to advertisers. It panders to me, makes me feel as though my thoughts, my emotions and my tastes matter. That’s why so many of us are on it so much of the time. It’s also why so many of us can’t help joining the latest online outrage. Whether it’s shaming, dogpiling, doxing or some other tactic of social excision, social media seems to facilitate some fairly nasty reactions to one’s perceived enemies.
In Australia we have a few noteworthy examples. We punch above our weight when it comes to online outrage. On Anzac Day 2017, Yassmin Abdel-Magied posted an update on Facebook suggesting people should also remember the suffering endured by those on Manus Island, Nauru, in Syria and in other places. This post was inundated with hateful, sometimes racist comments and surrounding commentary. In response, the young writer issued an apology, and the whole affair contributed to her decision to leave the country. The reaction Abdel-Magied received was no doubt shaped by her previous public utterances and segments of the population who have problems with an outspoken Muslim woman. But people were also reacting to how her comments were perceived to transgress the hallowed territory that is the diggers and Anzac Day.
Australia has no state religion, but thanks to some fairly overt sacralisation undertaken in the Howard years, Anzac Day has a certain purity bestowed on it. We are not supposed to dirty the occasion with politics or social commentary. Those who do are censured socially, although the level of backlash one receives can be shaped by who and what you are. Two years before Abdel-Magied wrote her Facebook post, Scott McIntyre, an employee of SBS, sent out a series of posts criticising Anzac Day in harsher terms. In response he was dismissed by the broadcaster, although he later mounted an unfair dismissal case against it. While Abdel-Magied was not sacked by her employer, her free expression on her own social media account led to a reaction out of all proportion with the views she was expounding. The mere suggestion of sullying the sanctity of Anzac Day was enough to invite racist comments and death threats.
Further from home such instances of censorious reaction are common, and run the gamut of cultural, religious, racial and sexual identities. Take Rebecca Tuvel, a young philosophy graduate who published a peer-reviewed paper in Hypatia, a leading journal of feminist philosophy. Tuvel’s paper argued that because transgender people should be accepted, transracial people such as the infamous Rachel Dolezal should be too. Dolezal, the white woman who uses bronzer on her skin and perms her hair to pose as ‘phenotypically’ black, claimed she was transracial when her true racial heritage was discovered. For Tuvel, this posed an interesting case through which to examine the relationship between the social construction of both race and gender. The article passed peer review, which means it was vetted by several experts in the field. This did not stop other academics (many of them having more seniority and power) dogpiling Tuvel and calling for the paper’s retraction. While the paper was not retracted (a highly unusual action for a journal to take once an article has passed peer review and reached publication), this example shows that even intellectuals are not immune to these sorts of dynamics on social media. While not immediately relevant to this story, it is worth noting the irony of the journal’s name: Hypatia was a female philosopher of antiquity who was murdered violently—literally ripped to pieces—by a horde of religious zealots.
What’s common to these events is not simply the ugliness of the reactions, the incivility, or the raw anger, it is the way they lay bare the almost religious manner in which concerns for purity play out on social media. In both cases, an object of purity was viewed as under threat, and vast numbers of people on social media mobilised to punish the transgressor. In Abdel-Magied’s case, most of the outrage came from right-leaning individuals who value the sanctity of Anzac Day, while in Tuvel’s case, the outrage originated with mostly left-leaning individuals because the purity of racial and gender identities was threatened. Incidentally, it feels quite strange writing that last sentence because it wasn’t that long ago ideas of ‘essential’ characteristics about gender or race were ridiculed, not defended.
Outrage is an emotional reaction, but it’s also something we can harness and direct towards the impure, to cast it out and to cleanse the social body. This compulsion is as old as humanity, but social media has optimised it. Purity is the state of being clear of pollution, being free of corruption, dirt and unpleasantness in the world. In religious contexts this makes sense as a disavowal of the earthly, the flesh, the fallen nature of the material world. But purity persists in the secular sensibility too. ‘Dirt’, says the anthropologist Mary Douglas, is ‘matter out of place’. Pollution is never concerned with fixed attributes and eternal categories. Dirt, soil or sand, for example, are not considered pollutants in of themselves, it is their context and relation to other things that matters. Soil on your plate is dirty; soil in the garden is not. We are just as concerned with purity in secular contexts (in medical, psychological or legal frameworks, for instance) as we are in religious contexts where spiritual purity is valued.
Common to religious and secular world views is the way they deal with pollution as an encounter with something where it shouldn’t be. As Douglas goes on to say:
each of us constructs a stable world in which objects have recognisable shapes, are located in depth, and have permanence. In perceiving we are building, taking some cues and rejecting others. The most acceptable cues are those which fit most easily into the pattern that is being built up. Ambiguous ones tend to be treated as if they harmonised with the rest of the pattern. Discordant ones tend to be rejected.
Encountering discordance with our world view is common on social media. Whatever the platform, you are going to come across different people, views and aesthetics. Some of it you’ll love, some of it you won’t jive with, some of it you’ll vehemently despise. Most social media platforms give you the option not to see content that is discordant with your world view. Such mechanisms are standard practice, and work to make sure your experience is as free of ‘pollutants’ as possible. To explain this phenomenon, the writer Eli Pariser popularised the idea of ‘filter bubbles’, which are tailored experiences of the internet that ‘serve up a kind of invisible autopropaganda, indoctrinating us with our own ideas, amplifying our desire for things that are familiar and leaving us oblivious to the dangers lurking in the dark territory of the unknown’.
This process isn’t entirely conscious: much of the sorting is conducted via algorithms. Filter bubbles, while serving gigantic media corporations, also defer to the individual’s beliefs and expectations about the world. The internet, it seems, has automated the process of maintaining a stable world. Should this not then mean that practices associated with purity have disappeared or have outlived their usefulness? If an algorithm does most of Douglas’s pattern-building for us, then the practices associated with maintaining the pattern should be much diminished. If the infrastructure of these platforms automatically filters out unwanted ideas, images or world views, why should moral outrage be so prevalent?
Part of the answer is that filter bubbles may not be as influential or pervasive as writers such as Pariser like to think. The theory too heavily leans on a model of online navigation based on searching. But scrolling is how we navigate social media. More than occasionally, we see things we don’t want or need to see. In fact, the algorithmic economy of social media relies on a certain amount of randomisation: you need to see things you haven’t before to fuel further engagement measurements for future advertising data.
Much has been written about this ‘attention economy’, where users’ attention is a scarce commodity and must be won through several strategies of emphasis. The attention-economy strategy par excellence is the clickbait article. Most of us know how they work: something controversial, intriguing, salacious or otherwise interest-grabbing is presented in the article’s headline, compelling the user to click through. The larger the number of clicks through to the site, the greater the chance of users being directed to and convinced to buy the advertised products subsidising it. The dynamics of negative attention serve these companies just as well as positive attention. If we encounter something utterly discordant with our stable world, social media allows us a variety of purification options.
I had taken a break for a month, but now I was back. It was all too easy to reactivate my Twitter account. All I had to do was sign in. Most of my followers were still there. I shared and reshared bad jokes, niche memes, offered my opinion on the day’s news and pop culture developments with aplomb. Unbeknown to me, the platform had introduced a new feature: you would see the posts other users had liked. There were retweets, which were explicit ways of drawing your followers’ attention to something you thought interesting or provocative or funny, but likes were just little nods of appreciation for a solid tweet, not things that drew attention. This was not the case anymore.
There I was on public transport, scrolling through the puns, memes, Twitter essays and beefs, when a huge penis emerged at the bottom of my screen. I’m no stranger to or enemy of penises. But there is a time and a place, and a tram on a morning commute is neither. A friend I followed who is interested in gay male erotic photography had liked this image and consequently it was shown in my feed. In a shocked flummox I managed to shut off the app before any fellow commuters were unwillingly subjected to the image. I made sure to enable Twitter’s ‘sensitive media’ filter so such a thing wouldn’t happen again. I saw a schoolgirl sitting across from me, but it was unlikely she saw anything. Too busy giggling at a video she was watching on her phone.
At almost every moment on Facebook, Twitter, Reddit or YouTube you are invited to like, to share, to upvote and so on. While nothing coerces you to press the ‘like’ button, and you could browse social media without doing so, everything about the platforms works to make you not only consume the content but also to express your assessment of it. This kind of performance is a value-laden exercise. On contentious posts, moral outrage is not just likely, it is assured.
Participants of moral outrage are not just expressing their feelings with others, they are expressing their feelings for others. Which is to say, they are doing more than just maintaining in-group/out-group dynamics, they are navigating their place within these groups. Social psychologist C Daniel Batson raises doubts about the sincerity of moral outrage on the grounds that such outrage is not so much moral as it is personal anger or anger on behalf of others masquerading as ‘true’ moral concern. Batson’s research has discerned ‘an egoistic motive to appear moral while, if possible, avoid the cost of actually being moral’.
From this perspective, moral outrage is more properly defined as a form of moral hypocrisy because participants have self-serving motives to perform ethical commitments rather than to hold them. Active participation in moral outrage against something considered worthy of condemnation could be seen as a form of self-disclosure, in that in participating, the subject reveals what is important to them. Self-disclosure is the engine of social media, so when a moral outrage emerges it can quickly snowball into a full-blown moral panic.
Certain people, who sociologists call moral entrepreneurs (activists, community leaders, public officials), identify a social problem caused by norm transgression and leverage their influence in the media to make an issue of it. Norm transgression or deviance is usually concretised in specific groups, and labelling and stereotyping occur because of this. The deviant groups take on the form of ‘folk devils,’ fuelling a disproportionate amount of fear or concern at their norm-violating behaviour. The mass media’s role in agenda-setting and heightening the moral panic into social consciousness aids the moral entrepreneurs in achieving their social, cultural or policy goals. This theory claims moral panics are a form of establishing or enforcing social norms and are thus a form of social control.
However, as a model of social interaction, it needs significant updating for the contemporary media landscape, dominated as it is by digital forms of mass communication and social organisation. Notably, traditional moral panic theory is more focused on direct forms of social control. But on social media, such control is a difficult phenomenon to disentangle let alone detect, given the complex interplay of algorithmic, individual, social and economic forces circulating on digital social networks.
Adding to this complexity is that moral entrepreneurs are now much more numerous and empowered by the communication capacity social media affords. Where once they required access to traditional media gatekeepers, social media allows access to—and indeed helps create—numerous publics through which moral entrepreneurs can distribute their message. At the same time, these dynamics challenge the old framing of moral entrepreneurs as a concept, since any user of social media can take up that role and leverage attention to a social issue. No longer do moral entrepreneurs need institutional backing (activist or community groups) to legitimate their voices.
New forms of media can also become the target of a moral panic. Social media has been the target of a fair number of moral panics. But the extent to which we can call these platforms new is arguable; Facebook and Twitter have been around for more than a decade now, YouTube even longer. Nevertheless, sometimes the hysteria about new media forms sets in when they get too popular. Television was around for a good couple of decades before the most fevered moral panics targeted the medium. To paraphrase HL Mencken, it seems moral guardians are always afraid people somewhere are enjoying something. The more perceived freedom a medium tends to give individuals and groups to deviate from established norms, the more some of us tend to fear it.
Crowdsourced campaigns to have certain individuals ‘cancelled’ are like older forms of moral panics in that a deviance or an evil is identified and its influence on the wider culture is overblown. Whether you’re talking about older moral panics like the Mods and Rockers brawling in English seaside towns in the 1960s, the ‘satanic panic’ of the 1980s, the violent-videogame panics of the 1990s or these newer instances on social media, the way the wider public is viewed by the concerned panic-stirrers is the same. The public are not individuals with their own thoughts, feelings and opinions, but an untamed mass requiring control. They’re always just one sentence or scene or post away from corruption.
The implicit reasoning behind ostracising a deviant from ‘polite society’ is to prevent the deviance from spreading. This is an extremely uncharitable view of the society moral entrepreneurs are claiming to protect. Moral panics are fundamentally about ensuring the ‘lesser orders’ are not captured by influences that may lure them away from the pristine purity of the prevailing world view. I would suggest that because social media is so messy, for moral entrepreneurs it is very tempting to go further and view it as dangerous, fallen, polluted with ‘toxicity’ (the overuse of this particular term in digital contexts is telling). Consequently, it’s no surprise that in a clash of numerous world views, many of them strange or dangerous, people feel the compulsion to purify their digital experience.
Moral outrage, moral panics, moral entrepreneurs. There’s a lot of morality bound up with media, and social media is no different. What’s different is how moral concerns interact with the attention economy. I must admit that I’m suspicious of the term ‘attention economy’. It’s always seemed too meek, as if the banality of the term is masking something sinister. That’s probably because it is. A more accurate term would be the ‘reaction economy.’ It is not enough just to click through to the latest bromide—itself probably a reaction to something—we are also encouraged to offer our reactions to it, our thoughts, feelings, opinions on it. This was baked into most social media platforms from the start. Facebook craves your likes, Twitter is frothing for your retweets, YouTube needs those likes or even those dislikes. They don’t care, as long as you react. And sooner or later, you will react.
This dynamic serves the continuation of platform capitalism, operating on a logic of constant evaluative response, but it also ensures that moral outrage can never go away. The game is rigged against reasonable conversations about politics and optimised for heightened moral performance.
There is energy, there is passion, but it never endures. This is because there is always some other thing to move on to, some other enemy, some other issue. Whether it’s hashtags such as #MeToo fomenting justifiable fury towards sexually nefarious figures such as Harvey Weinstein and Kevin Spacey, or the unmet promises of the Arab Spring, ‘political’ movements on social media tend to fizzle out. This is because social media produces swarm movements, not mass movements. ‘Only when a crowd is resolute,’ says the German-Korean philosopher Byung-Chul Han, ‘does power arise. The mass is power. In contrast, digital swarms lack such resolve.’ A swarm emerges, reacts to the latest outrage, then dissipates. But the swarm emerges out of applications designed to produce reactions in individuals. The ‘innovation’ here is the inversion of older, mass media forms of outrage.
Traditional ‘outrage media’ is of course still with us. Think shock jocks such as the recently (and mercifully) retired Alan Jones here in Australia or Rush Limbaugh in the United States. Outrage media is all about locating enemies and subjecting them to venomous rhetorical assaults. Opponents are numerous and must be denounced at every turn. In its older form, outrage media was the result of economic decisions made by media companies looking to capture rapidly segmenting audiences in the post-broadcast era with highly emotive content.
What’s common to earlier forms of outrage and its social media iterations is the reliance on response. Media outrage is not breaking news, it is a response to things happening in the news, on social media or in the culture at large. Outrage reacts, reinterprets, reframes news. If we extend this idea to social media outrage, we can see much the same process of reaction and overreaction. Social media outrage is always in response to something: a comment, an article, an instance of behaviour or another phenomenon with political resonance. Outrage is selective and strategic in its targets, only attacking people, ideas or behaviours that serve to buttress its ideological sense-making.
Social media outrage upends the shock-jock model. Instead of an influential thought-leader who tries to gee up their audience against specific ‘folk devils’, digital swarms generate outrage across social networks that can attack anyone at any time. Others have called this cancel culture, but I’m wary of this term because I don’t think it qualifies as a culture. It has a cultural component, sure, but I think it is more accurate to view it as an epiphenomenon of social media’s reaction economy. Critics of the idea of cancel culture point out that it’s merely online infighting between elites. There is some merit to this view, since most of the dust-ups and denunciations are between arts, media and academic types. But the problem with this framing is that increasingly these crowdsourced purification practices are victimising ‘normies’, people who are not Extremely Online and completely disconnected from this context.
In mid 2020, Emmanuel Cafferty, a San Diego utility worker sacked after someone shared a photo of him making a white supremacist gesture, is a good example. The fact that Cafferty is of Mexican heritage and has a multicultural family didn’t seem to matter to his company; all that mattered was the company’s image. Cafferty was sitting in traffic when another driver coaxed him into making the ‘okay’ sign with his hand. He played along and a photo was taken, even though he had no knowledge that such an everyday symbol had been co-opted by white supremacists.
Since 2017, trolls on the discussion forum site 4chan have been trying to popularise the idea that touching your thumb to your index finger is now a white supremacist symbol. The explicitly stated motivation was the motivation of all trolls: to get a rise, to fuel paranoia, to dement people. Because it has begun to work and trolling easily gels with the mechanisms of the reaction economy, white supremacists have begun to take up the symbol. This means that the person who shared the video of Cafferty to Twitter, while perhaps believing they were doing good by exposing an instance of racism, was playing the 4chan troll-horde’s game, most likely without even knowing it.
These stupid games on the internet have real-world consequences. People who become outraged and try to get people sacked know this. That’s why they’re doing what they’re doing. But let’s not mistake what this is. It is not radical, it is a pathological quest for purity. Most outrageously, because it is the sort of behaviour ‘progressive’ people engage in, it is using exploitative economic conditions against people deemed impure. If people weren’t so precariously employed, they couldn’t be sacked at the drop of an online, troll-born hand symbol. If the reaction economy did not rely on our avid and free expressive labour on social media, outrage could not ‘trend’. If private companies and institutions weren’t so concerned with the purity of their brand, they might stand by their employees when accused wrongly or accused of something that
Social media’s design mutates the pseudo-political into the hyper-moral. Yes, it allows people a greater capacity to voice their opinions in public. But opinions, the crass old saying goes, are like arseholes: everybody has them. Social media has opinions and arseholes in spades. But opinions are not politics. People are afforded more opportunity than ever to engage in political discourse and action, yet it is largely inchoate. Its results are petty, and seem motivated by resentment, not any real sense of political conviction. Getting people sacked is not politics, doxing is not politics, cleansing your timeline of people who disagree with you is not politics. It is reaction. Pure reaction.
‘It’s like MySpace, but better.’
L sang its praises well enough, but to me the name ‘Facebook’ sounded creepy. There was a whiff of stalker about it, a note of religiosity too. Or maybe it just seemed too religious to me because I was in my obnoxious atheist phase.
‘I’ve already got MySpace, what’s the point of getting this too?’
‘It’s just better. More people from uni are on there.’
For months, she tried to get me to convert. I still don’t understand why she was so persistent. This was in the early days of Facebook, before your mum and dad were on it. I made a profile but under a fake name: Phineas Wogg. I thought that was quite clever.
I despised the aesthetics. It was so bare, blue and white blocks with small pictures and very little customisation. At least on MySpace you could change your page’s background colour, have a playlist of music auto-play when other users visited. This Facebook place was easy to navigate, but it was basic. Perhaps a trendy sort of minimalism was the appeal?
A notification appeared on screen soon after I set my profile up: ‘L has poked you.’
‘You poked me? Eww,’ I wrote on L’s wall.
Minutes later, she replied on my wall: ‘LOL! Is this Matt? You’re supposed to use your real name, so people can find you.’
‘But I don’t want people to find me.’
After a while I came round. It was IRL friends posting inside jokes to each other and sharing last weekend’s party pictures. It was easygoing and quaint compared to the blogging sites I’d been frequenting lately, where there was always drama and vicious arguments going on. Gradually I drifted away from those blogs and spent more time on Facebook.
It was chill. There was no anger there.
Matthew Sini is a writer based in Melbourne. He has published essays, fiction and plays locally and internationally.