The democratization of outrage via social media has overturned the historical relationship between media and audience, allowing us to indulge in our worst instincts.
Rage is an emotion buried deep within the human character; it is omnipresent, contributing to wars, murders, arguments, jealousies, and assaults since time immemorial. Anger can drive humans to incredible feats of courage, honor, and justice just as easily as it can power unparalleled atrocities and destruction – sometimes in pursuit of the very same hatred. Wrath, a feeling which is quite uncomfortable for most people, can – paradoxically – be addictive.
The confluence of interest and outrage has been exploited by powerful actors for centuries. Christians, slaves, prisoners, and other dissidents were publicly executed to the cheers of baying Roman crowds; itinerant preachers pressed Crusades on an ever-willing public with tales of woe betide Christians in the Holy Land; increasingly absurd antisemitic lies were lapped up by peasants across Europe and used to justify expulsions and pogroms; the list goes on and on. Since the advent of print media, the addictiveness of outrage has been of prime benefit to the press. Newspapers helped drive the American and French Revolutions, publishing polemics against government policy and promoting a robust disputation of ideas about politics. Radical abolitionist papers pushed Americans to deal with the reality of slavery and the moral and economic arguments against it, often through the stoking of righteous indignation.
The era of mass media, dating from the late 19th century, saw an exponential rise in the use (and abuse) of public rage by the press for political gain, broader circulation, and pecuniary gain. As the founder and proprietor of the (in)famous British tabloid the Daily Mail – Alfred Harmsworth, Lord Northcliffe – once said of his readers: “everyone loves a good hate.” This cynical attitude led to the Mail becoming one of the most influential publications in Britain during the leadup to the First World War, not due to any highbrow political ideas, but because it so resonated with the working masses who were newly enfranchised. This phenomenon was replicated across the Western world, with sensationalist ‘yellow journalism’ becoming ever more popular and powerful because of the novel political landscape forced by democratization. In Germany, jingoistic press outlets demonized the British; in France, they despicably piled on Alfred Dreyfus in a paroxysm of antisemitic bigotry; in the United States, they arguably incited the Spanish-American War. Remember the Maine?
The addictive characteristics of outrage were only more broadly reinforced by media in the radio and television ages. Father Charles Coughlin built an enormous audience across America via his aggressive, uncompromising radio diatribes – a far larger audience as a percentage of the population than the more recent radio polemicist Rush Limbaugh ever had. Television news – especially on cable – has been notorious for its promotion of outrage-as-entertainment. The adage “if it bleeds, it leads” is a truism for a reason: it’s true. Cable news is replete with anger, yelling, and vitriol, most often in discussion of the most ridiculous and ephemeral controversies. Some of the most popular television programs are based entirely on the depiction of horrifying criminal behavior – real and fictionalized. (Your humble correspondent is certainly not immune to the draws of such programs.)
Now, however, in the era of social media dominance, the tables have turned. Far more often than not, traditional media is rushing to keep up with the gargantuan outrage driven by the wholly-democratized space known as the Internet. On social media, everyone has a megaphone and can go viral at any point for almost any reason. The biggest reason, however, seems to be through the stoking of anger. Rage merchants abound, especially in highly-politicized spaces like Twitter, Twitch, and Tumblr. These actors range from low-follower anonymous accounts pushing insane conspiracy theories to hugely popular public figures that monetize such smaller fish. What they have in common is that they goad outrage omnidirectionally. By that, I mean that such people stoke anger both in those who agree with them and those who disagree with them. This tends to create a feedback mechanism which traps the public in a never-ending cycle of escalating outrage; just look at social media from 2016-2020 for infinite examples of this in action.
The constant, persistent nature of social media has brought it to the forefront of the public mind, especially during important events or breaking news stories. In these circumstances, outrage sells even better, and it seems to be a race to the bottom in terms of stoking public anger. We see this after mass shootings, terrorist attacks, celebrity deaths, and more. The incentives for virality on the back of public vitriol are significant, promoting a culture of exaggeration, bad faith, and outright fabrication. Social media is full of political extremophiles, warping the incentive structure even further. This is why we see grotesque conspiracy theories about vaccine-induced death constantly trending, why lies about police-involved shootings often take the place of the video-proven truth, and why the all-too-late corrections to misleading viral tweets get a minute fraction of the original’s engagement. The old maxim – ironically enough, falsely attributed to Mark Twain – that “a lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is still putting on its shoes” is increasingly true in the social media age.
That leaves traditional media and journalists, formerly the biggest beneficiaries of the outrage economy, scrambling to keep up with the hellish pace of the online world. The shoe is now quite firmly on the other foot. This is a novel phenomenon, one with serious negative implications. A democratized world of social media – for all its potential benefits – has enormous costs. The seemingly irreversible cycle of online outrage, by drawing in larger and larger platforms with significant non-online audiences, has an inexhaustible source of public energy. With traditional media narratives progressively driven by social media trends, our worst instincts will only be rewarded. The addictiveness of anger will only become more prevalent in our public lives, online and off. That is not a recipe for long-term success or security. It also means that we have more of a responsibility ourselves to not lean into the outrage and help deprive the anger ecosystem of its much-needed fuel.
Unfortunately, this seems a herculean task given the ubiquity of social media. Until that sea change in American culture comes, we’re all yellow journalists.