The effects of online outrage

Author: Martha Villabona works at Centro Nacional de Innovación e Investigación Educativa (CNIIE) of the Spanish Ministry of Education and Vocational Training, where she coordinates the area of multiple literacies.

Aristotle defined (fair) outrage as the pain that is experienced due to the fortune of someone who does not deserve it and he outlines that a man who is only rightly outraged is worth praising 1. However, if he described this outrage as fair does it mean there is another one that is unjust?

In the communicative ecosystem of social networks, this “fair indignation” has been analyzed and evaluated with different results. There are studies 2 that affirm that indignation in social networks can create a common knowledge and organize collective behaviors in important moral issues, that is, shared indignation can develop positive collective actions. However, there are others, such as the one in the publication 3 which concludes that outrage has more disadvantages than advantages.

Although indignation causes a group collective behavior (remember the effect of the famous essay “Time for Outrage” by Stéphane Hessel) it can also be the result of collective action in the fulfillment of long-term group objectives. Effective action requires a motivation to unleash and act strategically. However, what prevents indignation from aligning actions with objectives? According to the authors of the article, it is anger. This is one of the strategic emotions and risks. People who make angry decisions tend to be distrustful, they usually blame the others for what happens to them and simplify complex issues. The consequence is that anger hinders community progress and the resolution of social conflicts.

In social networks, the expression of outrage may not achieve the effectiveness of collective action. One of the reasons is that social networks amplify the noise more than the own indignation and, therefore, minimize the most valuable causes of the collective action, preventing groups from joining collective efforts to achieve those objectives that were marked.

In addition, it must be taken into account that online outrage may evolve towards other ineffective or secondary themes, making the issues convincing in the first place, but diluting the original theme in the long term, because they shift attention and cause the original themes to fail.

Another negative effect of online outrage is the restricted participation of vulnerable groups who are often silenced from the public sphere by other groups considered privileged. If an effective collective action for social change is to be achieved, a large number of interested and diverse stakeholders must be integrated. Authors mention that vulnerable groups tend to either refuse participating in social networks or abandon them completely.

This is the case of 25% of black Americans who have suffered racial harassment and a similar percentage of women who have suffered sexual harassment online. This means that in the general use of social networks, 27% of adults do not publish online and 13% left social networks after witnessing harassment. Therefore, if vulnerable people participate less in online discussions, the indignation only reflects the opinion of the privileged ones but not a diverse social opinion.

Therefore, the authors of the article consider that indignation can lead to the restriction of participation in the expression of public opinion and, if it is not strategic, it leads to anger.

However, well-channeled anger can move toward more constructive solutions. In this sense, the publication “Asking different questions about outrage: A reply to Brady and Crockett?” states that anger can also be productive, specifically in intergroup contexts and provided it is not accompanied by hate. Likewise, they point out that online outrage should only lead to responses such as participating in a peaceful protest or voting. Even when the indignation leads people to feel furious when they participate in social networks, we should know there are different options for constructive responses. When something outrageous is witnessed we have the opportunity to build, to resolve, to educate through reasoning. These would be the positive consequences of a fair indignation, one that arises from reason and that ends in a process of collective action to build a better society.

References

  1. Aristotle La gran moral. Libro primero, capítulo XXV: De la indignación que inspira el sentimiento de la justicia.
  2. Spring, V. L., Daryl Cameron, C. & Cikara, M. (2019). Asking different questions about outrage: A reply to Brady and Crockett. Trends Cogn. Sci. 23, P80-82. doi: 10.1016/j.tics.2018.09.006
  3. Brady, W. J. & Crockett, M. J (2019). How Effective Is Online Outrage? Trends Cogn. Sci. 23, P79-80. In press. PDF

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