Most of us, at some point or another, have experienced a sense of moral outrage: at, say, a politician’s behavior, a crime, or from someone they met or something they read. Back in the days before the internet, we might have expressed that outrage at the dinner table, perhaps we wrote a letter to the editor or attended a protest. But has our super-connected social-media age, where to express one’s opinion takes but a few keyboard clicks, changed the nature of social outrage and the way we express our opinions?
Moral outrage is a type of human emotion that motivates people to shame or punish someone who has violated a social norm. It’s also associated with the emotions of anger mixed with disgust and its usually triggered by the perception that someone has done or said something wrong; essentially broken a social moral rule.
Psychologists and biologists tend to agree that moral outrage evolved to help society cooperate and to also signal to other people that the person expressing outrage can be the type of person that can be trusted. And so, people expressing moral outrage would be thought of as people facilitating good behaviour and so deterring bad behaviour by giving others an incentive to cooperate. Much like if someone in a small community has violent tendencies to others. Expressing moral outrage would let others know to stay away and to signal to the offender that this type of behaviour is not acceptable.
Based on current research and based on what other psychologists and biologists are saying, since this is still being researched, social media changes the incentives for feeling outraged. We can think of social outrage as having both personal and social benefits. On the personal side, expressing personal outrage signals to others you’re a trustworthy person and a good person for standing up to someone doing something not acceptable and so that is personally rewording and very motivating. On a social side, social outrage deters bad behaviour, can help communicate your feelings amongst many people, and shows who can be trusted and who can’t.
That said, psychologists are worried that social media might disproportionally increase the personal benefits of moral outrage while at the same time reducing the social benefits. And the way that works, is because we are connected with our friends on social media if we express social outrage about something instantly our entire social network sees that. And this is very different the way it worked before technology and social media. You would need to call or be in physical contact with others to express your social outrage. Therefore, social media, allows outrage to effortlessly go viral and so our moral audience is bigger than it has ever been before.
You can express your outrage to the world. Take public figures for instance who have millions of followers on social media. Their outraged voice can affect millions within seconds. As a result, having so many people you can access, this can essentially incentivize moral outrage further triggering things to go viral.
With that in mind, its not clear as to the way we express outrage is any different online as it is through traditional ways like letters to the editor or call-in radio or in person. Based on my research, its not the medium that is causing it. Its more to do with the type of information we are coming into contact with online is setup or configured or presented or designed in a way to sort of push our moral buttons. Fake news, click bate titles or images for instance, are crafted to get us more upset so we can click or share to help further the engagement of a topic or video; whether it be true or not.
In one study in this area, people reported more outrage through things they came across online than what they experienced outside the digital sphere, or even through television, newspapers or radio. And so it seems as if online platforms could, through their algorithms, select their content designed to trigger the strongest emotions and that’s the content that tends to go viral. And the more times its shared or viewed, this more revenue it can potentially generate.
In other words, we’re more likely to share something to which we have a moral or emotional response than other types of responses – because when people re-share that response, it makes us feel good. Then it becomes a habit – and the consequence then is emotional responses become less genuine.
The expression of moral emotions seems very core to our identity. When we think about what makes a person who they are, morality is even more important than just your memories and preferences. So, I’d like to think that people who express their moral emotions on social media are under their control and intentional and I’d be concerned if there were technologies that were making those expressions less intentional and more like quick reactions to what they see on their screen. We should be having a conversation, as a society, whether we want our moral emotions to be manipulated as a way of generating advertising for big tech companies.