In the age of social media, a new currency is emerging. It is the currency of outrage. Those of us who follow news and commentary on Twitter flock together in groups according to our shared values and interests. But we also have our collective buttons pushed by ‘outrage generators’. They’re a new type of commentator, who skilfully capitalise on our deep-seated instincts for tribalism and righteous indignation.
Today a prurient Allison Pearson article was published about Nigella Lawson. It tried to justify her estranged husband’s public abuse in light of alleged drug use. In the article, Ms. Pearson wrote “what if Charles Saatchi is the victim of an injustice” and “physical violence is never excusable, but what if a frustrated Charles was shaking his wife and saying: “Wake up, woman!” Understandably, the Twittersphere errupted with rage.
Also published today, a NewStatesman article was circulated about “Movember,” the international charity drive for men’s health. The article opened by saying “Movember is divisive, gender normative, racist and ineffective”. The comments section was filled with commenters asking “how does such miserable material get published”?
Both of these transparently manipulative pieces were published on mainstream media newsites. And it is happening with increasing frequency – almost as if mainstream media is deliberately trying to “troll”.
It may be a phenomenon which has grown very organically out of Twitter’s eco-system. Articles about morally loaded topics trigger high octane reactions in tweets, incentivising writers to produce more of them. The writers inspire dozens to share their views in comments sections, where readers disagree with each other, having fist-fights with words. And herein lies the hook: once a reader has made a comment, he or she will return endlessly to the page to monitor reactions, driving page-view statistics through the roof. These inflated statistics are then used to sell the advertising space subsidising these flagging publications.
Psychologists know that having strong views (which are in opposition to another’s) actually has a gratifying and rewarding effect. It gratifies us because it allows us to feel as though we’re part of a moral team. It feels good for the simple reason that it helps us to feel connected and forget ourselves for a period of time – we become immersed in something larger. At its most extreme, strong conviction is psychologically addictive.
In The Righteous Mind: Why good people are divided by politics and religion psychologist Jonathan Haidt, shows us that moral decision-making is a process driven by strategic social aims and a very deep and unconscious need to belong. Outrage pieces exploit this psychology by fulfilling our evolved need to defend our “moral tribe”.
Today social media provides the architecture for pitting teams against each other. Media platforms employ writers who churn out polemics appealing to their target audience at a break-neck speed. Self-selecting audiences flock together, confirming each other’s biases – enjoying the luxury of never having their assumptions seriously tested.
Provoking indignant outrage may be a good business strategy for online news outlets – but it is terrible for our promoting social cohesion. And as we have seen today, mainstream media is all too happy to play the part of head troll.