Maybe too many lessons about media and news consumption have already been drawn from this past election, but I’m going to risk adding one more: Outrage, until the last few years, has to have been the most underestimated emotion. The past hundred years of media, from yellow journalism to local TV to Facebook, have been a march upward in the amount of exposure the average citizen has to outrage-inducing news. Most Americans, and certainly readers of this journal, are exposed to headline after headline of things-to-be-upset-about.
In 2014, Slate completed a terrific project, “The Year of Outrage,” that critiqued this wearying cycle with an interactive calendar that showed a viral outrage in every last day of the year. But 2014 wasn’t an election year, and because of that, their then-depressing list now looks benign, almost quaint. For instance, their entry for November 5 was outrage at the country singer Brad Paisley, playing on the sitcom “Black-ish,” called the Country Music Awards “White-ish.” On November 5, 2016, a fake news site reported a fictitious suspicious death of an FBI agent investigating Hillary Clinton, and was visited over 1.5 million times.
Outrage is arguably the defining emotion of the Internet. And the reason, as in so many things, is mostly markets and capitalism. All most websites want you to do is click. The click is the defining unit of web currency: A click gets a unique visit, a unique visit gets an ad view, maybe an ad click, and maybe a viewing of a video with another ad. But all of that hinges on your first click. The click has to come first. And what will get most people to click is something outrage-inducing. A Republican state legislator somewhere sent a racist email, click to see what he said. A Democrat wants to improve prison conditions for murderers, click to see how much money he wants to spend on it. It’s the synthesis of marketing, psychology, and ideology.
The paradox is why people want, in some sense, to be outraged. Isn’t outrage, after all, a negative emotion? Something is happening that you want to stop—so why subject yourself to that emotion over and over? Some psychologists have said it’s a social signal of virtuousness to “tribe” members, which explains sharing it with others, but not clicking yourself. The generous answer is that people want to see injustice in the world so that it can be corrected, but that’s probably overgenerous, unfortunately. The right answer is likely the obvious one: Righteous anger is a little pleasurable. And it doesn’t hurt that, unlike most time-wasters, it’s easy to feel like a good person consuming this media. I’m educating myself on injustice in the world, and telling others.
One more point, admittedly impressionistic, gets this outrage-as-pleasurable point across: The most shared items often have more than a tinge of the trivial about them. For instance, if one was truly looking for the most awful, outrage-inducing content, it would likely be, say, photos of dead refugees, or children starving to death. And while particularly compelling photos sometimes break through, viral news stories are often rather about, say, someone saying something sexist on a plane. This is the tip-off. Because it’s hard to get that little burst of pleasure when something truly horrific is in front of you.
It also explains why fake news, most of it outrage-driven, has become such a big problem. After all, if people didn’t want to be outraged, they’d probably take a bit more care that what they were upset about was real. But if supply of real news isn’t meeting the demand of righteous outrage, well, the market will fix that.
Outrage clearly does do good. It can rally protests, spur calls to congressmen, and, frankly, make politics interesting or compelling. An 8,000-word white paper about the policy errors in an omnibus farm bill isn’t going to have the same impact as a 500-word article with a headline about handouts to corporate mega-farms. But when you’ve seen six outrages that day, you quickly run out of time for letter-writing and stamina for physical protests. Urban Dictionary even has an entry for “Outrage Fatigue.” So what can you do, if after a long day at work, something outrageous comes across your Facebook or Twitter feed, and you aren’t up for meaningful action? What’s something easy that feels meaningful? Clicking “share” to send it to everyone else, many of whom also had long days at work. The fatigue feeds the virality feeds the fatigue.
What’s to stop this cycle? The first step is recognizing that outrage isn’t a virtue, it’s actually probably closer to a vice. It’s a good-feeling emotion that outlets, many of them dubious or even fake, use to secure a click out of you. And, as those social psychologists would say, if there have been ten posts on your Facebook feed already on some issue or another, is it very likely that anything much is coming from an 11th, besides further fatiguing friends and family? (And, of course, another handful of clicks to ads to money for websites.)
A second would be trying to amplify the productive part of this cycle. Hide or ignore more of those kinds of posts, but when one does come on an issue that really means something, take a tangible action. Then, and only then, share it. This election seems to have spurred a collective return to reality on this front, as millions of dollars of donations streamed into groups like Planned Parenthood and the ACLU.
Finally, always keep in mind the business and economics behind this. It’s a hugely underreported story that, like Hans Gruber in Die Hard claiming he wants political prisoners released as he’s stealing bank bonds, it’s often just about the money. Those petitions, “Sign to show you want Congressional Republicans to do something or stop doing something”? They’re often just a way to collect emails that can then be sold to political campaigns and fundraising outfits. As Rick Perlstein has laid out in The Baffler, the conservative movement is particularly reprehensible on this front, often selling their lists to companies selling survival seeds and miracle cancer cures. Eric Hoffer wrote that “America has not been a good milieu for the rise of a mass movement. What starts out here as a mass movement ends up as a racket, a cult, or a corporation.” The corollary is that for every mass movement, there’s a racket or corporation looking to make a buck off of it.
And speaking of the election, this topic can’t be complete without mention of Donald Trump, a perpetual motion machine of outrage-generation so powerful he could fill a 365-day calendar with only his Twitter feed. And I don’t choose that metaphor carelessly: Trump does often seem to produce energy off of the controversy and outrage he generates. Say something offensive about immigrants, wait for the media to report on it and for opposition groups to respond, then use that offense as evidence to supporters that he’s shaking things up and scaring the elites. And on he goes. He is uniquely gifted at this routine, and poses a unique challenge to media and news consumers because of it. If Trump’s strategy in office is, as it was on the trail, to “flood the zone” on journalists, is following and sharing his every move ultimately counterproductive? Maybe, but the idea of ignoring real misbehavior seems almost offensive.
The best option may be a sort of outrage triage: Focus more on gross misdeeds and less on loutish juvenalia, e.g. more on conflicts of interest and less on “Saturday Night Live” griping. If all of this doesn’t work to fix the structural problems? Well, maybe it’ll at least help you stay sane through these outrageous times.