Outrage as Social Currency

For the last few years, I’ve observed my adult children interacting on social media, and once I joined the Twitterverse myself, I found that I needed to start paying attention to how people choose to interact – and how the social media systems choose to interact with me.

I’ve concluded that there are a few factors that are heavily playing into social discourse these days.

For one thing, it’s been often observed that social media lets people act with a lot less caution and consideration than during real in-person interactions. This, not surprisingly, lets people engage in discussion tactics that would never be tolerated face to face. So functionally, a lot wider range of rhetorical tactics become available when people can let it all hang out, so to speak, instead of really being careful to avoid causing offense from the person in their presence.

For another, it’s worth considering what drives people in social engagements. I don’t think these ideas are unique to social media – I think the same things exist in face-to-face interactions, but (as noted above) the filters are gone, and the result is that the real personality and motivation shows through. At any rate, I believe that a lot of the interaction is driven by pure self-promotion. There’s a reason that we hear references to “the influencers” so often. People want influence. It’s somewhat baked into the human psyche.

The reasons for this are varied. I think there is a continuum of reasons from arrogance to altruism. On the one hand, some want to be perceived as important for their own sense of self-worth. On the other, some want to nothing more than to change or at least influence culture in a direction that they value. And probably, most folks work somewhere between those extremes.

These two possible motivations – either self-promotion or a sense of mission – are both powerful drives that lead back to the first observation: social media allows people to stretch their moral boundaries and modes of interaction to achieve those ends – in a sense, their ends justify the means. Many people never do this, but enough on social media do that they affect the overall tone and expectations. I think that those who live in the middle between those extremes are probably less inclined to stretch their morals. But those with the strongest drive for influence seem the most susceptible to this ends/means trap.

Now, those that run the social media machines – Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, TikTok, and so forth – are well aware of these characteristics, and they’re more than happy to stroke those extremes, because – and here’s the key – engagement drives dollars. After all, they’re businesses that make money with every page view or post or tweet. So whatever drives engagement drives the machine.

So the systems that have been created by the social media machines heavily favor anything that drives more engagement. And nothing drives humans quite as well as the opposite of the beatitudes: lust, hatred, anger, and fear. Well, those and jokes and cat videos. But let’s stick to talking about the ugly for the moment.

At least in “polite” social media, we’ve more or less agreed that lust isn’t appropriate on the front page. And raw hatred is also generally not tolerated, at least openly. That leaves anger and fear as useful wedges that the machines exploit to their advantage.

The one human emotion that mixes those two is outrage: anger at something that happens, mixed with fear that it will hurt us or someone or something we care about. Our tribe is in trouble, and we have to defend it!

As a result, we see that those with the largest followings across social media often use outrage as a tool to drive engagement with their content. They stoke fear and anger: fear of change, fear of loss, fear of those unlike us, anger at injustice, anger that anyone could be so stupid that they can’t see the risks, and so forth. Those who try to take the more moderate middle, and be the voice of calm and reason, often feel left behind as the angry outraged voices seem to get all the attention. It presents a real temptation to join the noisome chorus, trying to get attention. There’s a sense that it’s a zero-sum game: I have to steal attention from you so my cause gets attention.

And let’s add to this the dopamine delivery system that is created by the “someone liked your post” notifications – that ding, that bell that makes our brain salivate at every new engagement, just like Pavlov’s dog. We’re constantly encouraged to share that post that is gaining attention, in the hopes that it boosts our own influence with our own tribe. And what works better for that than some post that stokes a sense of outrage, driving our own followers down the same path?

I also don’t think this is only true of social media. Look at the typical contents of a lot of traditional media, and the most popular outlets are full of stories similarly designed to stoke outrage. The nightly news shows are constantly emphasizing not the beatitudes in the world, but the ugly and frightening. The more outrage, the better. They are chock full of outrageous stories, mixed in with just enough real and calm news that they can make a barely legitimate claim of being a news source. And it exists on both ends of the political spectrum: MSNBC and Fox News are equally guilty of this trend; they just pick stories that they know will outrage their particular tribe, boosting their viewer count and advertising revenue. Even some “papers” – the Epoch Times and Daily Kos are great examples on either end of the political spectrum – do the same thing. It’s a diet of outrage, served right on your front doorstep or browser each morning, and into your living room or bedroom TV each night.

All in all, it’s a pretty ugly spiral. We’re being steadily and stealthily re-trained on what normal social discourse looks like, and those who spend a lot of time on the social media machines and those papers and TV sources are being fed a near-constant diet of outrage. And that outrage simply generates more outrage, along with a need for yet more constant outrage to fill our emotional tanks.

Worse still, we’re being told that the outrage is good: it means that we’re faithfully sticking up for our tribe, our values, our society, our nation, our planet, our religion. If we’re not outraged, that must mean we’re simply complacent and we’re shamefully fine with the world going to hell around us. You’re not fighting for the unborn! Or you’re not fighting for women’s reproductive rights! You’re not fighting against CRT or LGB! Or you’re not fighting for the oppressed! Whatever side you’re on, you simply must be outraged to ensure our survival!

I don’t think this spiral is sustainable. People and society can’t live like this forever. Outrage may be good for building engagement, for increasing our follower count on the social media platforms. But it’s tearing at our society and in the long run it won’t result in emotional health, either for us or our followers. It’s a poison pill that we need to avoid swallowing. There’s a good reason that Philippians 4:8 says to think on the things that are true, honest, just, pure, lovely, and of good report and with virtue and praise. It’s what brings peace in our hearts, and keeps us from eating each other alive. So I’d rather have people who follow me for the Philippians 4:8 things that I bring to our discussion, even if I end up with a smaller circle of influence.

Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is dignified, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if anything worthy of praise, consider these things. – Philippians 4:8 (LSB)

And I don’t think that outrage is a necessary tool for engagement or building influence. Jesus reserved His outrage for only those who personally deserved it. He didn’t turn to His followers and say “Do you see these outrageous religious leaders?” Instead He addressed the problem directly, and almost always after they attacked Him first. He didn’t use outrage against the unjust systems or leaders to drive His followers; He spent most of His time talking about being different, and how it looks when His followers better represented their Heavenly Father and His Kingdom. Instead of being outraged that the oppressing Roman soldier forced you to carry his pack for a mile, smile and cheerfully carry it for two miles! His message was consistently about the good things that we should become, not the evil things that we should fight against.

So in the same way, we can encourage engagement and action in positive ways, creating a resolute sense of purpose without founding it upon negative emotions. Finding how to craft a useful message without using that cheap but dangerous tactic of outrage will require more work, but I think it’s far more sustainable and effective in the long run.

Yes, calling out the evil or harm that we see is appropriate – but we can do that without adding outrage, and without using outrage as a tool.

In fact, the task to which the Lord has set us is pretty simple, in principle, although it’s the hardest work we’ll ever do: It’s about becoming more and more like Jesus, the humble self-sacrificing servant of all. It’s about cultivating the rich and wholesome fruit of the Spirit in our lives.

So I’d encourage all of us – and I’m talking to myself as much as anyone else – to think about what we post, and how we pursue engagement. Are we regularly creating or using outrage as a tool? Is that post we’re writing going to instill fear? Will it stoke anger? Or will it follow that Philippians 4:8 model of leading us to think on the good things, even if it challenges something that is wrong?

Let’s be different. Instead of deploying and celebrating outrage, let’s harness inner peace. Instead of being like the world, let’s be like Jesus.

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