How digital media fuels moral outrage – and what to do about it

If we don't want a handful of technology companies determining how the rest of us express morality in the public sphere, the economic model underpinning social media may have to change, researchers caution.

Mark Lennihan/AP/File
Facebook stock values are shown on a screen at the Nasdaq MarketSite in New York on July 25. Researchers caution that the ad-driven profit model underpinning the social media industry is amplifying moral outrage in an unproductive manner.

If you're not outraged, goes the perennial saying, you're not paying attention.

But in today's online attention economy, attending to the outrageous feels less like writing a check and more like setting up an automatic withdrawal. Open Facebook or Twitter, and you are likely to be greeted by a bottomless feed of outrage-triggering stimuli on matters both momentous and trifling, all handpicked just for you by an artificial intelligence that gets smarter each time you click, tap, and scroll.

So if you're like the two-thirds of Americans who say they read at least one thing in the news each day that makes them angry, rest assured that it's all by design. It's the result of an ad-driven business model that incentivizes anything that will keep you engaged with the platform, even if it means exploiting your psychological vulnerabilities, say researchers. This model may have to change, they warn, if we don't want a handful of technology companies determining how the rest of us express morality in the public sphere. 

“I think it's crucial that we understand how new technologies might be changing the way that we experience and express moral emotions like outrage,” says Molly Crockett, an assistant professor of psychology at Yale University in New Haven, Conn. “Because moral emotions are, of course, central to our social lives, and we are seeing in the United States an unprecedented level of social polarization along moral lines.”

Moral outrage plays an essential role in human society. It drives people to expose and rise against injustice. At its best, social media can channel moral outrage into action, as seen in the success of petition drives, boycott campaigns, and protest planning.

But under the attention-driven model that underpins social media, there is little incentive to steer users toward action offscreen. Instead, it is in the interest of the social media companies to encourage sharing of moral outrage in a way that fosters amplification rather than action. Decoupling user attention from profit could break that cycle, say observers.

Adding fuel to the fire

Professor Crockett notes that people are far more likely to learn about violations of moral norms online than they are to witness them in person. She adds that acts witnessed online tend to elicit greater moral outrage than those viewed through traditional media.

Social media shifts the incentives for how we share and consume information. Research shows that people are more likely to share content that elicits outrage, something that social media platforms facilitate by letting you share your anger with your peers, say, by tapping on a scowling emoji. Positive feedback, such as likes and shares, arrives at unpredictable times, creating a well-known recipe for conditioning habit formation.

“We know that habits are more likely to develop if rewards are delivered unpredictably,” says Crockett. “And that's precisely how social media apps deliver social feedback.”  

“If moral outrage is a fire,” writes Crockett, in a commentary published in the journal Nature Human Behaviour on Monday titled, “Moral outrage in the digital age. “is the internet like gasoline? Technology companies have argued that their products provide neutral platforms for social behaviours but do not change those behaviours. This is an empirical question that behavioural scientists should address, because its answer has ethical and regulatory implications.”

Engagement and enragement

Platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube are anything but neutral, says Tristan Harris, a former “design ethicist” for Google. By delivering likes and shares one at a time, by limiting options in ways that continually steer you back to the platform, and by showing you whatever it will take to keep you scrolling or watching videos, they are deliberately attempting to get their users hooked, he says.

“Outrage is good for business,” says Mr. Harris, who now runs Time Well Spent, a nonprofit that seeks to “align technology with our humanity.” The “things that are good for capturing attention which are good for business are not actually good for democracy, and they're not actually good for finding or seeking the truth,” he says.

Harris points out how conspiracy theories tend to go viral more readily than facts, noting that the top ten search results on YouTube for “truth about the Holocaust” are videos that deny that the Holocaust happened.

Sarah Sobieraj, a sociologist at Tufts University in Medford, Mass., and the coauthor, of the 2014 book “The Outrage Industry,” points to larger societal forces driving the rise in news content that incites moral outrage. 

“There is a whole contingent of actors who are actively trying to gin up outrage,” says Dr. Sobieraj. “This has become a mode of persuasion that is everywhere.”

Sobieraj, who now directs Tufts's Digital Sexism Project, agrees that some level of outrage can be a good thing. “The question is whether that outrage is being used in productive and meaningful ways,” she says, “or whether the outrage is used simply to humiliate, shame, vilify, or intimidate people.”

Decoupling attention from profit

Social media platforms could better meet society's needs, says Harris, if they shift away from a business model that aims to capture the attention of users and serve it to advertisers. As an example of such a shift, he cites energy regulations that “decouple” a public utility's profits from its total electric or gas sales by altering the underlying mechanism used in price calculations, thus removing the utility's incentive to sell more energy.

Harris frames the attention economy in ecological terms: “Instead of pulling resources from the outer physical environment we've now pointed this addiction to growth at the inner environment. We need to mine more of people's inner resources, which is their attention. If that's not enough we need to get their social relationships, and if that's not enough we need to get their identity ... we need to get them to see themselves through our product.”

“[Corporate capitalism's] addiction to growth has gotten personal,” he says.

He emphasizes that the problems arising from tech companies' efforts to form habits among their user base won't resolve themselves. “Cigarettes and alcohol didn't have thousands of engineers on the other side of the screen who updated how cigarettes and alcohol worked to personally adapt to your specific psychological vulnerabilities,” he says. Unless they change their business model, he says, “the news feed isn't going to get worse at keeping you on the screen. It's going to get better.”

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