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Does Social Media Outrage Erode Civil Society?

Last summer, San Diego Gas & Electric fired Emmanuel Cafferty from his job as a power-line worker after a photograph of him making the “okay” hand gesture went viral on social media. According to reporting in The Atlantic and elsewhere, the whole episode appears to be a giant misunderstanding; Cafferty, who is 75 percent Hispanic, was unaware that the familiar gesture is also used by some white supremacists as a hateful symbol. Yet the online firestorm that ensued contained little to no context, and an outraged Twitter mob stoked the embers of an apparently false controversy that ultimately cost Cafferty his livelihood.

This cautionary tale is but one example of online outrage mobs punishing individuals—sometimes following rightful criticism or, in Cafferty’s case, unfair maligning—a phenomenon often referred to as “cancel culture.” Indeed, moral outrage, whether manifested as righteous indignation or misinformed vitriol, is a powerful, motivating emotion. According to the social-psychological notion of “negativity bias,” our human tendency is to give greater weight to negative feelings, events, etc. because they are more potent and contagious than positive ones.

Empirical research supports the idea that expressing messages on social media with moral-emotional language, particularly moral anger and disgust, increases their diffusion. This “moral contagion” effect seems to be more of a “bonding” than a “bridging” variety of social capital, with diffusion occurring largely within ideological networks rather than between them. Learning about morally offensive acts online is more likely and can provoke stronger moral outrage than learning about them in person or through traditional media.

Additionally, the very design of social networking sites may aid and abet the spread of moral outrage. Because interactions generally occur within larger, relatively depersonalized networks, social media may enable expressions of outrage based on one’s group identity that would be more difficult in a smaller network of interpersonal relationships. A social feedback system of likes and retweets then rewards the user and fulfills his or her desire for social recognition. (The lead engineer behind Twitter’s retweet button now regrets it.) Algorithms promote sensationalized headlines and other hyper-moralized content to further fuel the cycle of outrage.

Ultimately, moral outrage amplified via social media networks may accrue to the detriment of civil society. A recent Pew survey found that roughly two-thirds of U.S. adults say social media has a mostly negative effect on the current direction of the country; among the top reasons given are those related to moral outrage, such as harassment, negativity, and division. There are multiple avenues through which online outrage may affect civil society, but three—declining social trust, political polarization, and less-effective civic engagement—are briefly considered here.

First, an online culture increasingly characterized by moral outrage will likely contribute to declining social trust, which the Social Capital Project previously reported on in “The Space Between.” If you feel that having your views made public could provoke an online mob and cost you your job, you probably will not be as likely to divulge those views. To the extent this feeling is shared on a societal level, it could lead to a mass “dissembling,” in which people withhold their true opinions and publicly conform due to fear of potentially becoming the target of moral outrage. In fact, according to a recent Cato Institute/YouGov national survey, 62 percent of adults feel they cannot say things they believe in the current political climate, and nearly one-third worry about being fired or missing job opportunities if their political views become known. The unfortunate consequence of this widely held sentiment is that we are less trusting of our neighbors, co-workers, and perhaps even friends and family.

A related phenomenon of popular concern is political polarization. Social media offers a lower participation threshold than regular life for expressing outrage about politics; people encounter online outrage both within their ideological networks and outside of their network. We can therefore see two, somewhat contradictory mechanisms by which social media plausibly increases political polarization: users become polarized within self-reinforcing “echo chambers,” and they react negatively when they encounter morally charged rhetoric from their ideological opposites.

A recent literature review, however, notes that there is an “ongoing, unresolved debate” about these alleged drivers of polarization. For example, studies have shown that exposure to opposing views on social media can harden or moderate ideological positions. Other research shows that social networks can simultaneously increase polarization and exposure to diverse viewpoints. The connection between social media and polarization certainly merits further study in a country where the vast majority of people believe the partisan divide is growing.

Finally, activity fueled by moral outrage may be a less-effective type of civic engagement that crowds out more-productive civic activities. Of course, social media can be a tool to highlight actual wrongdoing and marshal collective action to hold those offenders accountable. But social media outrage may lead to collective action that is ineffective or counterproductive; for example, one study using data from the 2015 Baltimore protests found an association between the frequency of morally charged tweets and future violent arrest counts. Expressing outrage online might also supplant more meaningful forms of civic involvement, i.e., posting on social media about a cause instead of volunteering for or donating to that cause. Supporting this idea, research on ultimatum games suggests that if given the opportunity to convey their displeasure, people are less likely to “put their money where their mouth is.”

Importantly, societal norms enforced by online displays of outrage move us away from norms governed by interpersonal or community-based relationships. As one article puts it: “Shaming a stranger on a deserted street is far riskier than joining a Twitter mob of thousands.” Indeed, public intellectuals from Yuval Levin to Jonathan Haidt have commented on this performative nature of social media outrage. They argue that this public, reactive performance undermines the harder yet more rewarding work of forming citizens through institutions of civil society and time-honored ideas and values. If Americans want to preserve the formative role of civil society, then Americans must step back from the brink of an outrage-fueled online culture that promises to atomize us rather than bring us together.

Vijay Menon
Policy Advisor

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