There’s been some truly alarming news lately. Did you hear, for example, that Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, had an actual, literal, real-life Nazi working for it? A Nazi! Also, there was a secret deal between retiring Justice Anthony Kennedy and Donald Trump where Kennedy agreed he would retire if and only if Trump subsequently nominated Brett Kavanaugh, Kennedy’s handpicked successor, to fill his seat.
If you spend any time on Twitter, you’ve likely come across these rumors, both of which exploded onto the social-media scene in recent weeks. It’s somewhat less likely you came across the news that both are false. The ICE story had an embarrassingly simple explanation: A bunch of people, including some professional journalists and policy mavens, decided that a tattoo visible on an ICE employee’s arm in a publicity photograph was a Nazi symbol, and began clamoring for ICE to be held accountable for allowing a dangerous extremist into its ranks. But the tattoo wasn’t, in fact, an Iron Cross: As Haaretz subsequently explained, the employee’s tattoo was a “‘Titan 2,’ the symbol of the platoon he fought with in Afghanistan, where he lost both of his legs in an IED explosion.”
The Kavanaugh rumor, which, if true, would suggest a highly unusual Supreme Court appointment process, caught fire when Leigh Ann Caldwell, an NBC reporter, tweeted on July 10 that “Kennedy and Trump/WH had been in negotiations for months over Kennedy’s replacement. Once Kennedy received assurances that it would be Kavanaugh, his former law clerk, Kennedy felt comfortable retiring, according to a source who was told of the discussions.” But not long afterward, she deleted the tweet. She explained that “it incorrectly implies a transactional nature in Kennedy’s replacement,” and that according to a source the actual process was significantly more complex.
Both rumors set off giant cascades of tweets from individuals who immediately believed the stories in question, and who proceeded to riff on them in various ways and, of course, to hold them up as evidence for their pre-existing beliefs. The Nazi ICE employee proved everyone’s worst suspicions about who was carrying out the cruel family-separation policies that have rightly dominated the news lately. The Kavanaugh “deal” showed just how brazenly Trump had trampled long-standing norms. Pundits opined and big accounts retweeted. All before anyone had time to really check the stories in question. But it didn’t matter — the result, for the rumor-mongers, was countless likes and retweets. The outrage overtook everything.
In the Trump era, some people get famous, or at least Internet famous, primarily by slinging a steady dose of conspiratorial outrage. Seth Abramson, a University of New Hampshire English professor with a law degree, for example, has published a number of viral, lengthy tweetstorms much heavier on inflammatory speculation about Trump than substance. In one such tweetstorm from last November, Abramson laid out a sweeping conspiracy theory involving Putin and Trump that relied in part on the notion of a “blackmail-enabling video that is confirmed to exist” — no such video has been “confirmed to exist” by any credible media outlet — along with a number of tweets from actor Tom Arnold, known to be an erratic tweeter, plus a lot of speculation about the members of Trump’s entourage during a 2013 trip to Russia. The whole thing took more than 100 tweets to unspool and, to the uninitiated, is very, very difficult to parse.
There are, of course, plenty of people who ridicule Abramson, and others like him. But there are far more people who enthusiastically take the bait. The first tweet of Abramson’s tweetstorm, for example, got a staggering 20,000 retweets. At a certain point, outraged comments built on dodgy rumors become a kind of performance, one that lets tweeters define themselves as active fighters in a pitched political war. As innuendo wrapped in ostentatious anger spreads, it reinforces group identity — and it produces lots of clicks.
“ There is evidence that shows that the most negative, the most extreme, the most attention-getting tweets or posts will get the most retweets or likes and so will get the most attention,” said Hans Noel, a political scientist at Georgetown University who studies political parties and polarization. He added, “If the media environment favors outrage, then most observers will be exposed to outrage, and on balance most will accept it.”
Performative outrage on the right isn’t exactly new; fringe figures tweeted hysterical accusations that Barack Obama was a Muslim pushing sharia law upon the United States. In the Trump era, settling on the optimal level of anger is a challenge for people on the left. For anyone appalled by, for instance, the separation of children from migrant parents along the border, expressions of outrage are only natural. Still, to spend time on progressive social media is to be bombarded with wave after wave of outrage.
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Indeed, the very suggestion that some anti-Trump outrage is excessive and unhealthy has itself been turned into outrage fodder: How dare anyone suggest that “online outrage” is something we should even be worried about? Just look out at the world! Look at Trump! Don’t knock outrage when it feels more necessary than ever!
Yet even if you believe there’s no shortage of subjects to be outraged about, it’s important to acknowledge two things: First, human beings don’t have the capacity to exist in an endless state of outrage. Second, what’s going on with social media is completely new. It may be altering our thinking in worrisome ways and interfering with our ability to be effective, well-adjusted people.
This is far from the first time new technology has led to doom-saying, of course: TV was going to turn people into idiots; video games would convert innocent children into violent killing machines. But social media has introduced a genuinely new variable into the equation: algorithmic systems specifically designed to elicit emotional reactions in us, particularly negative ones, with an efficiency no prior technology has approached. Facebook, which does a lot of filtering of content (meaning what shows up in your news feed is very far from a simple chronological listing of what all your friends are posting), has long favored content that generates a lot of engagement (likes, shares, and comments), which is more or less a proxy for emotion. Twitter does somewhat less filtering — though far from zero — but is built in a way where emotionally jarring stories are going to dominate your news feed anyway because they’re the ones that get retweeted the most.
“We have a digital economy that is essentially based on making sure that we are not in control of our attention,” sociologist Zeynep Tufekci told the TED Talk radio hour in May. Because there is far more information out there than anyone could ever consume, she explained, attention has become the most precious resource of all. One of the most straightforward ways to grab someone’s attention is to outrage them. So, pulling this all together, we are spending more and more time in online environments that giant corporations have built in large part for the very sake of outraging us, and therefore seizing our attention for a few precious seconds, over and over and over.
Inevitably, this alters the way we process information. “Our brains are wired to lock onto patterns, to focus on threats, and to give precedence to strong emotional responses,” Mary McNaughton-Cassill, a University of Texas-San Antonio psychologist who studies the effects of news consumption, told me in a recent e-mail. “The result is that we have to actively commit to thinking critically about what we see and hear, and to realize that feelings can be misleading.”
Because there are only so many news stories we can consume, we might be tricked into thinking the one that feels the most emotionally resonant is the one most worth our attention. Recently, McNaughton-Cassill pointed out, “people all over the world were obsessed with the rescue of 11 kids trapped in a cave, while virtually ignoring the deaths of well over 100 people in floods in Japan.”
Maybe the most dire threat is to effective, informed citizenship. To understand the world, and seek to change it for the better, we need the ability to triage threats calmly and figure out what can be done today and what can wait until tomorrow.
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Whenever I think of how to counter performative outrage on social media — or steer it in a more productive direction — I think of an anti-Trump group called Indivisible. (Full disclosure: I am friends with Ezra Levin and Leah Greenberg, the couple that founded the organization.) It became a viral sensation, with hundreds of chapters around the country, by offering clear, nuts-and-bolts advice about what sort of pressure actually affects members of Congress, and how to apply that pressure. (Call their offices and show up to their town halls, for example — e-mails are borderline useless.) Indivisible’s staffers and social media accounts highlight and comment in real time about things the group views as outrageous. But underneath everything there’s a plan. The organization’s staffers, volunteers, and sympathizers have something more to do than tweeting and retweeting.
But most people floundering in the outrage-waves are rudderless. They get washed from outrage to outrage, the stress hormones spiking and spiking and spiking, until it’s hard to tell what matters anymore, or to remember where you heard that one rumor, or whether that other one had been debunked.
There isn’t an easy solution to any of this. Tech companies have barely begun to acknowledge the problems they have created. Keeping you outraged is part of their business plan, and they have little financial incentive to promote a less fevered dialogue. As a general rule, though, the less time you can spend fixated on social media, the more likely it is you’ll be able to regain a feeling of balance. When social media can’t be avoided, it’s important to adopt a stance of informed skepticism; you don’t have to believe every outrageous story that comes your way — much less share it with others, adding a little extra outrage of your own.
Jesse Singal is a contributing writer at New York Magazine. He is working on a book for Farrar, Straus & Giroux about how questionable ideas in social science go viral.