When moral outrage goes viral

Moral outrage can be powerful. But do we risk deepening social divides when it happens online?
Does social media change the way we feel moral outrage?

Most of us, at some point or another, have experienced a sense of moral outrage: at, say, a politician's behaviour, a crime, or an editorial.

Back in the days before the internet, we might have expressed that outrage at the dinner table. Perhaps we wrote a letter to the editor. Or attended a protest.

But has our super-connected social-media age, where to express one's opinion takes but a few keyboard clicks,  changed the nature of social outrage?

That's what Molly Crockett sought to find out. She's an Assistant Professor of Psychology at Yale University.
Molly Crockett. (Crockett Lab)

She believes there is a risk that moral outrage in the digital age could deepen social divides. She shared her thoughts in a commentary for the journal, Nature Human Behavior this month.

Historically, moral outrage probably evolved to help society cooperate, deter bad behaviour, and establish the trustworthiness of the person expressing outrage.

But social media changes those incentives, Molly says. It might ramp up the personal benefits of moral outrage at the expense of improving the community.

Now, we can effortlessly broadcast our outrage to our audience, but possibly not to the person or thing we're outraged by, she says.

"It seems like the kinds of content that have been appearing on fake news websites are kind of crafted to tick our moral buttons," she adds, so we encounter more things to be outraged about than we otherwise might in daily life.

In one study, people reported more outrage through things they came across online than what they experienced outside the digital sphere, or even through television, newspapers or radio.

"Online platforms could, through their algorithms, select their content designed to trigger the strongest emotions," she says. And that's the content that tends to go viral, she adds.

In other words, we're more likely to share something to which we have a moral or emotional response than other types of responses - because when people re-share that response, it makes us feel good, Molly says.

Then it becomes a habit - and emotional responses become less genuine, she hypotheses.

"We should be having a conversation, as a society,  whether we want our moral emotions to be manipulated as a way of generating advertising for big tech companies."