Can Online Viral Outrage Change Hearts and Minds?
In 2013, a woman named Justine embarked on an unremarkable trip to visit her family in South Africa. Thumbing through Twitter to occupy herself at the airport, Justine tweeted a few jokes to her 170 followers. One tweet: “Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding. I’m white!”
Soon, strangers began stumbling upon Justine’s tweet. “I am beyond horrified,” one replied. “This is an outrageous, offensive comment,” replied another. Tens of thousands of similarly outraged responses followed suit—many of them far more vitriolic and strewn with expletives.
Since then, there have been countless other stories in which ordinary people’s offensive remarks or actions are publicly blasted on social media, a phenomenon known as viral outrage. Given that people now often learn about immoral and offensive acts online rather than in person or through traditional media outlets, viral outrage is a common way for people today to express their reactions to moral issues.
Presumably, an important goal of these commenters is to raise awareness of social injustices and convert others to their cause – to convince other people that individuals like Justine are racist, repugnant, and worthy of condemnation. But are other readers actually persuaded by such viral outrage? This is the question my colleague and I examined in our research.
At first glance, the answer may seem obvious. If tens of thousands of people are calling Justine racist, of course others would come to believe that Justine is racist. After all, research on social conformity demonstrates that people tend to adopt the attitudes and emotions of those around them.
But this is not what we found.
Our studies were inspired by real-life incidents that sparked viral outrage—a college student who posed in blackface, a woman who made an obscene gesture at Arlington National Cemetery, and a male politician who tweeted a sexist joke.
Participants in our studies saw one such offensive post and then read people’s reactions to the post. These reactions were modeled on how people had responded to these incidents in real life: “You should be ashamed of yourself, “How dare you write such a disgusting, racist post,” “You are vile.” In our studies, some participants read angry reactions from only a couple of commenters, whereas other participants read angry reactions from many commenters.
We measured how much participants agreed with the angry comments and whether they felt that the person who created the offensive posts—such as Justine—were cruel, hurtful people who deserved to be punished.
On the one hand, participants who read more outraged responses felt more outraged themselves, consistent with the idea that people conform to the expressed emotions of other people. But strikingly, participants who read many angry responses felt another emotion as well: sympathy for the person who had posted the offensive remarks in the first place.
To understand these findings, let us return briefly to our story about Justine. Although the vast majority of people who responded to Justine’s post were clearly angry, some of them felt differently. These individuals agreed that Justine’s tweet was reprehensible but believed that the commenters who demonized her were going too far—that Justine was being bullied by a vicious online mob. In other words, these commentators felt angry about what Justine had said but were simultaneously sympathetic for what they perceived to be excessively harsh punishment.
The net effect of these two ambivalent emotions—outrage and sympathy toward the offender—is that people who saw many angry comments were not inclined to agree with the angry commentators. In study after study, participants who were presented with instances of viral outrage were no more likely to condemn or punish the people who made the offensive posts than participants who saw nonviral outrage. In other words, well-intentioned expressions of outrage that were intended to change hearts and minds appeared to fall on deaf ears.
Of course, this is not to say that people should simply stay quiet in response to injustice. There are compelling arguments to be made about how and when collective outrage can have a positive social impact. And, admittedly, many questions remain unanswered by our research, such as whether the possibility of public condemnation deters people from making hurtful or offensive remarks.
However, our research does raise questions about this uniquely modern way of discussing moral issues. Social media has democratized the expression of moral emotions, allowing anyone with an Internet connection to observe, share, and judge other people’s transgressions. But the ubiquity of collective outrage may dilute its persuasiveness and impact, as viral outrage blurs the line between righteous protest and collective bullying.
For Further Reading
Sawaoka, T., & Monin, B. (2020). Outraged but sympathetic: Ambivalent emotions limit the influence of viral outrage. Social Psychological and Personality Science, 11, 499-512.
Takuya Sawaoka received his Ph.D. from Stanford University in 2019. His research interests include morality, politics, and intergroup relations.