Outrage (noun): an extremely strong reaction of anger, shock, or indignation.

This definition shines a light on an incredibly powerful human emotion, but when the word “culture” is tacked on, outrage takes on an entirely different meaning.

Outrage culture (noun): a set of behaviors, usually displayed on social media, that aim to hold individuals and groups accountable for alleged political and social transgressions through public shaming.

The term outrage culture has only recently become a buzzword and debating its origins could possibly get you canceled… just kidding. Outrage culture was born as social media became enmeshed in our daily lives, especially as battles over “political correctness” and “identity politics” began to be waged online.

Before we knew it, as we entered the 2016 election, keyboards and smartphones had fully replaced the pitchforks and torches of the 19th century mob.

What is outrage culture? 

Outrage culture is actually an umbrella term for several types of actions that often walk hand-in-hand. The first and most well-known is cancel culture or call-out culture, a form of boycott where “someone” is thrust out of social or professional circles – either online on social media, in the real world, or both.

A recent example of this behavior is the canceling of J.K. Rowling, the author of the Harry Potter series. In late 2019, Rowling tweeted in support of Maya Forstater, a British woman who had recently lost an employment tribunal because of comments that had been deemed transphobic. Since using her platform to support Forstater, Rowling has faced a daily barrage of tweets calling her a TERF (trans exclusionary radical feminist) that allege she is transphobic. Given her status as a literary legend, all major news publications have also covered the outrage. But the stories, boycotts, tweets and posts pressured the cast of the Harry Potter movies to take positions on the debate and has even led Rowling to publicly return a Robert F. Kennedy ‘Ripple of Hope’ Human Rights Award as the group openly condemned her tweets. 

The second main type of action tied to outrage culture is doxing, which refers to the research, and in turn broadcasting, of personally identifiable information about an individual. While this sounds like an innocent act in our culture of oversharing, doxing can take a left turn very quickly. Take, for example, University of Arkansas engineering professor Kyle Quinn. During the Charlottesville “Unite the Right” rally, a picture was taken of a man wearing an “Arkansas Engineering” t-shirt. This picture was shared on Twitter asking who the person in the picture was and soon Kyle Quinn was named as this individual. While he looked eerily similar, it was not Kyle as he was at a bar with colleagues in Bentonville, Arkansas. Given the media attention and level of posts calling for his firing, had he not been seen publicly, it’s very possible that he could have lost his job and his career completely derailed.

The third main type of action that falls under the outrage culture umbrella are negative reviews. Now, this isn’t the same as posting a negative review of an unpleasant experience on Yelp. Negative reviews steeped in outrage are when followers are urged to give negative reviews in order to punish corporate interests or businesses they dislike. One quintessential case of this online behavior came after former press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders was denied service at “The Red Hen” in Lexington, Virginia. In response, appalled conservatives soon overwhelmed the restaurant’s Yelp page with negative reviews, some even posting Nazi symbols and pornographic imagery. The movement gained so much momentum that Charlie Kirk, a popular conservative personality, asked his 600K+ followers to post another 100,000 negative reviews on the page. Soon, the negative reviews spilled over to the restaurant’s Google and Tripadvisor pages — both platforms temporarily disabled users from posting to the page.

Why does this matter? Has this become society’s new mode of operation? 

One positive of social media is that anyone can be an agent of change as social media gives a voice to all. 

While I have always been passionate about social justice, I like many others, have ramped up my social media activity on social justice and other political topics after the murder of George Floyd. Taking a stand for what I believe in (even when unpopular) is something that I’ve never shied away from doing and no one should stop in expressing their views on social media. The attention given to police reform and unpacking of other difficult issues that our fellow Americans of all colors have faced for decades needs to continue. 

It is good to combat discrimination or discuss political issues that one is passionate about on social media, however, it is equally as dangerous when one joins a mob fueled by reactions that are so extreme they begin to shutter constructive conversations and political debate.

For example, 2020 presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg’s team succumbed to a mob and turned down an interview opportunity with Youtuber Dave Rubin, host of “The Rubin Report,” because of an onslaught of tweets and Facebook posts as well as attacks by journalists from Media Matters, Vox and Huffington Post on the basis of “views held by some past guests of the show.” Both Rubin and Buttigieg are members of the Gay community and, while having clear differences in their political ideologies, they very well could have had a thoughtful, diplomatic and thorough conversation about the real issues affecting the world and many Americans, as Rubin has done in the past with guests that range dramatically across the political spectrum.

Outrage culture devalues the importance of sharing ideas and tolerating different opinions. Due to this devaluation, the majority of cogent conversations and dialogues have ceased online. What we’re left with is a mob mentality and people seeking to become the next social media hero via their outrage with little or no regard for the consequences or repercussions of their actions.

This blogpost is part I of a two-part series on outrage culture. Please check back in on the blog for the second post that will focus on strategies of how to pre-empt online outrage. 

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