Spend any amount of time online and you’re likely to see the same patterns repeat themselves over and over again: somebody says something offensive or controversial on social media, they’re met with anger and disgust, and they either apologise or double down.
For some, this cycle has become somewhat of a career, with the garnering of outrage forming the backbone of their (often incredibly tedious) public personas. But does responding to such toxic or offensive remarks, especially en masse, actually work? Or does it simply increase sympathy for the offender, no matter how bigoted their remarks were to begin with?
According to research published in Social Psychological and Personality Science, the latter is more likely. The paper looked at the impact of viral outrage on convincing observers that an offender is blameworthy — and found that as outrage increased, observers believed it was “more normative” to express condemnation, but simultaneously believed that outrage was excessive and felt more sympathy for the offender.
Across seven studies, Takuya Sawaoka and Benoît Monin from Stanford University showed 3,406 participants offensive social media posts, such as a woman taking a selfie at a concentration camp and a man making a sexist comment about the Women’s March in 2017 — all inspired by things that had really gone viral. The number of outraged reactions was manipulated across conditions — in the non-viral outrage condition, participants read two outraged responses, with those in the other condition were shown ten.
In the first few studies, participants were shown the post and asked to indicate how offensive and how funny they found it on a scale of 1 (not at all) to 7 (very). They then read the responses condemning the post, also inspired by real comments on the event, and were asked another set of questions. These included questions about intentionality, such as “how much do you think the poster intended to hurt people with what they said?”, and others relating to whether the participant believed the poster should be punished by the social media platform or by their friends and employers. Participants were also asked how sympathetic and outraged they were by the post.
The results showed that viral outrage was frequently perceived as disproportionate, leading to increased sympathy for the poster compared to the non-viral condition. But despite their sympathy, participants didn’t express any less condemnation for the poster when outrage was viral. That seemed to be because higher levels of outrage also meant participants felt condemnation was the norm, making them both feel more outrage themselves and more likely to express it.
In further studies, the team found the same pattern of results, regardless of how offensive the original post was, and whether the poster was a lay person or a high-status public figure. And interestingly, one study also showed that participants believed others were less sympathetic and more outraged than they were themselves — meaning concerns over so-called “outrage culture” may be overlooking how sympathetic we really are.
The research highlights what the team describes as the “strange bedfellows” of outrage and sympathy: the complex, sometimes counterintuitive, interaction between the two. And while it may be a common way of expressing moral judgement, the team concludes that outrage has “limited efficacy” when it comes to actually persuading people that someone has committed a moral misstep.
What the research couldn’t reveal is how people respond when outraged comments don’t just number in the tens but in the thousands. When posts really do go viral, they have significantly more than just two or ten responses, and it’s unclear how this changes the way we respond — though the team speculates that it would only strengthen people’s beliefs that condemnation was excessive and increase their sympathy.
It would also be interesting to understand how viral outrage impacts social norms in a broader sense: whilst sympathy may increase in individual cases, does widespread, vocal outrage actually help change wider attitudes around sexism, racism or transphobia, for example?
You might not be able to stop yourself responding to the next outrageous thing you see on your Twitter or Facebook feed — and when it comes to bigotry, that instinct is probably a good one. But, as this study shows, it may also be worth thinking of other strategies to ensure that deeply offensive beliefs are stamped out of public life.