A Twitter user fired off a string of vulgar and bigoted tweets at 2:23 a.m.
I was tagged in one -- it was the kind of racist, expletive-ridden rant that’s a dime a dozen on social media. It was another post that caught my eye.
“We’ll get rid of her.” That’s how this poster responded to a congratulatory tweet about my sister’s election in Texas.
My sister is a sitting U.S. judge.
I reported the tweets and threat to Twitter and sent screenshots to my sister, who passed them along to law enforcement.
This came on the heels of reports that a Republican candidate in St. Petersburg, Florida, recently sent a fundraising email saying U.S. Rep. Ilhan Omar, a Democrat from Minnesota, should be hanged. Omar’s Republican challenger in Minnesota was permanently suspended from Twitter for also suggesting the congresswoman should be tried for treason and hanged. Last month, Omar asked for leniency in the sentencing of a New York man who pleaded guilty in U.S. District Court for threatening to kill her.
Omar, like my family, is Muslim.
Outrage is too familiar a feeling on social media -- that flash of anger and disgust at the latest moral transgression, blatant lie or hypocrisy. Some exist in a constant state of outrage, while others profit from its peak production. The line between expressing moral outrage and threatening violence against political opponents, however, is getting blurrier in the digital age.
Yale psychology professor Molly Crockett has researched how expressions of moral outrage have changed over time. Expressing outrage is one way societies enforce social norms: by punishing and shaming those who violate those norms, she explained in a recent lecture. But the context of how this plays out online has rapidly evolved from earlier times.
Many adults and children may not realize that social networks, like Facebook and Twitter, are not neutral platforms. Their algorithms favor posts designed to provoke outrage -- regardless of whether the shared information is true. The truth is cast aside to maximize the number of users and the amount of time they spend on the site. If it’s likely to provoke you, you’re more likely to see it.
We are more frequently exposed to posts that support our own biases and worldviews and that are designed to trigger moral outrage. We’ve also learned that innumerable posts are deliberately created by bad actors who have a vested interest in spreading misinformation.
Crockett notes that the barriers to expressing outrage have greatly diminished online. It takes a few clicks on a keyboard behind the cloak of anonymity to attack another person. Psychologically, the user is rewarded by validation through likes or interaction, which can reinforce a habitual loop. Brain imaging and psychological studies show there’s something immediately satisfying about expressing outrage, Crockett said. This may help explain why some trolls linger on sites and feel compelled to post repeated negative comments expressing the same sentiments over and over.
In some cases, online moral outrage can be a force for positive social change. A recent example is Amazon’s decision to remove offensive Auschwitz-themed ornaments from its site after public backlash. But there’s also a significant corrosive and toxic element to it, and a numbing effect.
When the internet is always humming in the background, injecting little jots of outrage throughout the day, every day, it changes our society -- and it changes us.
When everything provokes outrage, it doesn’t work to prevent bad behavior anymore. Offenders are no longer shamed. And, nowadays, when you share outrage, you’re largely preaching to the choir, since so many users filter their information sources based on what they already believe.
It’s a dilemma for those of us who rely on digital platforms to stay informed and connected. We don’t want to become numb to corruption, bigotry and injustice. The expression of moral outrage feels satisfying because it is also an indicator of what you care about, what your values and priorities are and a way to signal that to others. Yet, the consequences for being steeped in moral outrage on a regular basis are unclear. Could these feedback loops and biochemical rewards to outrage expression rewire the brain?
Threats of violence against political opponents is a sign that something’s seriously gone wrong.