August 13, 2014

Manipulating One's Audience: A Different Sort of Outrage

Rush Limbaugh Cartoon by Ian D. Marsden of mar...
Rush Limbaugh Cartoon by Ian D. Marsden of marsdencartoons.com (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
I wrote yesterday about the pattern of social media outrage where a public figure says something insensitive in response to a news story, is met with outrage, and ends up apologizing. We are all familiar with this and have come to recognize it easily. But there is another sort of pattern, one in which many of us actively participate and which not everyone sees for what it is. Since we had a particularly vivid example of it yesterday, I thought I should do a quick follow up post to address it.

Here's what this other pattern looks like:
  1. Someone deliberately says something outrageous in order to provoke outrage in his or her audience (like this recent post from PZ - Freezepage link).
  2. Outrage ensues and spreads quickly.
  3. The person who made the outrageous statement benefits from a massive spike in traffic and/or attention as the outraged share the content far and wide.
  4. We move on to the next outrage.
Yes, I'm saying that this pattern is characterized by someone intentionally inciting outrage because they recognize how they will benefit from it. This should be far easier to understand than the previous pattern, but it does force us to recognize that we are complicit in it. It wouldn't work without our contribution.

This is the approach used by Rush Limbaugh, Ann Coulter, Rebecca Watson, and apparently now PZ Myers. And they use it because it works extremely well. Whatever portion of their audience they might lose from such antics can be dismissed because they will gain more than they have lost. To understand why, we merely need to consider how much buzz is generated by this approach.

The typical audience for such visionaries includes at least three groups:
  1. The die-hard supporters who will contort themselves in unbelievable ways to defend the most outrageous antics, resorting to denial and name calling when all else fails
  2. Those who claim to dislike the figure but cannot seem to stay away because they want to see what he or she might say next
  3. The outraged who loudly profess how much they despise the figure even as they share his or her content all over the Internet
The first group is the core audience that comes to resemble a cult over time. They aren't going anywhere. They are relatively few in number, but that doesn't matter. They have a role to play, and they play it exceptionally well.

When you consider evidence for the existence of the second group, just ask yourself how many people you have heard make the comparison of these antics to driving past an accident and not being able to look away. This group knows what they are seeing but feel compelled to participate. They may detest their participation at times, but they aren't going anywhere.

The most important group is the third. This is where the real traffic is because this is the group that will reliably amplify the impact of the original material. They will send the offending content out on every social media platform without realizing that they are rewarding the individual who produced it. As easy as it is to link to content without promoting it, it is still too much work for most. And so this group, more than any other, makes sure that the pundit or rage blogger will be handsomely rewarded for his or her contribution.

Oh, come on! Am I really suggesting that people like Rebecca Watson, PZ Myers, and assorted rage bloggers do this sort of thing deliberately? Yes, and I'm also saying that it is our fault that it works so well. But why a rage blogger invite such outrage? Ins't this sort of thing bound to be unpleasant? As I've indicated, it leads to massive traffic (which boosts ad revenue). But there is another benefit some may crave even more. Some rage bloggers seem to delight in the hate they receive, even creating pages devoted to it. What better way to legitimize a persecution complex than to make oneself a target for outrage? Some subcultures may even reward victimhood through enhanced status.

By manipulating us, they have achieved massive traffic, collected evidence of "harassment" to inflate their status, and convinced themselves that they are raising awareness of pet social justice issues. In the short-term, this is a tremendously successful approach. As to how well it will work long-term, I suppose that is up to us.

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