August 12, 2014

Robin Williams, Shepard Smith, and the Appeal of Outrage

Robin-Williams (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Not every instance of social media outrage is the same. There are bound to be exceptions to the general pattern. What is the general pattern? I think it looks something like this:
  1. A major news story breaks, and everyone is talking about it (e.g., the death of Robin Williams).
  2. A public figure says something insensitive or otherwise inappropriate about it (e.g., Shepard Smith goes on the air and suggests that Williams was a coward).
  3. Other media outlets report on what the figure said, with some managing to do a fairly good job of thoughtful reporting and others doing little more than trying to inflame their audience.
  4. Outrage ensues.
  5. Other media outlets begin to report on the outrage.
  6. The public figure who made the insensitive comment apologizes.
  7. We all move on to the next outrage (perhaps it will be this gem).
We see this pattern regularly. Who is benefiting here? The public figure who makes the controversial statement might benefit in the sudden fame, attention, and traffic. Then again, this may all be unwanted. Benefit to the person who made the initial statement is questionable in many situations. But what about the media who report on it? They benefit considerably from an outraged audience in the form of social media shares and traffic. Outrage = traffic, and traffic = ratings and advertising revenue. They have a clear incentive to drum up outrage.

But what about the outraged? Why do they continue to participate in this cycle over and over? I think this is the most interesting question and perhaps the most challenging to answer. To some degree, I suspect they do so because they are being effectively manipulated. That is, their buttons are being pressed by people who are damned good at pressing buttons. But it also seems that some delight in the outrage because it feels good to vent one's frustration and attack others when one can feel justified in doing so. Maybe there is something appealing about getting to treat people poorly without feeling any remorse about doing so.

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