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Forget About Civil Discourse, My Keyboard Is OUTRAGED!!!

Outrage is everywhere these days.

It's on the streets... the cinema...

... and definitely in the political arena:

And all of this anger, it seems, is concentrated in one place: social media.

The platform has contributed a lot of good: it has outed criminals, exposed corruption, and let villains big and small know that they cannot act with impunity.

But one of the sources of its strength -- giving users the power to instantly make their unvarnished opinions known to the world -- has also helped feed a developing "outrage culture" that experts warn threatens productive discourse.

Don't Bring Civility To A Twitter Fight

Before the arrival of social media, many events or topics of debate previously might have remained localized or simply flown under the radar of global media. Today, even the most isolated embers of anger can quickly be fanned into a full-blown global firestorm.

This can, of course, prompt progressive action. For example, companies that take advantage of child labor might be boycotted; or a murderer whose crime long went unpunished might be exposed and punished.

But the openness of social media also has its downsides, such as cyberbullying that can put individuals in very real danger; or, ironically, the muting of free speech.

An October 2018 report by the London-based think tank WebRoots Democracy about online abuse in political debate concluded that social media is becoming a hostile environment for those who express political opinions.

In particular, the report said, women and minorities are often subjected to "a toxic level of abuse which focuses on their identities" when they engage in political conversations online.

The result, according to the think tank's chief executive, Areeq Chowdhury, is that that some users fear they will face "bullying, intimidation, and abusive behavior" online if they post their views on publicly available websites.

"Our research has found users self-censoring their opinions online out of fear [of abuse] and opting instead to talk about politics in private forums," Chowdhury says.

Psychology professor Christine Blasey Ford (left) was subjected to a flood of online abuse after she made sexual assault allegations against Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh (right).
Psychology professor Christine Blasey Ford (left) was subjected to a flood of online abuse after she made sexual assault allegations against Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh (right).

Amnesty International warns that violence and abuse against women, in particular, has become a "dangerous trend which threatens the ability of women to participate freely in the public realm."

In a December 10 report called #ToxicTwitter, the rights group said increasingly common forms of abuse include "direct or indirect threats of physical or sexual violence," campaigns of targeted harassment, racist or homophobic abuse, and so-called doxing attacks -- the public sharing of private information about a person online in order to cause them alarm or distress.

In 2018, one of the most prominent cases of cyberbullying was a so-called doxing attack against an American psychology professor who alleged that a potential U.S. Supreme Court Justice had sexually assaulted her in the 1980s.

She was called to testify before the Senate Judiciary Committee in September, but before she could appear her e-mail and home address had been spread across social media. Cyberbullying ensued, including death threats, forcing her to hire a security team and move at least four times.

Brett Kavanaugh denied the allegations, and was narrowly confirmed in October as a Supreme Court justice. As of late November, Christine Blasey Ford was still unable to return to her work as a professor or to her home.

Savage Response

In another well-known case, a 37-year-old American tourist who hunted and killed a rare black giraffe in South Africa found herself deluged by a torrent of social-media outrage after Instagram photos of her posing beside the slain animal went viral.

The online news website Africalandpost had copied the woman's photos and reposted them to Twitter, calling her a "white American savage" and announcing: "Her name is Tess Thompson Talley. Please Share."

Within hours, tens of thousands of outraged Internet users retweeted Talley's photos along with messages of hate and condemnation as she became the target of a social media mob pile on.

Celebrities soon joined the storm of scorn, encouraging their followers to do the same.

Actress Debra Messing berated Talley as a "disgusting, vile, amoral, heartless, selfish murderer" while actor Jeffrey Write castigated her as a "self-obsessed lunatic colonizer."

Those on the other side of the issue, including Talley, also got their shots in. She defended the killing in the media as "conservation through game management," and told the Daily Mail that hunting was "something I believe in," and that the social-media backlash against her was worse because "I'm a woman."

The online "debate," if it can be called a debate, certainly thrust the hot-button issue of big-game hunting into the spotlight, but it did little to resolve the issue.

It did provide a good example of online discourse at its least productive.

Recent Research

For millennia, violations of moral norms have caused people "to experience moral outrage and to express it via gossip, shaming, and punishment," Yale University neuroscientist Molly Crockett wrote in the science journal Nature recently.

Now, she says, social media has democratized moral outrage with online movements like #BlackLivesMatter and #MeToo amplifying the voices of traditionally disempowered minorities and sexual assault victims.

The #MeToo movement against sexual harassment and sexual assault met with a massive response on social media.
The #MeToo movement against sexual harassment and sexual assault met with a massive response on social media.

But Crockett warns that a regular diet of disinformation and "outrageous news" via social media also may be shaping moral emotions in ways that make it harder to change society for the better.

"If your news feed is constantly making your blood boil, you may not have the energy left for actions that make a difference, such as volunteering, marching, or voting," Crockett writes.

"By precisely targeting our outrage triggers, fake news diverts our attention from real events, much like junk food makes us lose our taste for nutritious snacks," according to Crockett. "When everything is worthy of outrage, effectively nothing is."

Other research suggests that the venting of anger spawns more anger, and that online outrage can be habit-forming.

"If digital media makes it easier to express outrage, this could intensify subsequent experiences of outrage," Crockett says.

'Outrage Fatigue'

The problem, in some ways, is getting worse, and is also leading to some unexpected consequences, according to Guy Atchison, a researcher on social media behavior and ethics at King's College London.

"You'll notice that people are becoming almost fatigued" by the use of social-media platforms for online naming and shaming, Atchison tells RFE/RL.

"You also see quite strong polarization online," Atchison says. "With that, what you have is different people getting outraged with each other across different political divides," which he says "complicates things a bit."

"With public shaming, for example, you assume that the person being shamed actually cares about the opinions of the people they are being shamed in front of," he explains. "But if people are totally polarized, it could all be just a bunch of people shouting at each other online."

Perhaps unsurprisingly, there are social-media hashtags asking where the outrage is when users perceive there is none, or not enough.

Tough Guy -- Behind The Keyboard

Some psychological studies suggest that social-media outrage is bolstered by an "online disinhibition effect" -- when people interact with others online in ways they wouldn't necessarily behave if they were speaking face-to-face.

"When you don't see the person in front of you, you can't judge their emotions," Atchison of Kings College London says. "You can't judge their tone of voice. You can't see their facial expressions. Then you are more inclined to denounce them, attack them, and abuse them in ways that you would never do in person."

Atchison also says that, by design, social-media companies benefit from online outrage because posts with outrageous content are more likely to get "likes" and "shares."

"At the moment, they are set up in a way to profit from online public shaming," he told RFE/RL. "The more clicks they get, the more profit they make."

Crockett says that most social-media platforms also amplify the personal rewards to users who express outrage online.

A person who shames a perceived wrongdoer for bad behavior is expressing their own moral strength in front of their social-media contacts, she says.

Solution In The Ether

Researchers agree that online outrage has become a serious problem, but there is much disagreement on what can or should be done to address the issue.

WebRoots Democracy says governments, individuals who use the Internet, and social-media firms all share responsibility for combating online abuse.

For Britain, it recommends the creation of an Office for Social Media Regulation to monitor how effective social media firms are in fighting abuses.

It says social media companies should be required to submit quarterly "transparency reports" to the social-media regulator to track progress in the battle against online abuse -- and that the threat of temporarily shutting down an entire social-media platform should be used to force compliance.

Finally, WebRoots Democracy proposes a Civil Internet Tax on social-media firms with the funds being used for digital literacy and antidiscrimination programs and to provide resources for police to deal with cases of online abuse.

"Whilst social media platforms have a responsibility to ensure their forums are safe spaces, free from hate speech, the responsibility for tackling the underlying discrimination in society lies with the state," the group's October report says.

But Chowdhury, the organization's chief executive, admits that increased state regulation of social media requires new legislation, and is opposed by social-media firms and free-speech advocates.

Kings College London's Atchison disagrees with greater state regulation, noting that most countries already have laws against hate speech and other abuses.

"Online public shaming is morally troubling, but I don't think that the law should necessarily get involved," Atchison tells RFE/RL. "You really want a change in social norms and the behavior of social media companies."

"But we need to distinguish online public shaming from what are genuinely legitimate forms of public criticism," Atchison says. "It's fine to criticize someone online and criticize their views. but when you're trying to stigmatize them and ostracize them and humiliate them through online pile-ons, that's crossing a mark to a different type of behavior that is problematic."