During several studies, Benoît Monin, who is a professor of ethics and psychology from the Graduate School of Business at Stanford University, and a PhD candidate named Takuya Sawaoka discovered that even though comments against behavior viewed as offensive may be considered as legitimate and even admirable, they can often generate more sympathy for offenders when more and more people attack them. This is not something that those who claim the moral high ground would ever expect to see.
“One of the features of the digital age is that anyone’s words or actions can go viral, whether they intend to or not,” Sawaoka points out.
“In many cases, the social media posts that are met with viral outrage were never intended to be seen by people outside of the poster’s social circle. Someone doesn’t even need to be on social media in order for their actions to go viral.”
Due to the power of social media, any polarized response to behavior viewed as questionable has the potential to reach much further than ever imagined before.
“We’ve all either been in one of those maelstroms of outrage or just one step away from one as bystanders on our social media news feeds,” stated Monin, reminding us just how frequently these public outbursts occur on social media.
For instance, in the year 2013 there was a considerable uproar when a young woman sent out a tweet that it was impossible for her to get AIDS during her upcoming trip to Africa since she was white. Her tweet, which she later claimed was just a joke, blew up and went viral on social media and rapidly wound up in the news. In the end, she lost her job over the tweet.
“On the one hand, speaking out against injustice is vital for social progress, and it’s admirable that people feel empowered to call out words and actions they believe are wrong,” urges Sawaoka. “On the other hand, it’s hard not to feel somewhat sympathetic for people who are belittled by thousands of strangers online, and who even lose friends and careers as a result of a poorly thought-out joke.”
Outrage over the Uproar
Monin and Sawaoka decided to put what they observed to the test. They set up and performed 6 experiments using 3,377 participants to evaluate how people view public outcry to offensive or controversial messages that were posted on social media. Researchers constructed several different scenarios, which included asking them how they felt when viewing just one or two comments as compared to a huge number of replies.
In one study, participants were shown a post surrounding an actual story about a charity worker that posted a photo of herself while she made obscene gestures and pretending to scream at a sign that said “Silence and Respect” at the Arlington National Cemetery.
They then asked participants if they found the photo to be offensive, and also what they felt about the comments about the post.
The researchers discovered that whenever participants saw that post with only a single comment that condemned the girl’s action, they considered the online reaction as admirable.
But whenever they saw several people online condemning the same action, they viewed the outcry much more negatively. Early commenters wound up getting penalized for later responses, they say.
“There is a balance between sympathy and outrage,” claims Monin in regards to their results. “The outrage goes up and up but at some point sympathy kicks in. Once a comment becomes part of a group, it can appear problematic. People start to think, ‘This is too much—that’s enough.’ We see outrage at the outrage.”
Seems to be No Quick Fix
The mystery as to how one ought to react to injustices during the present digital age is quite complex, Monin and Sawaoka concluded in their final paper.
“Our findings illustrate a challenging moral dilemma: A collection of individually praiseworthy actions may cumulatively result in an unjust outcome,” Sawaoka writes.
“Obviously, the implication is not that people should simply stay silent about others’ wrongdoing,” he emphasizes. “But I think it is worth reconsidering whether the mass shaming of specific individuals is really the best way to achieve social progress.”