The Paradox of Social Media Outrage


Paradox of Social Media OutrageAre we experiencing a paradox of social media outrage? It seems that we become less approving of any social media outrage as more people join the frenzy. When we see one person on social media slamming another person, we are okay with that. But whenever we see a dozen or people join in, it appears to be an angry mob.

This is what was discovered when reading a published paper known as The Paradox of Viral Outrage, from Benoît Monin and Takuya Sawaoka from Stanford.

Interesting Viral Outrage Study Results

In accordance with the paper’s authors, the official definition of ‘paradox’ is that “individual outrage that would be praised in isolation is more likely to be viewed as bullying when echoed online by a multitude of similar responses.” To put another way, why is it that acceptable individual actions change when they are grouped together?

Monin and Sawaoka conducted six (6) tests to assess the way that others react to online outrage. Participants viewed a seed post online and followed by a series of outraged replies to the seed post. These provocative posts were gathered from real live viral scandals, even though the face and names of the initial posters had been altered.

The primary discovery in each one of the six studies was that individuals view these outrages much more negatively when there were 10 of them (‘viral’), compared to when there was only 2 of them (‘non-viral’), that attacked the very same target. Amazingly, the very first person that left a comment was viewed to be considerably more negative if several other people followed suit.

This conclusion was duplicated many times, and all of Monin and Sawaoka’s experiments had appropriate sample sizes (i.e. N=390 for the First Study), so the ‘paradox of viral outrage’ is extremely robust.

Additional experiments demonstrated that disapproval for these viral outrages is mediated by sympathy for the target of the outrage. Yet all this sympathy is somehow extinguished by requesting that participants create their own ‘tweet’ that further condemns the target. The first-hand commentators didn’t feel guilty or bad about these viral outrages, unlike those who were third-party observers.

Viral outrages causes a gap that widens between how these commenters are seeing themselves and the way they are viewed by other people, individuals who participate in these viral outrages generally keep believing they are justified in doing so, even if outside observers disagree with them.

More Studies Requested

The report’s authors concluded that there’s a real honest to goodness paradox here that for which there seems to be no answers. Hopefully, there will be more investigations in social media activities like this one.

How does someone not condemn injustice without suffering a backlash? There are not answers at all for this. The challenge had to be in understanding this counterintuitive reflex that individual praiseworthy actions could result in an unfair outcome.

It would be very helpful if these studies are extended. For one thing, it would interesting observe the outcome of adding comments that either agree with or defend to the target of these viral outrages. This would likely be more realistic, and perhaps it might lower the disapproval of viral outrage. Perhaps one day soon we can solve this paradox of social media outrage.

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