Online Outrage: When Thoughts and Prayers Just Aren’t Enough

Like many of you, I’ve been watching the unfolding #MeToo campaign on Facebook unfold with a cornucopia of emotions. Sadness that so many of my friends have been affected by sexual harassment and abuse. Anger at the people who would do such things. Frustration that there doesn’t seem to be anything I can do to fix it. I click “sad” on each post, trying to show I feel for them, but what is that really more than a Facebook-ized way of saying “thoughts and prayers”?

Don’t get me wrong. It’s nice to know people feel bad for you and are praying for you, but I’m far from the first person to note that “thoughts and prayers” don’t actually amount to a whole lot in terms of actually solving problems. Even if you’re a believer in God, I would think most people agree God typically works through other people. Praying a problem away without any actual action on the part of a person is the exception, not the rule.

So I feel kind of helpless and upset. The same way I feel about many of the news I encounter over the course of my day. Every day. Day in. Day out. I blog about things. I defend my ideas to people who attack them online. I engage in discussion. But it still doesn’t feel like enough.

Into this line of thinking comes an article I read in Wired that basically discusses how social networks (inadvertently or not) do their best to stoke more outrage in the world, because outrage equals engagement on their networks. Facebook and Twitter naturally promote the content that people are already interacting with, and nothing draws interaction quite so much as things like the #MeToo campaign. We can feel like we’re part of a greater whole, even as we’re just sitting there on our phones or computers.

I’m not a social media detractor. I’m a big user of it, and I like how it connects me in so many ways to people I wouldn’t otherwise see. But at the same time, I can’t deny that the “outrage fatigue” described in that Wired article is a very real thing. It feels like there’s always something I’m supposed to be upset about each day. Whether it’s a mass shooting, the response to a mass shooting, another idiotic thing our government or leaders have done, a terrorist act, the guilt over not responding “the right way” to a terrorist act, debate over privilege and race. The list goes on and on.

Let’s face it: there’s a lot wrong in the world today. It’s an unjust place for many people, and social networks highlight that fact to me over and over. But it’s one thing to point out a problem again and again. It’s an entirely different one to go about fixing those problems, and that’s where social media typically fails, for a variety of reasons.

First of all, just as it connects victims, it enables those who would victimize. It reinforces behavior by normalizing it. Someone seeing that he or she isn’t alone can be a good thing, or a very bad thing. Look at the Nazis who showed up to march for Confederate statues. Look at the GamerGate fiasco. In a way, social media only heightens both sides, probably because the algorithms running them are designed to get people to share. To connect.

But tied to that is the response we make to these events and ideas. We feel sad. Outraged. We say supportive things or nasty things. And then we close the social media app and go on with our lives. “Something must be done!” we think to ourselves, and too often it’s easy to think “by somebody else” at the end of that. Someone else needs to change. Someone else should make better laws. We clicked “like,” and that was “something,” and so we’ve done the thing we could do.

It’s like how everyone you see on the road is a worse driver than you are. It’s easier to cast the blame on others and think you’re blameless than it is to recognize that we’re all bad drivers at some point in time.

I can’t really think of anything social media has done to get me to behave differently. I have a hard time imagining it’s helping others. Instead, it helps us to feel more guilty. To be aware, but impotent. So what do we do to change that?

As I’ve thought about it, I believe the solution is to look for ways you can change yourself to be able to do your best to fight back. For example, I’ve decided to speak up in defense of people who can’t defend themselves. Speak out on behalf of women and minorities to do my best to try to persuade others through my blog posts to change their minds. When I see someone picked on in real life, or a racial slur used, I speak up. I say how that’s not right. I translate my feelings into actual, tangible things.

If we were to all do that, I believe we’d see change occur. Identify a problem, look for ways you can change your life to minimize that problem, and then go out and do it. Unless we do that, I believe the trend Wired describes will continue:

As a result, our “outrage” bar continues to move firmly up and to the right as our feeds become saturated by egregious stories. We become numb to tragedies because we’re unable to process the emotions they engender at the speed with which they arise. As Crockett writes, “Just as a habitual snacker eats without feeling hungry, a habitual online shamer might express outrage without actually feeling outraged.” We may also discover that, just as venting anger begets anger, expressing outrage leads us to feel the emotion more deeply and consistently. Neither of these changes is good for humans.

I would hope we’re not all sharing these stories and experiences just so we can feel worse about the world. We’re sharing them because we hope that by doing so, we will somehow change the world. And that doesn’t start with someone else. It starts with me. With you. With the things we can actually change.

Here’s hoping.

Leave a comment