The Great American Outrage Industry

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As mentioned in a previous post, almost everybody has heard about the NFL protests spearheaded by Colin Kaepernick. And almost everybody has heard from people who consider Kaepernick an ungrateful un-American bratty commie librul traitor who is, somehow or other, being disrespectful to America’s military veterans. But relatively very few people hear that a great many veterans are in fact quite supportive of him and the other protesters. Why this discrepancy?

In a nutshell, it’s because social media (and to a very large and increasing degree, media, period) is not fueled by messages of support. It’s fueled by outrage, which has proven to be a highly profitable industry over the past few decades.  A certain flatulent radio personality whose name rhymes with “hush” was the pace-setter for this industry starting in the eighties; but even before him, it was pioneered by the likes of Wally George, Joe Pyne, Morton Downey, and going way back, Father Charles Coughlin.

Purveyors of outrage aren’t primarily concerned about how accurate their claims are. Nor are they concerned about how cherry-picked their facts are, nor how slanted their presentation is. Their big overriding interest is provoking a reaction. And they will even nudge that reaction along by raising their voices, pounding on their desks and, in general, behaving like charismatics at a tent revival. It’s not about information or ideas. It’s all about rage and hate.

This has always been the case. But in more recent times, the gods of demagoguery have plunked a huge gift into the laps of the propagandists and manipulators. Social media, and particularly Facebook, are in many ways the ideal vessels for the dissemination of toxic ideological bullshit. This is brought home quite forcefully by a couple of recent TED talks.

In one of them, geek philosopher Tristan Harris discusses how tech companies are competing for dollars by competing for your attention. And the most effective way to get and keep your attention is to promote outrage.

 

The other TED talk comes from sociologist Zeynep Tufekci, who warns that we are building a dystopia just so consumers (that’s us) can click on ads. That, for social media itself, is the real payoff — the promotion of advertising. When teamed with the demagogues’ campaign to foster outrage, it’s a powerful combination that manipulates public opinion and action to a greater extent, and in more subtle ways, than most of us would ever imagine.

 

What complicates the situation even more is that at present there is, as at no other time in memory and probably in U.S. history, legitimate reason, especially for Americans, to be outraged.  The nature and the actions of the current regime in Washington, as well as the social forces that allowed it to seize power in the first place, are more than enough to make us fume.  But here’s the problem. There is, among much of the American public, a tendency to dismiss such outrage, thanks to the Boy Who Cried Wolf Syndrome.

If you mention how disturbed you are by the current White House Occupant, his supporters are likely to respond, “Well, hey, we put up with Obama for 8 years, so you will survive T—p. Get over it.”

Of course, that’s the hugest false equivalence in the galaxy.  A typical sin for which Obama was savagely attacked was using the wrong kind of mustard on his hamburger. No, really. In contrast, the current W.H.O. is calling Nazis “very fine people” and bringing the U.S. to the brink of nuclear war with a puerile pissing contest. But you will get nowhere with his supporters trying to point out these differences. And you will certainly get nowhere expressing outrage.

You’re likely to find that your Facebook friends fall into one of two camps. On the one hand, there are the full-fledged members of the Cult Of Trumpery — who, when you vent about the current W.H.O. will promptly respond that they’re delighted and relieved to have a real  president for a change, after that socialist Muslim Kenyan atheist, and besides, emails Benghazi make America great again.

Then on the other hand, there are those who have their eyes wide open — perhaps too much for their own peace of mind. They’ve already been on the receiving end of a great deal of disturbing information, so much that they feel shell-shocked, and may even be tuning it out to the point of taking a hiatus from social media.

But that’s exactly what the current regime is counting on. They benefit greatly when the public is either uninformed or docile or preferably both.

It’s a difficult balancing act, to be sure. You want to help people stay informed, but you don’t want them to become so numb that they no longer hear what you’re saying. And you don’t want them to dismiss you as just another angry voice in a whole beehive of them.

So yes, go ahead and post troubling information on Facebook. But be very selective — realize that most unpleasant news will be something that your friends already have heard or easily can find out. No need rubbing it in. Stick to highlighting tidbits that few people would be aware of otherwise. Temper them with hope, humor and good will. And spread them out, separated by unrelated social media posts like… well, photos of your cat doing tricks or something.

Above all, avoid delivering huge chunks of unremitting outrage. Remember that when you do, the beast is feeding off your angst. And that beast is getting very fat indeed.

 

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