Thursday, April 2, 2015

Social Media and the Culture of Outrage

So here we go again. Someone from nowhere says something to no one in particular (or in this case to no one particularly important and influential) and the internet almost breaks itself trying to ensure she is pummeled beyond recognition.

People with sometimes no (or very little) prior notoriety do stupid things that would have gone almost entirely unnoticed ten years ago and before they can even explain or defend themselves, the internet is hoping they die horrible deaths and/or threatening to burn their businesses (or houses) to the ground. It's become such a phenomenon that Jon Ronson just wrote a book about it, So You've Been Publicly Shamed. In it he talks to victims of these shaming incidents to find out what happened to them after. Full disclosure: I haven't read it yet so some of what I write here might overlap.

My understanding is that he wrote about the victims. I want to discuss the rest of us – the perpetrators and the bystanders that allow it to happen. Obviously, not everyone on earth is culpable in these incidents, but the voices calling for reason and perspective are usually few and far between, not to mention easily drowned out by the hysteria.

Sometimes these reactions start out jokingly. It's all fun and games until someone steps off a plane after a ten-hour flight to Africa (Justine Sacco) to find out she's been fired and thousands of people are publicly wishing for her death (or worse, threatening to hasten it for her).

In the case of Memories Pizza, some of the reaction was clever (buying the domain legally and putting up a joke website to mock them), but much of it was ugly. One tweet was basically a recruitment effort to organize a mob of hysterical villagers carrying torches (KILL THE BEAST!).

The backlash to the backlash is already full steam ahead. This particular incident is almost beside the point. Chances are anyone not working in digital and social media marketing had to google Justine Sacco to even remember who she was. Each individual event is basically a flash flood – the damage is done incredibly quickly and, just as quickly, the culprit disappears.

Of course, the thread running through all of these events is our culture of outrage. It doesn't matter how small or insignificant the slight, how mild the offense or localized the initial damage, within hours a global movement swells to punish the evildoer. The punishment never fits the crime.

In this most recent situation, not only did the outrage far surpass the offense, it ended up being exactly what proponents of Religious Freedom Restoration Acts have been alleging – religious persecution. There was no discrimination on the part of the pizzeria. It was purely speech. In fact, most of the outraged prefaced their righteous indignation with the admission that the theoretical discrimination wouldn't ever be an issue. What self-respecting gay person would serve pizza at his wedding (“his” because in most of these situations we either forget lesbians exist or we throw them in as a sub-punchline to the “joke”).

How else can you characterize threatening to kill someone or burn down their business simply because of a statement of a bigoted viewpoint. It was religious persecution, plain and simple. The internet has become a mega-hate group. And it hates everything and everyone. Even if your transgression is simply a call for perspective or rational behavior, the reaction is to treat you like a Nazi sympathizer.

Here's the deal. We are not entitled to be outraged by everything. We are not deputized to dole out “justice” for every perceived offense. Several times today I saw on social media this defense of the reaction: “They brought it on themselves. They are getting what they deserve.”

The only thing I can say in response is that all of us are damn lucky that we almost never get what we deserve for the stupid things we say.

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