The outrage economy of social media

Anyone who is active on the Internet today as an individual, company or institution has to be careful: Behind every post or comment lurks the danger of becoming the focus of an avalanche of outrage. No matter how harmless the post may be, there is no longer any guarantee that it will not trigger a social media crisis. Because in addition to cat videos, outrage on the social web in particular generates enormous click and interaction rates. It seems as if a real outrage economy has developed today, in which the reach and attention of content is measured by its outrage potential and outrage on the web has become collaborative user entertainment. In this article, we take a close look at the outrage economy of social media.

Avalanches of outrage on the web

The mood on the web is getting stormier – according to the individually perceived and also proven reality: While just under 40 percent of online users believe that there are more hate comments than factual comments on the web1, the real number of hate posts on Facebook has also doubled to 9.7 million in just half a year2. The bad mood is not only directed at private users – celebrities and companies in particular are regularly the target of attacks by angry Internet mobs. It is currently becoming increasingly common for these very players to unleash an avalanche of outrage due to behavior or statements, to be confronted with calls for boycotts, and to suffer enormous reputational losses.

Outrage pays off

One reason why outrage is so popular on the web is that profits on social media are generated by advertising – as a result, platforms like Facebook and Twitter place particular emphasis on a large number of users, long usage times and a high activity rate. The last two factors in particular are increased by outrageous content. If content triggers anger and outrage among users, the probability that users will comment on or share the content is high.

In this equation, outrage leads to more attention, which in turn leads to more outrage among other users. Outrage therefore usually means virality, attention, longer user times, etc., and thus also higher profits for platform operators. This leads to negative content with a high potential for outrage being technically supported by the platforms’ algorithms. Researchers at New York University even found that content with moral-emotional wording receives a technical boost of around 20 percent in social media3.

Outrage as a collaborative user experience

Outrage works particularly well in social media, generating high click numbers and enormous reach. But why is it that we don’t just shrug our shoulders at small unfortunate comments from politicians or business leaders? The reason is an outrage dynamic that has become a fixed operating mechanism of social media. This is made up of various factors.

Someone posted it on social media, so it must be true

First of all, we attribute a high degree of relevance to topics, opinions and facts simply because of their prevalence on the Internet – according to the motto: Someone posted it, so it must be important (and true). As a result, we are inclined to deal with cases that we would probably leave uncommented in analog everyday life. Moreover, computer-mediated communication has its peculiarities and quickly leads to disinhibition of communication. This is where the so-called online disinhibition effect4 comes into play. The anonymity of the Internet offers protection from social ostracism in the case of inappropriate comments, the absence of direct face-to-face interaction conveys a lack of consequence, and anyone who doesn’t feel like dealing with the responses to their own mean post can simply put away the smartphone and get back to the finer things in life.

It’s all just a game…

In addition, the social web is often unconsciously seen as a kind of game. Against this backdrop, an avalanche of outrage becomes an interactive user experience that conveys a sense of community and is also quite simply entertaining and fun. It’s not for nothing that flame wars and the like are particularly popular on weekends, holidays and vacations. Users have a lot of time to spare and are looking for entertainment. Unlike in traditional media, scandals in social media are not merely received. Users themselves take an active part in events and turn the avalanche of outrage into a collaborative practice. The barriers to participation are low – with the smartphone in hand as a digital pitchfork substitute, users join the angry online mob with a comment and drive the avalanche forward. This is exciting, thrilling, often fun, and conveys a sense of belonging to a social group.

Success through calculated outrage?

Although outrage is a negative emotion, it does not always have to have negative consequences for the person triggering the outrage. There are various politicians and companies that deliberately provoke outrage and instrumentalize it for their own cause. Examples here include Donald Trump, who repeatedly causes outcry in society with his tweets, or the smoothie manufacturer True Fruits, which deliberately prints provocative messages on its bottles in order to generate as much attention as possible. This practice can work in individual cases – but if it is not completely well thought out and especially against the backdrop of the so-called Cancel Culture, calculated outrage can quickly backfire. Anyone who is not prepared from the outset to endure a possible flame war or online boycott calls and their consequences should definitely refrain from this approach.

Nevertheless, everyone should calculate the potential for outrage – especially in the case of large-scale marketing activities or campaigns. This is the only way to prevent self-induced avalanches of outrage. What happens if such a risk assessment is not carried out is shown by countless examples, such as VW at the beginning of this year: With a racist advertising clip, the car manufacturer triggered a flame war on the Internet that could have been prevented with a preventive risk analysis. We therefore recommend investing in the prevention of such outrage storms, because intervention usually costs you even more.

Pepare for outrage-driven social media crises before they hit you with an immersive simulation training!

Better safe than sorry!

1 Landesanstalt für Medien NRW 2020.

2 Facebook 2020.

3 New York University 2017.

4 Suler 2004.