BAD Conversation

BAD Conversation

The ugly, petty, pathetic, upsetting and downright SAD state of online discourse.

I often wonder who Trump’s tweets are for. It isn’t that I can’t imagine anyone whose beliefs reflect those that he espouses in his tweets. What I have trouble with is imagining how anyone could actually think that they’re good tweets to begin with. It seems to me that even the most staunch Republican should, in principle, be able to separate themselves from their political affiliations, look at his tweets objectively and correctly assert that he’s simply a bad tweeter. Consider the following.


Of course, one might point out that the quality of a tweet shouldn’t be defined by anything other than the number of likes or retweets that it receives, but I still find it quite difficult to understand how thousands of people are able to look at a tweet like this, disregard the horrendous use of scare quotes, and throw it a like. There’s no subtlety, no elegance to what he’s saying. I’m particularly interested in this “BAD!” which is often uses interchangeably with “SAD!” to punctuate his most inflammatory tweets. Who is that “BAD!” directed at? Is it directed at Cruz? Does Trump look at the tweet, moments before pressing send, unsure if he’s truly getting his message across, and decide to tack on the “BAD!” just so he knows with certainty that his followers will take it as intended and not misread the tweet as an endorsement? Who’s to say. All we do know is that these tweets are wildly effective, often getting tens of thousands of likes and retweets each.

That being said, Trump isn’t the only one who seems to be guilty of expressing himself in seemingly unproductive ways online. Political commentators and regular social media users alike seem to have given up on the prospect of proper communication in favor of highly moralistic language that often devolves into shaming. This general trend has led many to question how the Internet has changed the way we communicate. Indeed it seems that the like and retweet-based incentive structures of social media platforms such as Twitter promote modes of communication that aren’t necessarily conducive to the creation of productive dialogue. Instead, they exacerbate the expression of outrage and, in doing so, limit the transmission of moral ideas.

It seems rather clear that social media has led to an increase in the expression of moral outrage. However, it is entirely valid to point out that there might simply be more information out there that is liable to produce this type of response. One of the incidental products of a highly connected network of information is that the propagation of information from distant parts of the social sphere is far easier than it once was. As the speed with which information is diffused increased, spacial limitations lose relevance, and people are put into contact with far more upsetting content than would otherwise reach them.

What this argument doesn’t seem to be able to explain is the fact that people are more prone to express outrage when introduced to a moral violation online than if they were to encounter this violation on any other medium. A reanalysis of data gathered from a sample of North American smartphone users demonstrated that these users were more prone to report anger and disgust when produced by an online stimulus than if produced by a stimulus in the real world.1 The significance of this finding is particularly interesting given that the Internet is the medium through which people most often encounter moral violations.2

Graph from M. J. Crockett

In order to understand the specific facets of the online world that led to this increase, we must first understand the function that moral outrage serves. Essentially, outrage is an emotion that has played a prominent role in the maintenance of social cohesion since the beginning of civilization. Our moral sense is largely shaped by those of the individuals within our social network through a process often referred to as moral or social contagion. Throughout history, this process took place primarily through the spreading of gossip. If someone were to commit a transgressive act, people would pass on information about the act throughout the social sphere before engaging in shaming or other forms of punishment as a way of discouraging such transgressions. In the process, shaming reinforces these very moral standards as it defines the conditions within the social sphere that necessitate punishment.3

Just like others forms of punishment in societies like our own, shaming is often carried out independently of those affected by the transgression (if there are people affected at all) as a way of furthering a societal good. For this reason, it is often referred to as a type of “altruistic punishment.” One of the upsides of altruistic punishment is that it’s a way of maintaining norms within a society without necessitating any power other than that provided by the numbers of the group. Movements such as the recent #MeToo campaign are prime examples of altruistic punishment being used to its fullest potential. The movement was able to exercise an immense amount of power in spite of the fact that the victims are a historically marginalized group and the offenders are people in positions of immense power.

Another upside of altruistic punishment is that it’s a reliable way of signaling an individual’s moral quality.4 In this way, the accusations of “virtue signaling” that members of less politically correct groups have used to dismiss the views of those whom they disagree with do seem to hold some truth. Most behavior regarding moral issues is some form of signaling including, ironically enough, the very use of the term. It almost goes without saying that affirming that one’s opinions aren’t a way of asserting moral quality is an assertion of moral quality in itself, just one directed towards a different subset of the population.

However, altruistic punishment does come with a good deal of risk, as it puts one in danger of personal retaliation either from the individual being shamed or from a social system with different norms. Prior to the New Yorker and the New York Times’ exposés on Harvey Weinstein, one of the reasons why those who had suffered harassment didn’t speak out about it was a fear of retaliation. The offenders had the power to negatively impact the careers of the actresses they preyed on, in many cases actually doing so. 

The MeToo and TimesUp movements reveal to us the potential that an emotion such as moral outrage can have when diffused online. But there are a variety of ways in which the Internet may complicate, and even get in the way of productive dialogue or social change. It seems rather counter-intuitive, but these complications stem largely from the increased ease and decreased risk of backlash that the online world provides. The personal cost of shaming someone is almost completely eliminated, as the anonymity or semi-anonymity of the Internet significantly decreases the chances of immediate or delayed retaliation. It’s also generally emotionally taxing to shame someone to their faces, as there are a whole host of negative emotions that you have to put yourself through in order to confront someone. These emotions are almost completely dispensed with if the confrontation takes place in a virtual space.5 Online communities also tend to segment according to shared opinions as people tend to group themselves with social communities formed of like-minded people. This segmentation not only decreases the risk that a given community doesn’t share in the belief that a given transgression was, in fact, a transgression, it also allows those engaging in shaming to hide within a crowd. If everyone around you is shaming the same person, there is a diffusion of responsibility between the members of the group.6 

These personal benefits to online shaming compromise the social good that it offers. This is the case because we often measure the importance of peoples’ outrage according to the severity of the risk taken to express it. When people subject themselves to immense scrutiny or harm in order to point out a transgression, this is a signal that what they are voicing their opinions about is important. Given that everyone understands online shaming to consist only of pressing the like or retweet button, it is much harder to tell how significant these violation actually are. There’s also a certain amount of fatigue that occurs when every moral violation seems to be met with the same amount of outrage. People often point out that Trump would likely look worse than he does if he only committed a fraction of the moral transgressions he commits. It’s almost like a process of inflation; every time the Twittersphere explodes about the last outrageous thing Trump said, the weight that this response holds loses power.

Even though it would be helpful if this wasn’t the case, you almost can’t blame people for acting this way. Online communication seems more performative than ever, and with good reason. The fact that the previously separate acts of transmitting knowledge and enacting punishment have now been consolidated into the singular act of retweeting a piece of content means that people are probably advertising far more outrage than they’re actually experiencing. The blending between the roles of consumer and producer of information seems to numb us to the severity of the moral violations taking place. 

We also have to remember that Twitter, as a website competing for our attention, isn’t optimized for thoughtful, well-reasoned content. The architecture of the attention economy is such that likes and retweets dictate what users get to see. This creates a natural-selection-like process by which ideas are propagated by virality alone. And the type of content that is likely to go viral is also the exact type of content that is the least likely to foster productive dialogue. Research conducted by psychologists at NYU found that the use of what they termed moral-emotional words (that is, words that contain both emotional and moral connotations) make tweets 20% more likely, per word, to go viral 7. They also found that moral-emotional words have an in-group advantage which means that when they do go viral, this happens only within the groups that agree with the sentiment expressed, not within the groups that don’t 8.

Graph from Brady et al.

All of a sudden Trump’s “BAD!” tweets don’t seem so ridiculous. I’m not suggesting that Trump somehow realized the potential of online shaming and then began a meticulously calculated plot to play off of peoples’ vulnerability to moral-emotional words. But I am suggesting that it makes complete sense that tweets like these contributed greatly to both his success on Twitter and his growth as a political candidate. When Trump tweets something like this, he is creating a piece of content that simultaneously preys off of Twitter users’ propensity for online shaming, while increasing the divide between his followers and his opposition.

All this to say that there seems to be a problem with the way we go about trying to engage in dialogue about social and political issues. Perhaps the solution to this problem lies in recognizing that our current attempts to do so seem to actually be exacerbating it. Further, social media platforms need to recognize that their business models seem to be getting in the way of the very communication that believe they privilege. Moral outrage isn’t something that needs to be eliminated entirely, we simply have to recognize that the way it’s used needs to evolve along with the ways we communicate.

  1. M. J. Crockett, “Moral outrage in the digital age,” Nature Human Behavior 1, (2017): 769-771.
  2. Ibid
  3. William J. Brady, Julian A. Wills, John T. Jost, Joshua A. Tucker, and Jay J. Van Bavel, “Emotion shapes the diffusion of moralized content in social networks,” Psychological and cognitive sciences, (2017): 1-6.
  4. M. J. Crockett, “Moral outrage in the digital age,” Nature Human Behavior 1, (2017): 769-771.
  5. Ibid.
  6. Ibid.
  7. William J. Brady, Julian A. Wills, John T. Jost, Joshua A. Tucker, and Jay J. Van Bavel, “Emotion shapes the diffusion of moralized content in social networks,” Psychological and cognitive sciences, (2017): 1-6.
  8. Ibid.
Back to Top