This post is longer than normal, but it’s really interesting, it has some startling stories and a cool take-home message. You need 10 minutes to read it, so wait until the boss goes for a coffee…
I wish to protest most strongly about everything.
When Dentists Attack
Walter Palmer’s guides led him across the savanna to a place where he could get a clean shot. It was early evening. Palmer was excited.
He drew back the bow string and loosed his arrow. It cut through the crisp air toward its target and struck with thudding force. The big lion recoiled. Hit, but not dead. It ran for its life.
With their paying guest in tow, the guides tracked the weary lion until morning. Then Palmer, the hunting enthusiast and dentist from Minnesota, had his moment of ‘glory’.
He let fly a second arrow. And with that, the lion was dead.
Palmer posed with his compound bow, kneeling behind the great lion, its head pulled up by the main so the camera could capture its face. In the photos, Palmer was smiling. He looked proud.
They skinned the lion and took its head for a trophy.
Outrage Against the Machine
We don’t know if Palmer was still celebrating when he heard of the outrage flaming across the world as it learned that a dentist-hunter had killed 13-year-old Cecil the Lion.
Cecil had become a tourist favourite at Zimbabwe’s Hwange National Park and was the subject of a University of Oxford study.
The outrage was palpable. Newspapers, talk back radio, TV morning shows and late night talk shows raged over the murder of the lion.
And of course, social media went nuts. The story went viral, then the story about how viral the story went, went viral.
Cecil’s demise affected people deeply. The senselessness of the killing. The anachronism of hunting. The US obsession with guns. Zimbabwe’s insistence on legalised hunting of exotic animals. Palmer’s photo collection of him proudly posing with exotic animals he had murdered for pleasure. There was much to be outraged about.
Cecil’s killing triggered people’s latent wildlife conservation instincts, and outrage turned into demands for action. Which turned into a bunch of countries, including Australia, banning the import of exotic animal trophies, and more than 40 airlines voluntarily banning the transportation of hunting trophies.
But outrage doesn’t always have such noble results.
In fact, increasingly, outrage is becoming a spectator sport.
And as we’ll see, at its very worst, it is a commodity.
Outrage: A Beginner’s Guide
The power of outrage hasn’t gone unnoticed by those who trade in the attention economy (marketers, media, politicians, etc).
The media, old and new, are getting good at manufacturing outrage. In 2017, for instance, the media put together Star Wars, John Boyega and a scantily dressed carnival dancer to create an outrage that saw Boyega’s name emblazoned across the media, seemingly for all the wrong reasons.
But as Forbes’ Scott Mendelson points out, all this outrage was generated from just one tweet objecting to Boyega’s behaviour (he was grinded by a female dancer in the carnival procession).
A single tweet was all it took for the media claim ‘internet outrage’ and to have Boyega’s character pulled apart and exhaustively examined ‘in the public interest’.
Of course, the only winner in the whole episode was the media, which captured the public’s attention and on-sold it to its advertisers for fun and profit.
How to Outrage Friends and Influence People
While the media is great at outrage, politicians are genius.
A relatively small group of vocal politicians and political actors skilfully used outrage to win the Brexit referendum. The Leave Campaign’s claim that it cost the UK £350m a week to stay in the EU caused an uproar, despite the claim being false.
This outrage helped swing the vote and force the torturous process of peeling the UK away from the EU.
The result: a shoot-yourself-in-foot outcome of historical proportions. Vladimir Putin couldn’t believe his luck.
Meanwhile, in the US
On the other side of the Atlantic, Donald Trump was giving a masterclass on creating outrage.
He shocked us with outrageous claims like Mexican rapists flooding across the US border. In one day, at almost zero cost, he captured more attention than if he’d spent millions on advertising and marketing.
Then he offered a simple solution – build a giant wall. His base loved the populist idea. His opponents were even more outraged, which created more free publicity and won over more swinging voters.
Over and over again he created outrage and converted it to publicity and populist votes.
Eventually, he traded this outrage for begrudging Republican Party support and produced an even more scandalous result than Brexit: he captured the US Presidency.
The impact of this century’s second stunning shoot-yourself-in-the-foot moment is having devastating results.
Just to name a few, Trump has pulled out of the deal reigning in Iran’s nuclear ambitions, has accelerated the decline of US power (and the rise of China) and is actively dismantling the rules-based order that’s kept the global peace and fuelled prosperity since the end of WWII.
Putin nearly wet his pants with joy at the results.
His delight only exceeded by that of China, which stepped into the ring to fight for superpower status, only to watch the US repeatedly punch itself in the face.
The Return of Public Shamings
But outrage is just the snotty-nosed niece to the granddaddy of public shaming.
On 20 December 2013, Justine Sacco tweeted an off-hand joke before boarding a flight to South Africa:
Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding. I’m white!
Drawing on the fact the overwhelming majority of HIV-AIDS sufferers in Africa are black, Justine was trying to be edgy, ironic and satirical.
Twitter didn’t see it that way.
By the time she got off the plane, Justine’s poorly thought-out joke was the world-wide, top-trending tweet. Justine’s jest, which had gone out to her 170 Twitter followers (none of whom even bothered to comment), had been picked up by an online gossip site and retweeted to its 15,000 followers.
Then all hell broke loose.
Justine was attacked by everyone from bored suburbanites to sadistic trolls, from bandwagoning celebrities to companies seeking to cash in. She was called a racist, a monster and a privileged white bitch who hated people with AIDS. And much, much worse.
Justine went from an unknown communications director who was typically Googled around 40 times a month to a world-renowned villain Googled over 1.2 million times in a two-week period in the midst of the Twitter frenzy.
Shaming for Fun
I learned of Justine’s story through Jon Ronson’s amazing-scary book on public shaming. Jon draws on Justine’s experience to explore the return of public shaming, which historically comes in and out of fashion (think medieval witch hunts, etc).
Social media has ushered in, and amplified, the return of public shamings.
Jon thinks Twitter, in particular, has evolved into a sort of ‘mutual approval machine’ where we surround ourselves with people who think the same and approve of each other’s thoughts.
Should anyone voice a different thought that we agree to be wrong, we break out the torches and pitchforks for a good old public shaming.
But there’s more to it than that. It’s also a form of entertainment. Free entertainment we can enjoy from the comfort of our living rooms.
But it’s not free at all. It takes a devastating toll on those we shame.
Losing Your Identity
Justine Sacco lost her job, and withdraw from her friends and family as she grappled with losing her identity.
Justine was no longer the successful middle manager who went out with friends on a Friday night and made them laugh with edgy jokes. She was the racist who hated black people and laughed at their tragedies.
The internet with its four billion users, said so.
And the internet never forgets.
Outrage & Shaming
Without the massive reach of social media, Justine Sacco’s off-colour joke might have provoked a tut-tut at the airport bar before she boarded her flight.
Justine’s shaming would have been slight and quiet and over in a second.
Without Twitter, perhaps Donald Trump would still be throwing rocks from Trump Tower rather than from inside the White House.
Either way, social media is not to blame here. It’s just a new form of media.
The problem lay with us.
When we ‘socialise’ over social media, we are separated from our peers. We aren’t in front of them, seeing their face, hearing their voice, within touching (or slapping) distance.
We are in front of a screen. There’s no human connection and no consequences.
At its extreme, it’s this separation that allows trolls to exist. Without it, can you imagine someone trolling a person face-to-face?
More popularly, the screen separation invites us to stacks-on a public shaming for fun and entertainment. Without Twitter on your phone, would you be bothered travelling all the way into town to shout your clever tweet at a stranger as part of a public shaming?
Or would your outrage be as great if you didn’t know the issue was going viral on Twitter?
Consider this, over three million children die of malnutrition every year. Where is the outrage about at this?
But outrage and shaming have their place. Without it, Walter Palmer would have happily continued to kill exotic animals for fun.
And there is a long list of fallen elites that abused their power and have been shamed out of office.
The challenge for us is to stop and think before we jump on the outrage and public shaming bandwagon.
To ask whether we are entertaining ourselves or genuinely throwing our social weight behind a worthy cause.
We should add a human dimension to our 2-D screen and peer through it to the person on the receiving end of all that outrage and shame.
If we are going to act as e-judge and sentencer, then we should take that responsibility seriously and look at all the facts, objectively, before we decide whether we should throw the first stone.
Try a lighter post like this one on Generation X Parenting.
Or, if you’re still up for cerebral workout, check out this post on surviving the robot revolution.
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