How the media feeds the outrage machine

simpsons-mob_featuredI’ve written recently about how comedy has come under fire from ‘outrage mobs’. I wanted to talk today about the role of the mainstream media in this.

One of the reasons why this culture of grievance has been allowed to ferment is because of the way digital news media is incentivized to produce content. It has always been the way that scandal has been primed to sell newspapers, but you can turn that effect up to 11 in the era of clickbait. Previously the media would get a flat fee from advertisers and/or make money by selling the most copies. While juicy stories and well crafted headlines would therefore be a big selling factor, there would also need to be a strong degree of quality and familiarity with the content. If you opened up a paper a few times and the content was poor or didn’t match the expectation the front page gave, you would soon stop buying that paper.

These days the business model of online news media is not entirely incentivized to give any such quality assurances over the content, in fact the model is so skewed towards crafting good headlines that a lot of websites exist purely to trick you into thinking the story is one way, when it is another. The news media business model largely relies on getting paid a small fee for every time somebody views a page with advertising on it. Usually something along the lines of getting $4 for every 1,000 page views. This changes the business model from one of producing quality content, to one of producing a lot of content and making the marketing of it the key focus. The more content a writer can produce, the more articles there are in circulation to get page views. There are no guarantees from this advertising model, no flat fees, which means that way more effort is put into marketing than previously in newspapers. One of the best organic ways of doing this is by crafting good, enticing and sometimes misleading headlines, known as ‘clickbait’.

This model means that the business owner largely doesn’t care whether the user enjoys or even reads the content, once they have clicked the transaction is complete, and the ideal scenario is they click on the next juicy headline rather than read the current article. This is why you often get completely outrageous and untrue headlines, which when clicked on, turn out to be a relatively benign stories.

There is also no incentive for reporters to wait and get all the facts. It’s very common to post very short articles to communicate that a story is breaking, and will be updated soon. You often also get articles that simply highlight when someone famous has posted a slightly controversial tweet, or YouTube video, or has responded to a previous story. With the clickbait model it makes much more sense to piecemeal a story as and when you are receiving the details, than to wait until you have a complete picture and post all of it at once. This is because five stories will pay five times more than one and there is also a huge value to being one of the first to get a story out there, because readers crave novelty. This also incentivizes sloppy workmanship rather than fact checking, because there is actually value in posting updates and retractions, as that is another excuse for a new article to generate clicks.

When you understand how online news media works, you see how outrage culture and Twitter mobs completely complement it. Professor Jonah Berger has been studying what makes things go viral for years and in his book Contagious he outlines how outrage is one of the emotions that compels us to click and share content the most. We are completely addicted to outrage and the sense of self righteousness it can give us. So when a comedian makes a joke at an awards ceremony that would normally have been forgotten about after water cooler conversations the next day, this cycle of outrage, social media and digital news media can keep feeding each other for several days.

It’s all about keeping the balls in the air for as long as possible. A comedian makes a joke on TV, and will receive a handful of angry messages and maybe a blog from an aggrieved viewer. A blogger at a major news site will pick up on this and write a story which completely exaggerates the reaction to the joke, which will actually create a much bigger reaction to the joke because it is now exposed to a new audience. A bigger Twitter shit storm will ensue, giving a reason for another article and maybe a thinkpiece about why the joke was unacceptable. The comedian will then either apologize or double down on the joke on Twitter, which is cause for another article. At which point Twitter will not accept either response and call for that comedian to be fired from whatever syndicated show they are involved with, which is cause for another article. Whether they get fired or not will lead to another article about the Network’s response. More thinkpieces, maybe a few top ten lists about other previously offensive jokes the comedian told and perhaps one about how outrage culture is going too far for good measure. If they are lucky, the news media have managed to get five or six articles and a ton of clicks all for something which was a non-story to begin with. A career might have been ruined, scores of comedians become gun-shy about writing good jokes in the future and the rest of the world has already forgotten about it because somebody else is in the headlights about to be mowed down.

This is a cycle that is not likely to stop anytime soon. It also shows how Donald Trump has been able to come as close as he currently is to the White House, because the crazy things he has said are a blogger’s dream and given him a ton of free publicity. Everything he says is clickbait and worthy of five extra articles about how outrageous he is. If we one day see President Trump, the very media who have admonished him will have been culpable in his ascension.

On the positives there has been a noticeable trend rallying against this in the last 18 months or so. I personally have noticed that things are much less severe since Jon Ronson released arguably the most important social media book ever written, So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, which shined an uncomfortable light on Twitter mobs. Since then I have noticed a backlash against this outrage culture, especially due to sites like this one and shows like the Rubin Report. The world is slowly getting wise to how much freedom of expression and thought is under threat, and thankfully now outrage is ironically being directed at this outrage culture.

This post first appeared on UnsafeSpeech.com.

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