Outrage media contributing to polarized political environment
New York Times podcast The Daily recently interviewed the owners of a business that produces highly partisan right-wing content in order to sell advertising. This business model — which many other internet and media companies employ — depends on attracting a high number of internet clicks and shares on social media. The company’s owners told reporter Kevin Roose they had learned that headlines and articles that provoked anger were the most likely to get clicks and be shared.
More broadly, Roose noted that “the stuff that’s doing really, really well on social media is this kind of hyper-partisan outrage bait that’s designed to stir people into a frenzy.”
Multiple studies of internet-based media, cable news and political radio shows have found that media content that makes viewers and listeners feel outrage is more likely to attract followers. Researchers looking at marketing, internet use and news outlets have noted that provoking emotions — both positive and negative — is more likely to grab the attention of viewers and listeners, and anger is one of the most successful emotions in this sense.
In their book “The Outrage Industry: Political Opinion Media and the New Incivility,” professors Sarah Sobieraj and Jeffrey M. Berry warned that extreme, partisan rhetoric had become pervasive in American political opinion television and radio. In a 2014 interview, Sobieraj explained: “Outrage is a concept we developed to describe political speech and behavior involving efforts to provoke emotional responses — especially anger, fear and moral indignation — from the audience… It is a form of political communication that glosses over the messy nuances of complex political issues and instead focuses on melodrama, mockery and forecasts of impending doom.”
Beyond the US, similar trends are occurring in Europe, Brazil and elsewhere, often going hand-in-hand with the growth of populist parties and the decline of centrist parties. Anger-inducing media also played a role in the Brexit referendum. In addition to media outlets, many politicians tap into emotions — especially fear and anger — to gain votes and support.
Why are people so drawn to anger? It is often seen as a negative emotion, so why do so many people enjoy reading, listening to and sharing media items that make them feel angry?
As an emotion, anger has both pros and cons. Evolutionary and other psychologists point to some benefits of anger. For example, anger can communicate when someone feels that their own or their community’s welfare is at risk, and it can drive people to take action to defend their interests. At its best, anger can motivate people to protect the vulnerable and oppose injustice. However, anger also can lead people to act rashly, violently or unjustly. When felt frequently over time, it can have negative physical effects.
Why are people so drawn to anger? It is often seen as a negative emotion, so why do so many people enjoy reading, listening to and sharing media items that make them feel angry?Kerry Boyd Anderson
I am not a psychologist, but research and observations suggest several reasons why some people who enjoy regularly feeling a sense of anger and outrage and will click on, share or watch outrage-provoking shows, articles, memes, videos and other content.
Outrage can feel empowering. For people who feel a lack of power or agency, viewing anger-inducing media can give them a sense of wanting to change things. Sharing that media with like-minded people can create a sense of group empowerment.
Outrage can feel righteous, making a person feel morally virtuous. Feeling righteous usually involves a sense that oneself or one’s group is right and other people are wrong. Many people deeply enjoy a sense of self-righteousness, which suggests that they and their identity group are morally superior.
That sense of moral superiority also feeds into group identity, which is perhaps the strongest pull of media that seeks to provoke anger. Many people enjoy feeling like they are part of a morally superior group — based on ideology, partisanship, race, ethnicity, religion, nationality or whatever. They enjoy media that suggests that their group is right and the other group is wrong — and even that “the other” is not just wrong but also immoral, threatening and possibly evil. Additionally, a sense that one’s own group is threatened can create a stronger sense of bonding. Social media especially plays into this, as people can share outrage-inducing content with other people who share their group identity and “like” or otherwise approve of the content, which in turn creates a sense of belonging and affirms the group identity.
While anger clearly draws people to some forms of media, part of the draw is a natural human interest in conflict and drama. Many politically oriented internet, television and radio outlets play up a sense of drama to gain followers and thus advertising revenue.
Fundamentally, as moral psychologist Jonathan Haidt and other researchers have demonstrated, humans are driven more by emotion and identity than by a rational consideration of policies and ideas. Forms of media that focus on outrage and drama leverage this reality to gain viewers.
Unfortunately, there are real negative consequences. An expansion of outrage-based media is contributing to an environment conducive to the rise of populist politics fueled by emotion and group identity. It makes it more difficult for politicians to make the compromises necessary for peace and stable governance. It fuels division between individuals and communities. It fosters extremism and increases the risk of violence. Humans are emotion-based beings, but we should engage the rational part of our brains and approach social media and other forms of political opinion media with a lot more critical thinking.
- Kerry Boyd Anderson is a writer and political risk consultant with more than 14 years’ experience as a professional analyst of international security issues and Middle East political and business risk. Twitter: @KBAresearch
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