There is pattern that I find amusing on social media. Someone (supposedly belonging to group A/gA) says or writes something “hurtful” or bizzare in order to troll. The other side (group B/gB) responds by getting outraged. One side throws the bait, the other promptly takes it. But it doesn’t stop there. There is another group (let’s be super creative and call it group C/gC) that presents itself by getting outraged by groupB. gC says that it understands what the gA was trying to do and that gB is really lame to get outraged by it. “How can they fall for that?” or “How ridiculous that gB creates a mountain out of a molehill!” retorts the puzzled gC.

But wait a minute. Is there an irony in what gC just puzzled over? They naively assumed that the outrage shown by gB was real outrage. It never occurred to them that it could be a bait too! A bait for gC that they promptly took by getting outraged in return to gB’s outrage. (One noticeable difference is that gB almost never explicitly considers itself to be throwing baits while gA frequently does. Most of gB’s baits seem unintentional when compared to gA’s. But existence of intentionality doesn’t matter in the large scheme of things, as we shall see.)

It’s interesting to tease out what incentivizes this cycle of recursive outrage. Studies have already highlighted how social media is a breeding ground for certain emotions over others. Content that triggers extreme emotions (on let’s say an emotional spectrum) is a powerful contender for becoming viral because it is cheap. Cheap in the sense that it is simpler to create (140 characters or GIFs) and spreads like wildfire because it’s relatively easier to understand. Human thinking comes at a cost. The content requiring minimum thinking yet engendering extreme emotions will handsomely win the battle of meme dissemination.

So yes, gB could pause and reflect on what gA is really trying to do and not feed the trolling. But that is not useful in spreading your online memes. One powerful way to ensure that your presence is felt on the social media ecosystem is to be outraged. Even if outrage wasn’t really felt, the benefits of pretending to feel it easily outweigh the costs. Not only do you get likes or upvotes via virtual signalling, the consequent outrage (by gC) caused by you - a self righteous gBian- will further thicken the border separating you from gA.

Overgeneralized examples

  • “Alt-right” group has created numerous memes to troll “the Radical Left”. The “Radical Left” usually takes the bait and becomes outraged. This outrage takes an extreme form which in turn converts this outrage into an outrageous outrage. Therefore, we get outraged “libertarians” or “skeptics” or “centralists” or “neo liberal” or “conservatives” or “anyone-but-altright-and-radicalleft-ist”. I put quotes around these labels because in reality, there isn’t a clearly defined boundary surrounding the meaning of these labels. But again, defining a boundary when none exist is exactly what is required for intensifying outrage and feeding the online ecosystems.
  • Funnily, on many occassions, “Islamic terrorists” or “radical Islamists” troll “Alt-right”, “Conservatives” and even some “Liberals”. This results in outrage from these trolled victims. This outrage then naturally takes an extreme form (because that has the most potential to become viral), sometimes taking the form of so called “Islamophobia”. Predictably, even more outrage follows from the “Radical Left” who called it “Islamophobia” in the first place in order make a behavior sound more outrageous. This then further outrages the “Alt-Right” and some “Liberals” who thinks Left is being too politically correct and being under-outraged. The self sustaining outrage feedback loop continues…

Not all expression of disagreements are some form of outrage, of course. And not all outrage is some form of bait. But that’s not the point. The disagreements that are sophisticated and nuanced are usually drowned by a flood of shouting matches and name callings i.e. outrage. And this hampers our ability to have healthy conversations involving constructive criticisms. But unfortunately that is how the online ecosystem is designed to function in order to flourish and nurture itself. It doesn’t give a f*!k about healthy conversations.

Next, we will explore a possible resemblence between the success of outrage phenotype on the internet with evolutionary success of human argumentation.

P.S. : Not ouraged enough with this post? Consider speculating that in the examples above, I am trying to equate “Islamic terrorists” and “Alt-right” on a moral scale. That should do it.