If you constantly express anger in your private conversations, your friends will likely find you tiresome, but when there’s an audience, the payoffs are different—outrage can boost your status. A 2017 study by William J. Brady and other researchers at NYU measured the reach of half a million tweets and found that each moral or emotional word used in a tweet increased its virality by 20 percent, on average. Another 2017 study, by the Pew Research Center, showed that posts exhibiting “indignant disagreement” received nearly twice as much engagement—including likes and shares—as other types of content on Facebook.
The philosophers Justin Tosi and Brandon Warmke have proposed the useful phrase moral grandstanding to describe what happens when people use moral talk to enhance their prestige in a public forum. Like a succession of orators speaking to a skeptical audience, each person strives to outdo previous speakers, leading to some common patterns. Grandstanders tend to “trump up moral charges, pile on in cases of public shaming, announce that anyone who disagrees with them is obviously wrong, or exaggerate emotional displays.” Nuance and truth are casualties in this competition to gain the approval of the audience. Grandstanders scrutinize every word spoken by their opponents—and sometimes even their friends—for the potential to evoke public outrage. Context collapses. The speaker’s intent is ignored.
Human beings evolved to gossip, preen, manipulate, and ostracize. We are easily lured into this new gladiatorial circus, even when we know that it can make us cruel and shallow. As the Yale psychologist Molly Crockett has argued, the normal forces that might stop us from joining an outrage mob—such as time to reflect and cool off, or feelings of empathy for a person being humiliated—are attenuated when we can’t see the person’s face, and when we are asked, many times a day, to take a side by publicly “liking” the condemnation.