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Moral Outrage Can Backfire When It Goes Viral

As negative comments accumulate, they start to come across as bullying—even if they're justified.

Moral outrage feels good. If you see a social media post that you view as racist, sexist, or otherwise offensive, a stinging reply can be an irresistible temptation.

But if too many people take the bait, all that criticism can come across as piling on, which creates sympathy for the original transgressor.

It is "the paradox of viral outrage," in the words of Stanford University scholars Takuya Sawaoka and Benoit Monin: "The same individual outrage that seems laudable and necessary in isolation may be viewed as excessive and bullying when echoed by multitudinous other users."

In the journal Psychological Science, the researchers illustrate this by describing six studies with a total of more than 3,300 participants. The first featured 397 adults recruited online, all of whom viewed "an actual media post in which a white woman pictured herself with black tape on her face and joked about fitting into her historically black college."

Participants began by noting how offensive they found the post on a one-to-seven scale. They then read either two or 10 "fictitious, condemnatory responses to the post" inspired by the real-life reactions it generated.

They were told the responses were posted in chronological order, and asked to evaluate either the first or the final commenter. They specifically indicated the extent to which they considered the person "in the wrong," "a bully," "praiseworthy," and "a good person."

The researchers found participants held significantly more negative views of the commentator if he or she was one of 10 people making negative remarks, as opposed to one of two. Oddly, this held true even if they were evaluating the first commenter, who couldn't have known whether others would echo his or her complaints.

In another online study, 602 adults viewed a social media post in which a woman "pretended to shout and make an obscene gesture next to a sign that read 'Silence and Respect' at Arlington National Cemetery." Some saw a version of the post with two negative comments; others, a version with 10 negative comments; and still others, a version with one angry comment that was "upvoted" by either one or nine additional users.

Once again, participants expressed more negative feelings toward a given commenter when his or her remarks were widely echoed by others. What's more, the researchers report, participants judged the original poster less harshly when he or she was criticized by 10 people, as opposed to two.

Follow-up studies replicated these results, and found people who reply to such posts have no clue regarding how they are coming across. "As more people expressed outrage (in a final study)," the researchers report, "first-person commenters continued to view themselves in a positive light, even as third-person observers' perceptions of them soured."

"Viral outrage elicits more sympathy toward the offender," the researchers conclude, "tainting perceptions of individuals who contribute to this aggregated punishment. Even sitting at home at your computer, it's surprisingly easy to look like you're part of a mob.

"Our findings illustrate a challenging moral dilemma," Sawaoka said in announcing these results. "Obviously, the implication is not that people should stay silent about others' wrongdoing. But I think it is worth considering whether the mass shaming of specific individuals is really the best way to achieve social progress."