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The Culture of Ever-Escalating Outrage

by on August 14, 2014 6:00 AM

We live in interesting times, an era that is perhaps most notable for the unprecedented speed and fragmented way with which we disseminate and consume news and information.

It creates daily "scandals" that provoke reaction from people in all walks of life.

Just consider the Ray Rice incident, Eric Snowden, Donald Sterling, Trayvon Martin, Israel/Gaza, the downing of the Malaysian Airliner and now the police shooting of an African-American teenager near Saint Louis.

The age of social media has created what I call a "Culture of Ever-Escalating Outrage".

It is no longer enough to simply hear about a story. Now thanks to social media people in the public eye as well as everyday people can weigh in on any and every issue with our friends and family. Celebrities, media members and politicians weigh in to a much wider audience.

When Ray Rice was suspended by the NFL for two games, (after being accused of assaulting his fiancee) outraged tweets and posts surged, criticizing an NFL suspension many deemed too lenient. There was less outrage over the judicial system's handling of Rice's case. The NFL, with a name recognized world-wide, is the bigger target. As others checked into Twitter they could see the prevailing opinion of the people they followed.

We are all human beings and as such tend to be social animals who seek comfort in belonging to a group. There is a tendency to weigh in or re-tweet what someone we admire or aspire to be like has to say on an issue.

But the Ray Rice issue did not end there. Stephen A Smith offered commentary in a way that offended women -- who took to Twitter to express their outrage. Others raced to follow suit and a wave ensued. Twitter offers group-think where we seek out those opinions that jive with what we believe.

The ever-escalating outrage drives harmful wedges between groups and contributes to what appears to be an increasing polarization of our politics. Getting news from biased sources is not new. It dates to the earliest days of our country when Alexander Hamilton, like others of his era, founded a newspaper to be a mouthpiece for his party.

What is new is the immediacy. Twitter offers each user an instant outlet for their strongest and most emotional feelings. Being limited to small posts allows almost no opportunity for nuance or detailed explanation. Short postings can often be read and translated to mean very different things.

Add into that mix the #HashTagPhenomenon and it's even easier to start a wave of outrage filtered by a hashtag and found using that same hashtag. There were more than a few celebrities who faced a backlash for using the "#FreePalestine" hashtag when the latest shooting started between Israel and Hamas.

The accessibility and immediacy of in-the-moment emotional outrage leads to expression of unfiltered anger often mistaken for rational reaction, rather than for what it is — a knee-jerk response to news that is all-too-often incomplete and inaccurate in its reporting.

The greatest risk is that it is becoming a default news source for people. With a shrinking supply of unbiased reporting, people take to social media and Twitter for a read on the news. The danger is this; most substantive news stories cannot be boiled down into 140 character explanations, but that is what we face.

Compounding the risk is that we only see the tweets of the people we follow. We likely follow people and news outlets that reaffirm what we already believe; further clouding the biases we bring to the table. It creates an international echo chamber that, if we are not careful, threaten to harden our opinions and further reduce our ability to thoughtfully consider all sides of complex issues.

Why have many written that our nation may have become ungovernable? The intensity of our opposition to each others' opinions has its roots in this constantly evolving era of new media. Today media reporting is lightning fast -- demanding moral certainty, commentary, analysis and response with almost no time to consider an issue carefully.

The truth is that smart phones and social media are a great way to communicate, but they also present the real threat of dangerous communication of inaccurate information. Mobile access to social media allows us to feed off others we already agree with and express our first thoughts, often equating to our worst thoughts because they lack careful consideration.

In an echo chamber only the most outraged opinions stand out so the challenge is to one-up each other in what we say. It has become the way in which the modern-day mob gathers their torches and pitchforks and becomes radicalized.

Over the course of history the radicalized mob has often compounded injustice rather than solve it. In a social media world that demands ever-escalating outrage, that mob is capable of doing damage that is so much greater than ever before.

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State College native and Penn State graduate Jay Paterno is a father, husband and political volunteer. He’s a frequent guest lecturer on campus and at Penn State events and was the longtime quarterbacks coach for the Nittany Lions. His column appears every other Thursday. Follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/JayPaterno
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