Why our attempt to escape online outrage might fail

A mass exodus from Twitter to Mastodon in India occurred last week, driven by dissatisfaction with the platform. The migration was sparked by the suspension of lawyer Sanjay Hegde’s Twitter account and users are seeking a more respectful environment for debate on Mastodon.

This article was first published in The Mint. You can read the original at this link.

Last week in India, there was a mass exodus from Twitter. Everyone left to join Mastodon, a federated social media platform whose single biggest attraction is that it’s still moderated by humans. While the immediate reason for the migration was the suspension of lawyer Sanjay Hegde’s Twitter account, for most users on my timeline, this was just the latest in a series of unfortunate incidents that had diminished their Twitter experience. They had grown tired of what the platform (being facetiously referred to as the “birdsite") had become, filled as it is with hate and intolerance. They yearned for a simpler, less offensive environment where debate and healthy discourse is still preferred over meaningless outrage. Mastodon, at least for now, seems to be it.

There was once a time when outrage served a useful purpose. When we first evolved into a social species, it was difficult to enforce social conduct. Early societies needed simple self-enforcing mechanisms that forced everyone in the tribe to adhere to social norms and encouraged members of the society to act in the collective interest of the group.

Our evolutionary response to this was to develop a visceral emotional reaction to norm violation. We began to feel extreme disapproval when someone did something socially unacceptable. Our bodies responded with the equivalent of a dopamine rush, releasing a powerful cocktail of neuro-chemical reactions that made us, on the one hand, experience strong sensations of physical loathing towards the person who had committed the violation, while on the other, gave us a heady high that made us want to search for further examples of such norm violation. This is the evolutionary origin of outrage.

In early human societies, the only way to communicate norm violations across social groups was by word of mouth. Gossip ensured that violators were immediately identified and shamed, and it was important to ensure that the more egregious violations received the more extreme shaming. Thus, gossip itself developed an inherent predilection towards picking up and spreading the most salacious news—ensuring that this information moved faster and more pervasively through a social group.

When we meet the subject of this sort of gossip, we feel the need to shame them publicly, expressing outrage at their actions. In practice, we tend to restrain ourselves, acutely aware that physical proximity to the target of our outrage carries with it the risk of retaliation. Confronting an errant stranger on a deserted street can be a dangerous proposition— which is why most of us only do so with the support of a crowd. Even then, since the act of shaming gives rise to emotions of empathic distress, we find such confrontations unpleasant and generally avoidable.

But that was before the internet. Now that we’ve shifted much of our social interaction online, we hardly get to feel any empathic distress. Our interactions are through text-based conversations with two-dimensional avatars with whom we communicate asynchronously using apps on our phone. As a result, we’ve distanced ourselves so completely from any suffering the real person behind these avatars might feel that we don’t think twice about the hurt we are causing. And since it is hardly likely we will ever come in physical proximity with them, expressing outrage openly carries none of the risk that it once used to.

In the real world, it is impossible to select your social circle solely on the basis of their ideological leanings. As a result, we are forced to act with restraint in public in order to avoid offending anyone. Digital platforms allow for and even encourage ideological segregation, placing us in filter bubbles where we find ourselves surrounded by like-minded people who get outraged by the same things that we do. This makes us less circumspect about our disapproval, ensuring that the targets of our ire receive the full force of our invective—often exacerbated by the baying of the group. The resulting moral outrage deepens the social divide between us, as the desire to punish “others" dehumanizes them to the point where we feel absolutely no empathy for their circumstances.

It is for these reasons that social platforms have grown into cesspools of hate and outrage. The social filters that would have forced us behave with restraint in the physical presence of others are simply non-existent online, allowing us to say and do things we simply would not have dreamt of when face to face with the person we are talking to. By lowering the threshold for the expression of outrage, we have degraded our ability to distinguish between the truly heinous and the merely disagreeable, forcing us into a perpetual cycle of ever increasing negativity.

I am not sure whether escaping to Mastodon is a solution to this problem. Right now, the group is small and tight—much like I remember Twitter was when I joined it early in 2007. Our interactions are collegiate, with everyone seeking to boost everyone else so that newcomers feel at home.

But the trolls have already figured where we have disappeared to and are beginning to follow us in. There’s been a rapid proliferation of fake accounts and rumours of a whole instance dedicated to its own divisive and partisan agenda. I worry that before long, Mastodon will be overrun by the hordes, and the moderators, since they are only human, will find themselves buried under the weight of outrage.