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Stop all the clicks: we need to cease feeding the outrage industrial complex

Draining cycles of outrage will never end unless we start ignoring the bigots who want to profit off our fury.

22 Jan 2020

There’s a cycle that repeats every month or so, surrounding a particular type of right-winger. Inflammatory comments made during an appearance on a BBC One panel show (the guest in question was asked along last minute after Lionel Shriver dropped out. Of course, they were free to fill in). Or perhaps they were uttered mid-way through a tepid Radio 4 “satirical” news programme, presented by David Mitchell. Actually, maybe their words were reported as part of a back page Evening Standard interview for an unanticipated new creative project? Oh wait, was it not a video rant they uploaded to their 75k Instagram followers? 

 “Outrage makes a message spread, whether the unwitting conduit intends that or not”

Either way, they said that thing. It was offensive, patently so. And it was also just plain stupid. Which you felt the unstoppable urge to immediately point out to all your social media followers, in a tweet/Instagram/Facebook post quoting the offender – inadvertently sharing their toxic views to a wider audience.

Does this sound familiar? That’s because by 2020, “all publicity is good publicity” has become a worryingly powerful mantra. Think of the major right-wing pundits and bile spillers we see dominating public discourse, from broadcast television to your Twitter timeline. What are their credentials? A failed Apprentice candidate. A sacked tabloid newspaper editor who went to the pub once with Meghan Markle. An actor who played the sidekick on a Morse reboot. 

Based on those CVs, they’ve got zero qualifications to be farting out hate on primetime TV. But in an age where “engagement” rules all, their ability to gain traction via outrage has not only caused their metrics to skyrocket, it’s seen out-of-touch media organisations embrace them, in the hope they’ll benefit from some of the sweet clicks these offence merchants are able to generate. Even traditionally dinosaur political parties have cottoned on – remember Conservative Campaign Headquarters’ rebranding to @factcheckuk during the election? The misinformation stunt generated more fury than anything else – but as an unintentional side effect it also led to their tweets being shared far and wide. Outrage makes a message spread, whether the unwitting conduit intends that or not.

Sure, you closed the little bird app feeling good about yourself, and the frontline work you’re doing to combat prejudice and hate. But waking up the next morning, it seems like your efforts haven’t made a dent. The person in question appears to be doubling down on their initial remarks, uploading a deranged TikTok  where they namecheck “snowflakes” repeatedly. You can only imagine the suffering of the poor agency intern assigned to explain TikTok’s function to them, but once they become well-acquainted they’ll use it to screech about being “silenced”. 

This seems a strange claim to make because overnight they seem to have become omnipresent. There’s front-page interviews with The Times and The Telegraph, Marina Hyde doing her patented word association to denounce their ignorance in The Guardian, a two-hour guest slot on LBC’s breakfast show, the announcement of a new column in Spiked and rumblings of a book deal from Simon & Schuster. For two days running their name sits atop of the Twitter trending bar, the most relevant they’ve been… ever. And still the breathless editorial coverage keeps coming, positive and negative, even after the petition to see them banned from media outlets that fan the flames further.

Years later after becoming a household name for “telling it like it is”, the person is president. And you wonder, in an 80-tweet strong thread, just how they managed to rise to such prominence and power. How indeed?

I am someone who’s spent a significant time behind the wizard’s curtain. The landscape of media has changed; many outlets now lean far more heavily on advertiser funding. To demonstrate to advertisers that they should be paying for space on their sites and not, say, Facebook or Google, publications have to prove they get the clicks. Engagement is tracked constantly and our attention economy means quantity not quality wins. Much of the media cares less about painting a full picture; it’s all about throwing anything, mostly shit, Pollock-like at a canvas and hoping it sticks. And in over-saturated feeds, it’s only the things that provoke the strongest reaction that people will click on and share further. For media outlets, your rage is the most valuable currency going. 

But listen up! There is an alternative. And that is: to ignore them. Of course there are exceptions – not every self-serving grubber is going to disappear just because we stop talking about them. Donald Trump is going nowhere. But Donald Trump has a different status and modus operandi now compared to, say, Piss M*rgan. Although in a parallel world, there might be a Trump-less America simply due to the fact that everyone collectively decided to ignore him when he started wanging on about birth certificates.

But in many cases – particularly when these situations involve individuals no one was paying a lick of attention to before. There’s a simple solution to avoid perpetuating cycles of outrage, which only serve to amplify and profit those who spew hate. Just… don’t engage. 

Of course, there are some – although it pains me to say it – who sit ostensibly on the “good” side of the woke divide who have become trapped in a mutually beneficial symbiotic relationship by calling out these professional bigots. Sometimes, these callouts are needed. Other times, you have to wonder who is really being served by the act of amplifying harmful comments.

Is this activism? Does it assist those who actually need it? Or is it unproductive dialogue that ultimately works to normalise hatred as part of standard discourse and winch open the Overton Window just that little bit wider? 

“Think how much frenetic energy you have given to opposing hateful bottom-feeders online. Has it ever had the desired effect?”

It has been proven that no-platforming works. Not only does it cut off the fetid oxygen fanning the flames of their burning hot takes, it will preserve your mental and emotional wellbeing. So, where applicable, don’t quote tweet infuriating sentiments, don’t @ those who make them, don’t post about them on insta or write op-eds on them for content editors who want your pain for clicks but go ghost when it comes to any other topic. Don’t even tweet about how you’re “no longer tweeting” about the offender, while writing out their name in full and boosting their personal SEO value. Mute them. Move on. Politely ask your friends to resist the urge to bring them into your orbit, even if they think they are being good allies by doing so. 

Rise above, like zen Lindsay Lohan. Think how many times you’ve been trapped in this furious hurricane of indignation, how much frenetic energy you have given to opposing hateful bottom-feeders online. Has it ever had the desired effect?

“Next time an outrage goblin slips through your carefully curated filters, instead of tapping out a furious rejoinder, pause. Find a story worth amplifying instead and boost that”

I promise, beloveds, soon the individuals that fall into this category of bigot will be a distant memory. Removing them from your orbit does not mean you won’t remain plugged into the news, to headlines that matter, the personalities that actually should be kept track of. You’re just sorting the wheat from the chaff.

News cycles move quickly now. It may seem unfair that the onus is on us not to react when riled. But this game is not founded on rules that benefit both sides. The deck is stacked against us. In this case there’s zero shame in saying you don’t want to play. 

And if you simply can’t stand the thought of passivity (although I like to think of it as passive resistance), next time an outrage goblin slips through your carefully curated filters, instead of tapping out a furious rejoinder, pause. Then find a story worth amplifying; say a call to help a local grassroots organisation, or a voice that shows that opposition and struggle is only one aspect of being from a marginalised community. Boost that instead. Feel better. 

We do not need to come and die every time a musty person decides to adopt bigotry as their pension plan. The most effective thing you can do to boring people with bad opinions is waft them aside, like a fart on the breeze. Remember that and prosper.