The metrics of outrage
I changed my screensaver recently, so it displays the current top searches via Google Trends. Now after I step away from my computer for a few minutes, I come back and feel like I’ve walked into a coffee shop where I can eavesdrop on the rapid-fire gossip of the internet.
The topics are predictable. Sports, celebrity deaths, TV shows, a new release from a musician or election results. Then there’s one other theme that appears irregularly but often enough I notice it: Outrage!!!
We don’t even have to read an article to feel outrage. A headline on Facebook or even the thumbnail image of a link can instantaneously prompt anger.
I can usually tell through my Google Trends screensaver when the internet is roiling with rage because it’s a “one of these things is not like the other” situation. When Arsenal, the Cavs and, say, Pepsi, Sean Spicer, United, or Shea Butter show up among the top searches, I can guess that there are playoff games going on and something got the internet angry. Unable to stop myself, I search and find dozens if not hundreds of articles on Google News (including from MediaShift).
Outrage has always been good for the news business, of course, back to when newsboys hawked yellow journalism. But with digital media it’s easier than ever for publishers to measure, monetize and surf the waves of internet anger. Analytics tools feed the surge by identifying stories about to trend. Behold the tidal wave of outrage search traffic.
Paying The Bills With Angry Clicks
Not all outrage is created equal. Some stories are truly outrageous. Others stories are just framed to seem that way.
All the way back in 2014, Slate chronicled 365 stories that sparked anger in a daily project called “The year of outrage.” Readers could vote on what was actual “righteous fury” and what was simply “faux outrage.”
“Should we be rending our garments about our constant rending of garments?” Slate wrote in the introduction to its package. “Or should we embrace the new responsiveness of the social and hypersensitive Web?”
Ultimately, this outrage about outrage (meta-outrage?) was good for Slate’s metrics. Slate’s series received more 10,800 shares on Facebook. Slate, of course, is also a beneficiary of internet outrage, as Jordan Weissmann wrote in My viral outrage hit.
(Excerpt: “I sent a note to my editor: ‘This seems like obvious traffic if we want it.’ He responded: ‘Bwaha. Sure.’ So I took a moment out of my day to write a short, very sarcastic post. It was a gimme, the blogging equivalent of a 3-inch putt….This is how the cycle of viral outrage goes.”)
Looking back, Slate’s coverage seems almost quaint. Their series chronicled a lot of anger, but at least it was about actual events, even if they were as seemingly trivial a Perez Hilton blog post. And it’s striking how forgettable much of it was. Do you remember when Sarah Palin read a special Obamacare version of Green Eggs and Ham? Yeah, me neither.
Now outrage happens around news that is completely made up. Take, for example, the website TrueTrumpers.com, which Buzzfeed News Media Editor Craig Silverman writes, somewhat outrageously, “may be the worst thing on the internet.”
This website drives traffic by whipping up anti-Muslim hysteria through “mostly false stories about Muslims raping, killing, and otherwise wreaking havoc in Western society,” according to Silverman.
Headlines include the likes of “BREAKING: Today Cop Was Killed By Muslim Refugee In Ohio. Do You Support Arrest or Hang Him” (sic) or “2 Muslim Refugees Rape and Beat This 15 Years Old Girl. Do You Support To Hang Of Them?! [POLL],” (sic) all alongside disturbing imagery.
This website has almost no actual content, but attracts page views from the American President Donald J. Trump Facebook page (nearly 400,000 fans) in order to drive clicks on advertising. This is known as a “traffic arbitrage strategy,” or monetizing clickbait ads above the cost of maintaining the website and driving clicks.
“True Trumpers appears to be focused on generating free traffic from Facebook and monetizing it using webpages stuffed with ads and barely any content,” Silverman writes. “This is a common tactic now that Facebook is the single biggest referrer of traffic to English-language news websites.”
Buzzfeed used data analysis tool CrowdTangle to show that interactions on links from the American President Donald J. TrumpFacebook page are consistently higher than links from Facebook pages of ABC News, Politico and even hyperpartisan sites like Infowars and Truthfeed. The website has also seen a steep ascent in ranking since its launch, according to Alexa.com.
“Though not a perfect metric, it reinforces that True Trumpers’ arbitrage strategy is working,” Silverman writes.
This Is Your Brain On Outrage
In her book, How Emotions are Made: The Secret Life of the Brain, Northeastern University psychology professor Lisa Feldman Barrett shares research that suggests emotions are basically guesses based on past experiences. (The scientific term for this is “affective predictions.”) In a 2009 published paper on neuroscience, Barrett and Moshe Bar shared evidence for how we “see with feeling.”
“An effective prediction, in effect allows the brain to anticipate and prepare to act on those sensations in the future,” the authors write. “Furthermore, affective predictions are made quickly and efficiently, only milliseconds after visual sensations register on the retina.”
In other words, the moment we see something from past experience, we already associate it with emotions like disgust, pride or fear. Emotions actually help us recognize what we see.
The implications for news are important. We don’t even have to read an article to feel outrage. A headline on Facebook or even the thumbnail image of a link can instantaneously prompt anger. The brain sees an image and guesses how to react.
Hyperpartisan sites barely need to create much content beyond words or images that cause an emotional reaction, and the brain fills in the response. This is how the 22-year-old from the Republic of Georgia behind True Trumpers capitalizes on anti-Muslim sentiment that resonates with his Facebook audience, even if he said he is personally “not against Muslims.” (“This is all about income,” he told the New York Times.)
If the brain is simply making an educated guess about how we should react, the same could be said of how publishers use metrics. Facebook’s reactions has made it easier to quantify outrage on social media. If a certain topic caused an outpouring of outrage in the past — causing greater readership, reach or engagement — they might be more likely to share similar posts in the future.
According to a spring 2016 analysis by NewsWhip, Fox News was “well out in front” of other news organizations with users clicking the “angry” reaction 221,147 times during their analysis. That compared to just 15,656 “angry” reactions for Buzzfeed’s page during the same time period.
It doesn’t take much to provoke the anger reaction on the Fox News page. In the first 26 minutes after it was posted, more than 5,200 people clicked “angry” for the following video:
Just the mention of Obama may be enough to outrage those on the right, but the left clearly has its own pain points that come from the mere hint of certain topics. In the Slate piece on outrage, Jamelle Bouie writes that “often the left-on-left outrages are about the kind of language and ‘privilege’ policing.”
“The techniques used by the left and right are actually quite similar,” said Sarah Sobieraj, co-author of The Outrage Industry: Public Opinion Media and the New Incivility, in a discussion with PBS NewsHour.
“Take a look at any of these media: television, radio, or the web, and in all cases we see that the audience has fragmented into tiny slivers …. As a result, we have a remarkably cluttered media landscape. If you are producing content, you need to break through that clutter somehow. If you’re in scripted television, perhaps you use sex and violence. You use edgy humor. In political opinion media, the equivalent is carefully negotiated shock and agent provocateurs.”
It’s not just related to politics, however. I asked friends on Facebook what outraged them, and received a variety of responses:
“Someone saying bike helmets were a ridiculous social norm,” wrote my friend Dan.
“I find myself getting outraged so often lately, I don’t know where to start,” wrote my friend Nicole. “Sometimes it’s politics, but most of the time not.”
“The things that infuriate me most lately are the articles featuring stories where teachers and professors abuse their students in some way,” my wife’s uncle Johnny wrote. “Whether it be physically, sexually, through political indoctrination or by publicly shaming them for their beliefs.”
“This sounds silly, but most outrage is what makes me outraged,” wrote my friend Armen. “Because 99% of it is such whiny small potatoes imo.” (This makes me wonder if second-hand outrage is a thing we can’t avoid in an outrage-filled environment, kind of like second-hand smoke.)
Trigger words and topics that automatically make us outraged are a part of our brains, for left, right and everyone in between.
How Publishers Can Navigate Outrage
“The greatest weapon against stress,” wrote William James, “is our ability to choose one thought over another.” That quote popped up at the end of my meditation with the Calm.com app, which I find myself turning to frequently these days.
That’s a nice sentiment for a meditation app. Of course, William James lived in the 1800s. It might be harder to choose calm over outrage when outrage drives so much attention, engagement and traffic.
Outrage will consistently produce reliable metrics for publishers as long as traffic arbitrage sites can turn a profit from manufacturing outrage, or actual outrageous actions continue in the world.
“Outrage, in my opinion, has a sizable impact on our editorial and opinion metrics. Some would say it’s the bread and butter,” tweeted Dallas Morning News Digital Editor/Social Producer Dom DiFurio. “Though you should never *aim* to outrage, we aim to challenge people’s perspectives.”
Publishers may also have another option to navigate the sea of outrage on the internet by helping their audience make sense of informative versus inflammatory. The podcast Reply All is helping listeners do just that with a new segment called, aptly, Why Is Everybody So Mad And Do I Have To Be Mad Also, which is “designed to help you calibrate your anger in a changing world.” Here’s the theme song:
There’s an information overload
Everybody’s ready to explode
Fake news, strong views, so many sides which one to choose?
I don’t want to lose, I’m so confused. Oh, oh, oh!
Why is everyone so mad and do I have to be mad also?
“Right now, we are living in a time where the amount of things that I am supposed to be mad about on a given day has greatly outpaced my ability to be mad or even pay attention to all of them,” co-host PJ Vogt said while introducing the segment.
Based on some of the early commentary about Why Is Everybody So Mad And Do I Have To Be Mad Also?, it may be a hit.
“I’m 1:40 in & already smiling cause this segment makes all the sense,” wrote Shannon Allen on Reply All’s Facebook post.
The inaugural Why Is Everybody So Mad And Do I Have To Be Mad Also? segment took on the issue of internet privacy and Congress potentially rolling back regulation to protect data from internet providers. Their verdict? Be concerned, but there tangible actions internet users can take to protect themselves right now. Outrage scale: 4/10.
This approach to explaining and navigating outrage might benefit publishers — and their audience — in the long run. It’s not riding the tidal wave of traffic during the peak of outrage. It’s about cleaning up after the wave breaks.
A version of this article was originally published on MediaShift.org.