The perils of online outrage

11 July, 2016

How to navigate the internet’s underbelly – from snap judgments, to cybermobs

The Internet has made our world smaller and brought us closer than ever before. It has opened us up to more information than we could’ve imagined. And it has given everyone a voice. It has transformed activism in many ways and made it more powerful. We can choose to stand up for causes that we believe in and now get millions of (unknown) people to rally behind them as well. The transformative power is incredible.

But unfortunately, it isn’t quite that simple. Eric Schmidt, Executive Chairman of Alphabet Inc., said, “the Internet is the first thing that humanity has built that humanity doesn’t understand”. And the one thing that we probably haven’t anticipated, is how ironically enough, the very internet that was to shrink our world and make all of this change possible, could also make us less tolerant.  Cyber mobs are getting more pervasive. Hardly a day goes by when we don’t hear about someone or some company being subjected to the wrath of internet trolls.

You would think that since we are more connected, we are now also more exposed to diverse thoughts and opinions. That should make us more appreciative and therefore, inclusive. That isn’t so.

Go through your social media feed or any trending topic online. Rather than debating conflicting opinions, we seem to be increasingly caught up in an angry tirade. The more people see of opposing points of view, the angrier it seems to make them. Mean, personal and hurtful comments abound. Outrage and backlash take over.

So, my message this week is on what makes internet outrage so pervasive. How can we avoid getting caught up in this online mob behaviour? And if we or our company is subject to it, how should we handle it?

Author Mark Manson, is his blog post Living In The Age of Outrage, questions what it is that has changed so much. Is it that we have become much more polarised as people? Or that the world is more offensive? Or that we don’t have ‘real’ problems, so we’re turning to the littler ones, or creating them? Or is it, as he concludes, that the way we feel about people we disagree with has fundamentally changed? That we are just not tolerant of opposition?

The internet has added to that in several ways. It’s so easy to find information to back just about any preconceived notion you have. Just Google it. But perhaps the most worrying, is how far removed we are from the people who we disagree with.

“If you ran into somebody who disagreed with you, you were able to see the micro-expressions, tonality and body language behind that disagreement. You were likely able to see that the disagreement was well-intentioned and that the person disagreeing with you wasn’t a horribly depraved individual, rather just someone who saw the world a little bit differently. But today, people are just characters on a screen. They are so far removed from you and the nuance of their beliefs and their expressions are lost to the bits that travel from screen to screen. As a result, we tend to assume the worst about one another, turning people who disagree with us into caricatures or stereotypes who just infuriate us further.”

In an article (Clicking their Way to Outrage) published a couple of years back, the New York Times highlighted a study that found that anger is the emotion that spreads the most easily over social media. Joy was a distant second. The main difference, according to Ryan Martin, a psychology professor at the University of Wisconsin, who studies anger, is that although we tend to share the happiness only of people we are close to, we are willing to join in the rage of a stranger.

Here’s what you should know about this outrage:

1. Everyone is a victim

Manson sums it up best when he says that we may well be living in the first period of human history where every demographic feels that they are somehow being violated and victimised. That plays out as outrage.

2. Outrage is addictive

Outrage makes you feel good. You are fighting for a cause, instead of passively scrolling by. Feeling that you are making the world a better place – the kind that you want it to be – is strangely fulfilling. It makes the anger feel better.

3. Content is designed to be polarising

Online content today is (re)shaping itself to match shrinking attention spans. You get lesser space to explain yourself and be heard and understood. You can make a bunch of hard hitting statements, but there isn’t space for debate. Outrage grabs eyeballs and as a result, page views and likes and everything else that measures success.

4. You can remain anonymous, while reaching out to pretty much anyone

Anonymity makes the internet very different from real life. You can hide behind just about any identity, if you wanted to. Not just that, you can do so and also reach out to or comment on just about anyone or anything.

5. People know their power

It’s not like people are unaware of the impact that they can have. You probably can’t pinpoint exactly who started some of the big online ‘revolutions’ and that’s because it could’ve been anyone, just like you or me. The internet is an incredible leveller. People know that.

6. Outrage for the sake of it

The problem isn’t with speaking out when offended. It with thinking that just sharing your opinion is an end in itself. When you’re not looking for an explanation or to try and understand what the other person has to say. Outrage, without a purpose, only causes more outrage.

How to not get caught up in the outrage

Our advantage as a company lies in being able to leverage the diversity in our teams. If we can’t build an appreciation for this and learn how to truly collaborate, we won’t be able to tap into the immense potential on offer. So, how do we start managing this better? How do we ensure that we aren’t forming baseless opinions or making unwarranted judgement calls? As leaders, how do we walk the talk and not indulge in outrage?

  • Become more aware. Sometimes, we get so carried away that we don’t see the difference between having an opinion and being outraged. Look for the signals.
  • Listen. We have to get much better at hearing people out. Instead of jumping to conclusions, allow the other person the chance to explain themselves. Ask questions. Get into the details.
  • Get more comfortable with conflict. Be honest. How often do you seek out conflicting opinion? How much do you want to understand it?Have conversations? Stop hiding behind emails?
  • Don’t believe everything you read. For everything that tells you you’re right, there will be enough to back the opposite. So, take it with a pinch of salt.
  • Be professional. Use the right tone. Don’t ever lose your self-respect.
  • Don’t hide behind anonymity. Have the courage to identify yourself with your points of view
  • Stand up to it. If you think things are going too far,call it out. If you can, put an end to it. There are enough ways to be polite and firm without getting dragged into the outrage yourself.
  • How to manage outrage when it targets you or your company

There’s a very good chance that you or our company may be the target of outrage, in one form or another. How you handle this, will have everything to do with how it pans out.

  • Identify the problem. Is it a mistake? Or is it a misunderstanding? Or is it just spam? Getting to the root of the issue is important to determine the right course of action
  • Be honest. You need to be sure of where you stand, before you decide how to tackle this.
  • Don’t jump to conclusions. Take a pause. Gather the facts and then take a call. It’s always better to save a draft of your message or put off that call till a few hours later. Don’t go ahead, do something in a hurry and wish that you hadn’t.
  • Don’t compromise on your values. Be authentic. It may mean that you need to take a hit and admit that you are in the wrong, but that’s ok. It’s times like these that really are a true test of what you stand for.
  • Don’t play the blame game. It’s very easy to turn this into a mud slinging match and pass it on. No one benefits from that. Don’t sound defensive.
  • Be careful of what you say. Your choice of words is important. Better to say less than too much in some situations. There is every chance that whatever you say will get twisted.
  • Take it offline. Sometimes, the biggest issue is that your message gets distorted online. You end up dragging a bunch of other people into this and as a result, lose focus of what the concern was in the first place. So, wherever you can, talk it out in person.
  • Know that this too will pass. While this is absolutely something that you need to deal with immediately, try and take a longer term view. It will offer you better perspective.

Time will only tell how this new frontier evolves. In the meantime, let’s continue to learn and adapt.

I look forward to hearing your perspectives.


  • Preetam Dey says:

    All of these perspectives of online mob behaviour seem all so familiar. I can immediately relate to the nestle MSG controversy and the subsequent trolling on social/digital media. Your article is very comprehensive and an insightful read. To add my point of view on to this… I believe that brands can be better prepared to handle such a digital onslaught if the digital communication channels are open, established and active. For instance, it would be easier to counter a smear campaign on twitter if you already have a huge active base of twitter followers.


Join the 8AM conversation