Moral panic and the social amplification model that explains how it spreads

In a recent podcast episode, David Beckemeyer and Kurt Gray discussed the concept of moral panic and the social amplification model that explains how it spreads. Moral panics are not a new phenomenon and have been around for as long as human society has existed. These panics are characterized by people being afraid of moral decay and terrible things happening in society. The social amplification model explains how these fears get amplified by society, which can include other people you talk to or, on a larger scale, the media or social media platforms.

The social amplification model of moral panic consists of four steps. The first step involves noticing a potential threat on social media, in the general media, or in conversation with others. This could be anything from a tweet about the collapse of democracy to a concern that Dungeons and Dragons is leading children to worship Satan. In the second step, the threat is amplified by the virality metrics on social media. Seeing that thousands of people are retweeting the post or discussing it online can make people feel that the threat is real and widespread.

In the third step, people experience real panic and fear as they become more worried about the potential threat. This leads to the fourth step, which involves finding ways to manage the panic. One common way of doing this is to express outrage as a way of trying to stop the evil people responsible for the perceived threat. This could involve writing angry letters to politicians or expressing outrage on social media.

It’s worth noting that not all moral panics are overreactions or exaggerated. While the term “panic” might imply that people are overreacting, the concept of moral panic simply describes the process by which fears and concerns spread through society. There are legitimate threats that should be taken seriously, such as the collapse of democracy or poisoned water in Flint, Michigan. However, the social amplification model suggests that social media can intensify people’s fears and lead to more outrage and expressions of anger.

As Beckemeyer has researched the field more, he has noticed a theme of injury and the desire for revenge among people he has spoken to. The fourth step of this process is expressing outrage to punish deviants, which is something that has been observed in social media. However, this punishment is not solely a result of moral grandstanding, but rather it is a way for people to manage their fear and anxiety. Social media can make people afraid, and they react to this fear by lashing out at others.

Beckemeyer and Gray also discussed the fact that people take cues from each other when it comes to social norms, including moral norms. Social media provides explicit markers for how to make sense of these norms, such as the number of likes or shares a post receives. People use these markers to determine what is considered acceptable behavior. The issue arises when people become too invested in these markers and start to experience symptoms of PTSD as a result of being on social media too much.

Beckemeyer and Gray believe that the key to understanding this phenomenon is to remember that humans are social creatures who rely on each other to make sense of the world. While social media can be a useful tool for connecting people and sharing information, it can also be a source of anxiety and fear. As such, it is important to be mindful of the ways in which social media can impact our mental health and our relationships with others.

They also discussed the role of moral outrage in motivating collective responses to viral threats. According to Gray, moral outrage can be a powerful tool for driving social change. He explained that, like any tool, moral outrage can be used for good or bad. For example, when people come together to express outrage about issues like pollution or sex scandals, they can push for systemic change.

They also pointed to examples like the MeToo movement and the protests following the murder of George Floyd as instances where moral outrage played a positive role in driving social change. However, Gray also cautioned that too much outrage can be harmful. Chronic exposure to stress can have negative effects on physical and mental health, making sustained outrage unsustainable in the long run. Additionally, people may become exhausted by constantly feeling outraged, making it difficult to mobilize them for collective action.

Gray went on to explain that both the virality of a message and the level of outrage it expresses can reinforce one another. Outrageous messages are more likely to go viral, and the virality of a message can also increase the level of outrage expressed in response. Social media platforms are designed to encourage engagement and amplification of the loudest voices, making it difficult to ignore the retweet numbers and other metrics that can drive further outrage.

Ultimately, Gray’s research suggests that moral outrage can be a powerful tool for motivating collective action, but it must be used wisely to avoid burnout and other negative consequences. By understanding the interplay between outrage and virality, we can develop more effective strategies for responding to viral threats and driving social change.

They discuss the use of social media as a source of data for research. While it is often used due to its easy accessibility for large-scale data collection and analysis, the discussion focuses on the idea that many of the behaviors observed on social media are not unique to that platform and are seen in face-to-face communication as well. They argue that design elements of social media can dial up some aspects of human nature and dial down others, but that these characteristics exist in human nature whether online or not. They give examples of parent-teacher meetings and historical events such as the panic about adultery in The Scarlet Letter to support this claim.

The conversation then moves to the question of whether these behaviors are getting worse over time. While they don’t have any data to back up this claim yet, they suggest that trends such as the breakdown of local communities, as described in the book “Bowling Alone,” may contribute to the increased outrage and moralization seen in today’s society.

Finally, they discuss ways to mitigate or lower the temperature of these behaviors. They suggest that social media companies could do more to reduce engagement and anger, but acknowledge that this may not be in their best interests. Instead, individuals could use social media in a more mindful way, selecting times and places where they are less likely to get upset. They use the example of not having arguments with one’s spouse late at night and suggest that the same principle applies to social media use. By taking a more deliberate and measured approach to social media, individuals may be able to reduce the negative impact of these behaviors on their lives.

Overall, the social amplification model of moral panic helps explain why outrage and expressions of anger are so prevalent on social media today. As people become more aware of potential threats and see them being amplified by social media, they may feel more afraid and panicked. Expressing outrage can provide a sense of control and help people manage their fear, even if it doesn’t necessarily solve the underlying problem. By understanding the social amplification model of moral panic, we can better understand the role that social media plays in shaping our perceptions of the world and the issues that we face.

See: Outrage 006 – How virality results in moral panics – Kurt Gray


💬 What was your big takeaway or insight gained from this episode? Comment below.

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Outrage Overload is a podcast about the outrage industry, my journey to discover what it is, how it affects us, and what we can do about it.