opinion

"Why online outrage is getting us nowhere."

We say and do things online what we wouldn’t say or do in real life, and it’s not good for our psyches, writes Amal Awad.

This morning, as I scrolled through my Facebook feed, a few things jumped out at me: political posts about Pauline Hanson; videos about remarkable people doing innovative things; and gossip about celebrities.

I don’t follow a lot of media sites, but it all takes is one share from a friend, or one click on an external website for the Facebook algorithm to go nuts and think you’re obsessed with the domestic disputes of Johnny Depp and Amber Heard.

For celebrities, very little is private. But what was once the realm of tabloid print media has morphed into a cacophony of online preening – from both media outlets and readers thirsty for drama.

Moreover, very little is private more generally among the non-celebs. In the same way many think having a public presence makes you a target for the paparazzi, being on social media means you’re fair game for criticism.

For celebrities like Johnny Depp and Amber Heard, little is private. But now it's applying to us all. Image: Getty.

It’s not only the drama people are craving; it’s the opportunity to lay judgment. We don’t merely hold opinions any more, we shout them online. Then we hold them up against everyone else’s and challenge them to show as much compassion and heart.

Just think of any act of terrorism and the online judgment that follows about people who do or don’t change their profile pictures in solidarity; then come the inevitable battles over why certain acts of terror get more coverage than others.

Online, even when you have a point, you can’t win.

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But we try anyway. And we type and we type, gathering likes (and more recently, a variety of expressions) on Facebook. For some, there is surely a sense of achievement when what they’ve said has sparked a reaction.

This is the heart of it: online no one is little, unless they choose to be. Social media makes us feel bigger, bolder and more empowered. Our cyber growl is a whole lot louder than our real-world squeak.

Like just about every writer with an online presence, I’ve been on the end of this ‘outrage economy’, what is a relentless, brutal and unforgiving Wild West.

The most useful advice I was given when I first started writing columns was: don't read the comments.

Watch: High profile Australian women read harassing tweets about themselves. (Post continues after video.)

I was given this advice when I mentioned casually that I was being called horrible names for writing about the representation of Arabs in media. This person has no social media presence but had a high profile role. His point was simple: don’t engage, because there’s nothing to be gained by doing so. I whimpered a defence that I had only ‘glanced’ at the comments, but the truth is, even a glance can hurt.

Each comment feels personal. The worst part? The people writing these horrible things are probably the types of people you encounter at dinner parties and think are lovely. Maybe they are, but something about the anonymity of an online presence invites the darkest parts of our hearts to the comments sections.

I eventually stopped paying attention to the comments (and felt a lot more peaceful once I did so). But it gets interesting when I consider the effect these negative reactions had on me at the start. The vulnerable part of me smarted at the fact that people sending me scolding tweets had not even read the piece. Their gripe would address the headline; they would then ask why I didn’t talk about X, Y and Z, even though two paragraphs in, I had talked about X, Y and Z.

It’s more than that, in my opinion. It is, as Jane Caro recently noted, that a lot of people are just really, really angry all the time. Maybe then, the internet is just a place to put our fears and feel better about ourselves.

But then there was this other part of me, early in my online writing career, who came to life: the writer who felt pressured to deliver clickworthy stories.

"The most useful advice I was given when I first started writing columns was: don't read the comments," writes Amal Awad. Image: Twitter
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Soon I found myself existing in a perpetual state of outrage. Even as I reasoned to myself that I was merely observing and wanting to bring attention to things, in hindsight, I can safely say there’s a difference between critical thought and outrage. And I was full of the latter; maybe not all the time, but enough of the time.

And it wasn’t fun, fulfilling or useful. Sure, I delivered clickworthy stories, which may have even raised awareness about an issue, but they pointed to the problems rather than focused on a useful way forward.

So there was the online mud pool of fear, hate and futile anger, and I had no idea that I had jumped in.

I regret this now, but it was instructive. And it’s worth querying how effective is the outrage economy. What would be more useful than spewing more anger?

The answer isn’t to “spread love”, it’s to go inward. To focus on yourself, rather than the actions and reactions of your hundreds of online ‘friends’. The 24/7 access to online vitriol is not good for us. History has shown that Twitter in particular is a playground for bullying, with vulnerable people made more so by the openness of it. At least on Facebook, you can keep a low profile and share only with friends. By its very nature, Twitter is a public medium.

Moreover, I would argue that there is an element of voyeurism for advocates of racism and hate. If deciphering the boundaries of free speech has been difficult in the real world, think of the impossibility of marshalling it online.

These days, nothing is really about what’s happened in the news – it’s only how we feel about it. For every person who is celebrated online by the masses for a remarkable feat, there are many more being skewered. The Internet, a vast, seething mass, decides if they are on your side or not.

Featured image: iStock

Amal Awad is a Sydney-based author and journalist.

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