The Tragedy of the Outrage Machine

James Gallagher


If memory serves me correctly, the term “outrage machine” was coined by some combination of Conservative radio hosts and GOP also-rans in the 2016 election cycle. While, as a member of last year’s losing team, I don’t necessarily agree with much of anything that comes from such paragons of integrity as Sean Hannity and Lindsey Graham, they may all have been onto something. However, they placed a limit on this concept by referring to it as a “liberal outrage machine,” catering to a base eager to snuff out snowflakes. A closer look reveals that this phenomenon is surely not limited to one political persuasion.

  Each and every week, a new story sweeps the nation, leaving millions of angry Facebook comments, Odyssey think-pieces, and embarrassing email chains from grandmothers in its wake. This week it’s the NFL anthem protests, last week it was DACA, and the previous weeks were marked by concern that the country would soon go down in a nuclear blaze of glory. In an age of dwindling attention spans and a time where just about anyone with a smartphone can broadcast their opinions to the world, modern public discourse can be boiled down to a series of angry responses to the story of the week (rinse and repeat).

  That isn’t to say that the stories themselves aren’t worthy of outrage or attention. For instance, the elimination of DACA rightly provoked an outpouring of support for Dreamers, who are just as American as you and me. However, a week later, the only outlets extensively reporting on it come from traditional media- CNN, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, etc. The think-pieces, filled with action verbs like support, stand behind, and resist, have faded. The same will soon happen with the anthem protests (assuming our president doesn’t start another war with people who play games for a living). Thus, we must ask ourselves: did anything change? Was anyone convinced? Sure, there were some wonderful DACA-related protests and there continue to be successful and necessary Black Lives Matter gatherings, but did these events really draw anyone new as a result of an angry Facebook status? Did anyone read a blog post from a random college student and decide that “yeah, today is the day that I finally believe that Dreamers should be granted citizenship?” By the same token, will anyone read this article and truly seek change in the way we discuss and act on current events? Probably not.

  Herein lies the problem with the fragmentation of the way we receive news (and opinion). Conservatives and Liberals have always opted for news more oriented towards their biases (WSJ vs. NYT), but that divide has exponentially widened. In the internet age, more and more people turn to sources with very little journalistic integrity (such as Breitbart or Occupy Democrats). While more traditional news- media is obligated and expected by its (dwindling) readership to report on the news, whether it is the flavor of the week or not, online sources are very rarely held to the same standard. These sources, which you can often find shared on your Facebook feed by that kid from high school that you never actually spoke to, are instead expected to cater to their partisan base. What we are left with is a bunch of non-journalists standing on a soapbox, hucking their under-analyzed opinions into the online abyss. While the talented writers in this Opinions section hold themselves to a higher standard- often sourcing and thouroughly explaining the facts behind an issue- this ethic is  becoming exceedingly rare in non-traditional media.

  It is a common myth that our politics were not always hyper-partisan. Just as many Democrats now call Trump a tyrant, they once George W. Bush a war criminal. The same goes for many traditional Conservatives, who might now pine for the moderate politics of the 90s, despite once seeking President Clinton’s impeachment. With that being said, the internet and the outrage machine that it enables has taken this hyper-partisan environment and allowed everyone and their dog (a.k.a. doggo or floofer) to broadcast their views on it to a relatively sizeable audience. It has rendered archaic the principle of keeping politics out of everyday conversation. While you may hesitate to bring up the minimum wage hike at this weekend’s tailgate, with T-Pain’s magnum opus, “Dan Blizerian,” blaring in the background, a tweet about the subject would likely cause you less anxiety. The distance between author and reader is what causes this disconnect. Everyone is certainly entitled to tweet to their heart’s content, but public discourse used to involve more layered introspection than is now required.

  Today’s click-bait society, which tends to limit critical thought to catchy headlines and one hundred and forty characters, does not incentivize the research and rumination that previously accompanied openly published work. Instead, we are left with a national conversation that sounds a lot like a morning sports talk show. We rummage through topics, offering hot takes rather than action, before moving on to bigger and better things. Can’t we do better?

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