Fauxrage and why you should always be wary of claims about social media outrage

Malcolm Turnbull.jpg

You could be fooled into thinking that Malcolm Turnbull had just committed some heinous crime with headlines over the weekend such as "‘Irresponsible’: Why Malcolm Turnbull’s footy photo is causing a huge backlash", "Malcolm Turnbull taken to task for multi-tasking at the footy", and "Malcolm Turnbull faces huge backlash online". All for kissing his granddaughter on the head while holding a beer and watching some AFL.

The problem with those headlines though is that they simply aren't an accurate reflection of what the actual reaction was to the photo. As The Age reported, the number of offended comments at their time of publication was two out of a total of 1,600 comments. Likewise if you look at the reactions on the original post you'll see that a grand total of 49 out of 18,000 reactions are clearly negative ones (angry, wow, or sad). That represents roughly 0.27% of the reactions to that post.

So no, there simply wasn't a huge backlash. There were a small handful of very vocal people across social media who display what's called "fauxrage" - faking or overplaying the amount of outrage relative to the thing that they're claiming to be outraged about. This is, sadly, a hallmark of social media where a small number of people can have a disproportionate influence on the zeitgeist either by the volume of times they post, or simply by their perceived place. Throw in a few fauxraged political or social commentators on Monday's morning TV shows, and there, you have a story where there simply wasn't one.

I've seen this first-hand myself. Social media posts by Bill English like the spaghetti on pizza photos, the walk-run video, and the Budget Day Pie Poll all received massively positive reactions, with negative reactions making up anywhere between 1-3% of responses. Had you read some of the news stories generated as a result, and commentators opining about it, you'd of thought there was some massive backlash against them. Again, there wasn't. They were hugely successful pieces of content.

While there's many issues contributing to trust in the media reaching historic lows (in New Zealand they're just 1 percentage point above MPs) I can't help but feel that incidents like this contribute to the decline. When the central tenant of news stories claiming outrage about Malcolm Turnbull's photo don't line up with the actual evidence on the ground - publicly available stats that anyone can check in a matter of moments - it erodes, even if only very slightly, at the perceived quality and trust you place in the media organisation that placed that story.

As authors like So You've Been Publicly Shamed's Jon Ronson, or actors like Stephen Fry who famously said " 'I'm offended by that' So fucking what?" try to get at is that as a society we shouldn't be jumping on every outrage bandwagon that comes along. Yes, there are situations where outrage is justified and necessary in order to motivate societal change. But those situations are not served when media organisations attempt to an impression of mass outrage where clearly none of any substance of volume exists.