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By Jessi Hempel

Three days into the #MeToo meme, my Facebook News Feed is teeming with posts. Female

friends have shared heavy anecdotes about inappropriate events. Men have attempted to express

solidarity, or concern, or surprise. Celebrities have run with the meme. A backlash has

materialized, in which women voice concerns about those who are speaking up.

On its surface, #MeToo has the makings of an earnest and effective social movement. It’s

galvanizing women and trans people everywhere to speak out about harassment and abuse. It’s

causing everyone to weigh in on systemic sexism in our culture. In truth, however, #MeToo is a

too-perfect meme. It harnesses social media’s mechanisms to drive users (that’s you and me) into

escalating states of outrage while exhausting us to the point where we cannot meaningfully act.

In other words, #MeToo—despite the best intentions of so many participating—is everything

that’s wrong with social media.

Outrage is central to the design of most social media platforms—for very good reason. It’s an

emotion that inspires sharing, which causes all of us to spend more time engaged with the

platform. And that translates directly to revenue for the companies.

But what’s the impact on us? Yale assistant professor Molly Crockett takes this on in new

research on moral outrage in the digital age, in which she looks critically at how digital media

changes the expression of moral outrage and its social consequences. Crockett is a trained

neuroscientist with a PhD in experimental psychology who studies altruism, morality, and

values-based decision-making in humans. (She gives a good TED talk on the subject.) She

believes new digital technologies may be transforming the way we experience outrage, and

limiting how much we can actually change social realities.

It’s useful here to consider the role that violations of moral norms played in our communities

before Facebook. The purpose of passing along this information was to help us establish who we

could trust and thus better cooperate with one another, notes Crockett. In other words, the only

point of speaking out about outrageous acts like harassment and abuse would be to curtail the

abuser from harming others.

Online platforms have changed our incentives for sharing. For one, they compete for our

attention, so their algorithms are primed to promote the content we are most likely to click—

regardless of whether it benefits us as individuals or a community. People are more likely to

share things that elicit moral emotions like outrage, writes Crockett.

As a result, our “outrage” bar continues to move firmly up and to the right as our feeds become

saturated by egregious stories. We become numb to tragedies because we’re unable to process

the emotions they engender at the speed with which they arise. As Crockett writes, “Just as a

habitual snacker eats without feeling hungry, a habitual online shamer might express outrage

without actually feeling outraged.” We may also discover that, just as venting anger begets

anger, expressing outrage leads us to feel the emotion more deeply and consistently. Neither of

these changes is good for humans.

In this new climate, it’s unclear to what ends we share at all. If someone has violated a moral

norm in your community, it can be challenging or damaging to confront them. I have never

confronted the old boss that knocked on my hotel door during a business trip a decade ago, for

example, nor have I told most of the people with whom I worked at the time. Online, however,

it’s a different story. It’s often the case that the people or organizations you shame “publicly” via

social media will never see the criticism at all. Your social audience is generally a group of like-

minded people—those who have already opted in to your filter bubble. Or as Crockett writes:

“Shaming a stranger on a deserted street is far riskier than joining a Twitter mob of thousands.”

One of the chief reasons we decry the actions of others digitally is for our own reputational

benefit—so those like-minded people will like us even more. According to Crockett: “While

offline punishment signals your virtue only to whoever might be watching, doing so online

instantly advertises your character to your entire social network and beyond.” In other words,

when I posted the phrase “Me Too,” on Facebook, I was advertising that I was a person who

agreed that harassment and abuse are reprehensible.

Which brings us back to the #MeToo meme. As I scroll through social this week, I feel fried. My

blood is running hot. I’m anxious. I am looking at the people around me with skepticism,

wondering why they did or didn’t weigh in, or whether they’ve seen my post. I’m scanning the

six emojis I’m given on Facebook to figure out how to react to the enraging and vulnerable-

sounding posts friends have shared. (Does “like” mean “I heard you” or “I like that?” I still don’t

know.) My newsfeed is a triggerfest. What will come of these posts and this moment?

Toward the end of her paper, Crockett posits that we may discover that dense expressions of

moral outrage may lead to less meaningful involvement in social causes through volunteering or

donations. “People are less likely to spend money on punishing unfairness when they are given

the opportunity to express their outrage via written messages instead,” she writes. Indeed, where

would I even begin to direct money or time to confront the issues invoked through #MeToo?

And before any of us can muster the focus to take action, we will certainly be confronted by the

next outrage-inspiring meme—another Trump comment; another vicious act of nature in a

heavily populated place; another violent atrocity.

It’s possible for #MeToo to rise from a meme into a social movement. There’s a chance the

stories accruing in my feed can begin to transform our culture into one where every woman can

say without fear—and with certainty that she will both be believed and received in good faith—

“me too.” But for that to happen, we must put down our devices and talk to one another.

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