/ 24 April 2021

Addicted to Twitter outrage

Us Racism Twitter
Raging against outrage: The activist group, Change the Terms Reducing Hate Online, protest outside Twitter Headquarters in San Francisco in the United States, calling for the company to stop spreading racism. (Philip Pacheco/AFP)

In a book called Atomic Habits, author James Clear describes the process of habit formation as comprising four steps: a cue, a craving, a response and a reward. This is called the “habit loop”. Ultimately, we can create habits, and even become addicted to a behaviour, when our brain associates it (drinking, smoking, tweeting) with a pleasurable outcome.

Too many people on Twitter are addicted to outrage. My hypothesis — not an original one at all — is that the likes and retweets received for piling on to the latest scandal engender a sense of belonging; this belonging, fostered by the mutual reinforcement of each other’s righteous indignation, is the reward. 


Whatever the reward, a reliable cue for a mass South African Twitter rage is the Democratic Alliance: John Steenhuisen, Natasha Mazzone and the queen, Helen Zille. The latter will surely have her turn again soon with the release of her new book, but at the beginning of this month it was former DA leader Tony Leon’s turn.

By now you’re all probably aware of the whole saga but to recap: Leon made a comment in an interview with News24 about his latest book, Future Tense: Reflections On My Troubled Land. The offending statement does not come from the book, but from the interview. This is the full paragraph:

“Resting his right hand on his leg, Leon says Maimane’s election as DA leader ‘was an experiment that went wrong’, as Maimane had never committed to the party’s ideals before joining it.”

In a tweet about the resulting fury, Leon noted “something rather magnificent in the faux outrage of [the] Twitter woke brigade about an article most didn’t read …” 

I understand that he used the word “magnificent” ironically. But I would like to take a more serious tone and describe said outrage as dangerously corrosive to our public discourse.

Let’s go back to Clear’s habit loop. The cue, Leon, immediately triggered an intense craving for a digital lynching and, with predictable but still impressive speed, the mob showed up on fleek.

The hypocrisy on display was glorious. The same people who spent years calling Maimane a puppet, a front and even an experiment, quickly became indignant about his dehumanisation by Leon. It appears that Maimane is an experiment when some people say he is; it’s just that Tony Leon can’t say it.

There is already a long article on PoliticsWeb that demonstrates this hypocrisy with a wide sample of instances when people, including Maimane, have been referred to as such without consequence, so I don’t need to recount them here. 

Rather, my concern is with the effect of this outrage addiction on our public discourse and how it diminishes our prospects for fostering intelligent political debate that can lead to better social and electoral outcomes.

Our Twitter reactions are so much faster than our thinking capacity. The desire to get in on the ground floor of that day’s outrage supersedes even basic sense — like reading an article before you comment on it. Rather than genuine engagement with serious issues, we thrive on outrage for its own sake. 

It’s looking less and less like a bad habit, and more like an addiction. Almost all addictions are destructive, but this must be one of the most significant in terms of its effect.

We are losing our grip on fundamental things such as truth and context. Instead, we are creating a norm of imputing the worst intentions to each other, drawing out the most offensive inference from every word, even when there is a more generous interpretation available. We do this even when we know the charitable interpretation to be the most likely, or even the truth.

Every party’s leadership choices are essentially experiments. The party has a hypothesis that a particular candidate will improve their electoral prospects. If the leader succeeds in increasing the party’s votes, the test is a success; if they fail, the party will have to re-evaluate its hypothesis, and the guillotine is likely to befall the unfortunate head of the failed leader.

Now, I am not especially knowledgeable about the scientific method — I dropped science halfway through standard 9 for fear that it would jeopardise my matric exemption. So, if even I can see why an “experiment that went wrong” is an apt analogy for Maimane, then the most likely reason smart minds missed the obvious alternative interpretation to Leon’s remark must be that they simply did not want to be charitable. And that’s not because the comment was so terrible as to preclude an alternative reading, but rather because the outrage is so much more satisfying. Righteous indignation is delicious.

I have another hypothesis, namely that the current toxicity of our debates reflects our broad rejection of the value of an old-fashioned virtue: humility. Humble people can show a little grace today because they recognise that they may err tomorrow and need some grace too. Humble people listen with an open mind, looking for nuggets of truth and something to learn, instead of feverishly seeking something with which to trash another’s character, career and more.

The obvious preference for outrage paints the offender into a corner. If they admit to the malicious intent imputed to them, they will be crucified; if they do not, they will be crucified. There is no incentive to engage earnestly with the mob because the mob has no appetite for either a contestation of ideas, or repentance and forgiveness — only outrage. 

Under these circumstances, conservative American commentator Ben Shapiro’s advice makes total sense: never cave to the outrage mob.

The logical outcome of this standoff is evident in the way things are unfolding in democratic societies around the world. 

In places such as Europe and the United States, the result has been increasing polarisation. In our already highly racialised society, the consequences will almost certainly be worse.

With so many seemingly insurmountable problems facing the country, I am happy to report that this is one we can fix for free, and each individual’s choices can make a meaningful difference. 

We still have a choice to talk to each other in good faith, and to listen to one another charitably. And while we’re at it, we can read first, think more and tweet later. If we pick this high road, the quality of our debates will improve, our society will be better for it and, as we practise deeper reflection, we may each become wiser too.