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2015: a year of fake outrage and backlash that made us feel better

The infamous Starbucks red cup.
The infamous Starbucks red cup.
Spencer Platt/Getty Images
Alex Abad-Santos is a senior correspondent who explains what society obsesses over, from Marvel and movies to fitness and skin care. He came to Vox in 2014. Prior to that, he worked at the Atlantic.

When #BoycottStarWarsVII began trending on Twitter in October, Lord Humungus (@DarklyEnlighten, before the account was suspended) was smiling in some deep pocket of the internet. Humungus created #BoycottStarWarsVII to bemoan the number of nonwhite actors with roles in Star Wars: The Force Awakens, the latest installment of the franchise. People had every right to be upset over this racist hashtag, especially when it began trending. But it wasn't really what Humungus said or did that caused #BoycottStarWarsVII to start trending; instead, everyone who voiced their disagreement with him by loudly repeating and retweeting his argument was to blame.

"Reverse outrage" is the righteous internet backlash against an initial statement or display of outrage — think a boycott or a call to action — however founded or unfounded it may be. It works like a tsunami, starting with an initial shock that's followed by quiet as the bluster and bombast retreats like a low tide, then returns in a megaton surge, often aided by the media. The irony is that in the rush to prove one's moral superiority by speaking out against some racist, sexist, or otherwise hurtful sentiment (whether it's a hashtag or a viral video about a coffee cup), the sentiment is frequently amplified on a scale that wouldn't have been possible had people not taken the bait.

Social media has given us an avenue to prove our worthiness. And we've turned it into an express lane.

In Humungus's case, he created his hashtag with fellow Twitter user @genophilia. Their idiotic, racist stuff looked like other idiotic, racist stuff on the internet. But with a little persistence, #BoycottStarWarVII eventually began popping up on sites like Reddit and trending in people's Twitter timelines. Then, with some reinforcement from the media, this tsunami became inescapable.

"#BoycottStarWarsVII: People Boycott The Force Awakens Because It Promotes 'White Genocide'" read one headline at the Mary Sue. "'Boycott 'Star Wars VII'" Movement Launched; Movie Called 'Anti-White,'" read another at the Hollywood Reporter. "Racists Urge Boycott of ‘Star Wars: Episode VII’ Over Black Lead, and Most of Them Love Trump," the Daily Beast reported.

Even though the #BoycottStarWarsVII hashtag was the work of just a few racist, ignorant trolls, there were exponentially more people who were quick to show how good they were by pounding their chests into the vast abyss of the internet.

This behavior wasn't limited to the Star Wars boycott. In 2015, controversy erupted over Starbucks' holiday cups because a few people declared the cups were anti-Christian. Though many of us don't personally know any men's rights advocates — individuals who view feminism as a world-breaking evil— we heard about their desire to boycott Mad Max: Fury Road because they hated the premise of a strong female character leading the movie. There was also a group of students at Duke who didn't want to read Fun Home because they found it pornographic.

The only reason we heard about these fights was reverse outrage. And in 2015, reverse outrage became a new reality of our online lives.

Reverse outrage is powerful because it helps define us

The entire basis of Facebook, Snapchat, Instagram, and Twitter is the idea that every little thing we share defines us — both to the people following our accounts and to ourselves. When we share something, it's because we want people to know that we like Rihanna, or that we think we look pretty good in a particular photo. Each of us curates what we post so that everything falls in line with whatever image or reputation we're trying to uphold. This also applies to outrage; the stuff that makes us angry — racists, bigots, SeaWorld, eggplant — is as telling as the stuff that makes us happy.

"There are studies showing that strong emotional reactions are the biggest motivating force for people to share content online, and that anger is the most motivating emotion, more than any positive emotion," says Joel Penney, an assistant professor at the school of communications and media at Montclair State University.

Penney studies the relationship between people's use of social media and their own social and political advocacy.

"I wouldn't say that [sharing outrage is] necessarily different from sharing what you agree with," he told me. "Often, people are sharing their collective outrage, particularly when circulating partisan news coverage about these incidents that essentially say, 'Here's something we should all get outraged about.'"

Our need to share parts of ourselves and define our identities makes outrage appealing to us. Sharing something we disagree with — and stating as much — is one of the easiest ways to prove we aren't racist or bigoted or sexist or whatever; we don't even have to explain ourselves. Clicking on that Facebook thumb is all we need to do.

How the internet makes it easy for outrage to proliferate

It's not like the ideas of outrage and backlash are new, but social media has given everyone with a smartphone a platform to share information and broadcast their opinions online. In the pre-internet age, you needed to talk to people face to face (or at least on the phone) to tell them about some news story that was bothering you. You had to read a newspaper to find out about a racist Star Wars boycott or a controversy over disposable coffee cups. But the internet has closed the spaces between us, making it easier to find and share news and ideas, for better and for worse.

The Star Wars boycott or Starbucks' red cup of anti-Christmas were delivered right to our phones and fingertips. They originated with extreme racists and extreme Christian evangelists — people who might not necessarily be in our social circles. Social media compressed the gaps between their world and ours, making their calls to action more urgent, more immediate, and our responses just as quick. Their outrage provided an opportunity to for us to feel outrage as well.

The media gets a huge payoff by fueling outrage, whether it's authentic or not

The shameful truth of journalism is that every news outlet thrives on clicks. In recent years, those clicks have dovetailed with the prominence of social media — especially Facebook — so most news outlets ( included) began to regularly cover stuff that people will want to share on those platforms. Part of that strategy means fueling outrage, because it's so powerful.

It's why the outlets that covered #BoycottStarWarsVII made it seem a lot larger than the handful of individuals who got the hashtag trending, and why the outlets that covered the Starbucks red cup story made it seem like Christians all over the country were angry when really it was only evangelical fundamentalists who were actually mad. Both of those stories gained the majority of their momentum because people disagreed with them and wanted to say so publicly, and the media jumped at the chance to cover their dismay.

In November, writer Parker Molloy published a startling (albeit slightly entertaining) post on Medium about how she'd tweeted something snarky about a lipstick called "Underage Red" — and with some unsolicited help from the media, her tweet eventually ballooned into a corporate complaint.

"One outlet picks it up (in this case, it was Business Insider) … by the time it’s picked up by another outlet (in this case, Fortune), the classification has been upped from 'disgusted' to 'outraged,'" Molloy wrote, detailing the media centipede that gobbled up her story, digested it, and then vomited out another version — and then another and another.

These outlets saw someone "upset" over a shade of lipstick and decided to put a searing spotlight on the "conflict." It didn't matter that Molloy herself insisted she wasn't offended; what mattered was that the story could be spun as controversial, as something that people could fight about, making it a story that people would likely click on and share online. Eventually the story grew so big that Kat Von D, the woman who owns the lipstick company that makes "Underage Red," released an official comment in response to the "outrage."

"In other words, they are putting out these 'outrage' pieces because they know that they will get a lot of attention, which is key for advertising revenue," Penney told me. "Twitter is typically the target because it's a very public site compared to other social media platforms — you don't have to be a part of a user's network in order to see their tweets, so it's very common for activists and bloggers to mine Twitter feeds for ammunition, for something to use against the other side. "

Penney explains that it's actually a savvy thing to do. "I wouldn't necessarily label this a cynical business strategy," he says. "The people who own and operate these partisan news outlets seem to be ideologically in line with what they're putting out, so they probably see what they're doing as helping their cause, while raking in online advertising dollars in the process."

Outrage is easy — and dangerous

Whether it's about race in Star Wars or the way Christianity is portrayed by the media, not everything is easily settled by shouting and sharing. Unfortunately, this mentality is creeping into cultural criticism, because the types of reviews that people tend to gravitate toward are the ones that either lionize a piece of art beyond recognition or mercilessly destroy it (Hocus Pocus is still awful though). The idea of liking something just fine or finding something mildly disagreeable doesn't really fit into the schematics of online outrage. And here's an even scarier thought: If artists are taking their cues from the criticism and reactions they read online, they risk flattening their art to match a profile they know will elicit strong reactions, at all costs.

Therein is the most disheartening aspect of our rush to proclaim that we're Good by denouncing something as Bad. We often don't care about the fixing the wrong or adding to the conversation; all we see is an opportunity to affirm some version of ourselves by taking a side and making a scene. And in doing so, we've figured out a way to dismantle complex ideas into simplistic, easily digestible things that, in the end, are ultimately disposable — until the next fight comes around.