Big Bird And The Perpetual Outrage Machine
Over the weekend, a bunch of conservatives got mad at Big Bird for tweeting about receiving a COVID vaccination.
Yes, Big Bird from Sesame Street. No, you’re not having a stroke (although if you smell toast please stop reading this and call 911)
Here is the tweet from Big Bird, who I have recently learned is 6 years old, celebrating the news that he can now be vaccinated due to the CDC’s recommendation that the Pfizer-BioNTech is safe for children ages 5-11.
Sadly Elmo, who is only 3 years old, will still have to wait to be eligible for the COVID vaccine.
Conservatives lined up to do their thing on Twitter
And my personal favorite
A full-scale meltdown over...a tweet that no tender age child will see unless their parent shows it to them. Which of course leads to the question of who the tweet was meant for, as kids aged 5-11 are not on Twitter, but the overreaction has made that point almost moot. Conservatives hyperventilated over a single tweet that they can choose to not share with their children if they disagree with the message, going so far as to call it propaganda and communism. The problem, if there was one in the first place, could be easily solved. But as per usual:
Situations like this are nothing new on social media, and they don’t occur solely among conservative commentators. Remember the Southwest Airlines Let’s Go Brandon story? That was only a week ago, but when was the last time you heard someone talk about it? The fake horse goo story? Hell, nobody is even talking about Dave Chappelle anymore.
This is what I have christened the Perpetual Outrage Machine - the phenomenon of one political tribe getting very mad over something trivial, only to move on within days to the next trivial outrage. Nobody moves on because the issue at hand gets solved, mind you, it just stops being the thing to be Mad Online about.
If you’re wondering why this machine keeps churning, there are two answers — the first answer lies in looking at what kinds of incentives social media provides. Everyone who posts on social media knows the game; the angrier you can be (or pretend to be) on social media, the more attention you garner. The more attention, the more followers. The more followers, the more prominence. The more prominence, the more opportunities to springboard to something bigger than social media commentator. That’s the social media game in a nutshell.
The second answer is that people really seem to like being angry. Anger catharsis, especially its domino effect, is a documented occurrence:
“Studies have examined the psychological health of people who react cathartically very often. Despite what Freud believed, catharsis triggers more thoughts and emotions of the same nature.
For example, if you are angry and you start shouting and throwing things, you activate more aggressive thoughts, emotions, and behaviors. Every time we have a particular thought or emotion, networks of associations are activated in our brain. Thus, having angry thoughts or expressing anger activates cognitive associations that affect anger. This can lead to chronic anger problems, which is not at all healthy.
Unfortunately, the media and pop psychology encourage catharsis and ask people not to suppress their emotions, especially anger. But the scientific community has concluded that expressing anger strongly and irrationally does not help control anger at all. In fact, doing nothing is better for controlling anger and maintaining psychological health. There is nothing wrong with feeling angry and acting assertively when an issue needs to be solved. However, when anger is expressed, especially in an overreaction, more problems are created.”
Social media makes it easy to give in to overreacting and rewards it to boot. Is it any wonder why the Perpetual Outrage Machine keeps humming along? There is a demand for irrational anger, a group of people willing to meet that demand, so on and on it goes.
And it’s all so easy on social media — write a post or a tweet, hit the post button, and let the anger flow. It feels like you accomplished something big and profound, and it’s sure easier than doing any actual work to effect change.
The real issue that plages social media is, how does anyone fix this broken dynamic? The depressing answer is, you can’t. There will always be one group of people looking for their anger catharsis and another group willing to give it to them. What concerns me is that this anger catharsis trend seems to be speeding up, careening from one “controversy” to another so fast one can hardly keep up. You see it in the rise of anti-x, anti-anti-x, anti-anti-anti-x, until everyone is screaming at each other. Nobody wants nuance or calm, everyone wants to be angry.
All this cycle does is turn everyone into a furious little cinnamon bun, and you don’t want to be a furious little cinnamon bun because, well…
But in all seriousness, the level of casual anger I’ve seen on social media has been through the roof lately and I’m not sure why. I know some people are genuinely angry — after the last two years who can blame them? — but so much of what I see appears to be angry as a casual default reaction. Have we normalized being superficially, performatively angry? What does it mean if we have? And how are we supposed to gauge genuine anger from performative anger?