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Songs on the Security of Networks
a blog by Michał "rysiek" Woźniak

The Outrage Dividend

I would like to propose a new term: outrage dividend.

Outrage dividend is the boost in reach that content which elicits strong emotional responses often gets on social media and other content sharing platforms.

This boost can be related to human nature — an outrage-inducing article will get shared more. It can also be caused by the particular set-up of the platform a given piece of content is shared on — Facebook’s post-promoting algorithm was designed to be heavily biased to promote posts that get the “angry” reaction.

A tale of two media outlets

Imagine two media organizations.

A Herald is a reliable media organization, with great fact-checking, in-depth reporting, and so on. Their articles are nuanced, well-argued, and usually stay away from sensationalism and clickbaity titles.

B Daily is (for want of a better term) a disinformation peddler. They don’t care about facts, as long as their sensationalist, clickbaity articles get the clicks, and ad revenue rolls in.

Thanks to the outrage dividend, content produced by B Daily will get more clicks (and more ad revenue), as more people will engage with it simply because it’s exploiting our human nature; but it will also be put in front of more eyeballs because it causes people to be angry, and anger gets a boost (at least on Facebook).

Outrage Dividend’s compound interest

It gets worse: not only B Daily’s content is cheaper to produce (no actual reporting, no fact-checking, etc), not only does it get promoted more on the platform due to the particular angry reaction it causes in people, but also every time it gets fact-checked or debunked, that’s more engagement, and so even more reach.

Meanwhile, A Herald not only has to pay for expensive experts to do fact-checking, for reporters to do reporting, and so on, but also they feel they need to pay for reach, because their nuanced, in-depth, well-reasoned pieces get fewer clicks as they get promoted less by the platform’s algorithms.

Relation to tabloids / yellow journalism

There obviously is a relation here to yellow journalism and tabloids. I think it’s fair to say that these types of outlets use or exploit the outrage dividend for profit, basically basing their business model on it.

Of course, tabloid newspapers of (say) early 20th century did benefit from the human side of the outrage dividend (which made them possible and profitable in the first place). But the rise of global, centralized platforms like Facebook, with their content promoting algorithms that can apparently be gamed in order to reach effectively unlimited audiences, made the rift between how hard it is to get nuanced content reach a broad audience, and how easy it is to spread disinformation and misinformation, really problematic.

With all this in mind I think we need to seriously consider ways outrage dividend could be countered, and what options (technological, legislative, or other) are available for that.