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Programmed for Outrage: How Digital Media Helped Usher in an Era of Anger

Over the weekend a top trending hashtag was #MilwaukeeUnrest as sections of the Sherman Park neighborhood were set aflame. Twitter users took to social media to both condone and condemn the rioting, 140-characters at a time. During this time the Twitter feed was a snapshot of a communication breakdown over important issues. Many words were put into the “Twittersphere” but minimal connection between users was made. This case bears resemblance to the current upsurge of urban violence in St. Louis, New York, Chicago, Baltimore, Dallas, and other areas.

Not only has our culture hit a roadblock; the Internet has provided a platform for angry mob mentality on all sides that is reminiscent of the not so distant past. Social media has helped magnify cultural frustration, which has quickly ushered in a new era of anger that is familiar to the social and cultural turbulence of the 1960s and 1970s.

In 2015, Bryan Burrough wrote a book titled Days of Rage: America’s Radical Underground, The FBI, and the Forgotten Age of Revolutionary Violence. Burrough’s tome adds useful context to the violent years during the late 1960s and early 1970s that feels strikingly relevant today. In 1972, for instance, domestic bombings happened daily and cop killing was commonplace. One may wonder if we are simply repeating those “Days of Rage.” One of the inciting factors (among many others) for such a return to a heated and violent culture is the advent of digital media.

Aftermath of the violence that erupted in Milwaukee on August 13th, 2016

Of course, the medium itself is not the problem. It’s the users. Anyone who spends time on social media can see one paradoxical post after the next. A call for peace followed by a violent threat. A call for tolerance while one maintains intolerance towards disagreement. Calls for civil discussion in one post followed by a caps-locked rant in the next. We’ve all seen it and the root causes for such activity are myriad. Instead of counter-arguing with each individual and jumping into heated threads on social media (this is a fool’s errand), it’s important to understand how these platforms impact our thinking.

New Media scholar Douglas Rushkoff wrote a book called Program or Be Programmed: Ten Commands for a Digital Age that outlines several integral components for finding sanity in our digital world. Online environments encourage anonymous action, be it completely without identity or simply the feeling too comfortable with the distance technology provides. With full understanding of this problem, Rushkoff argues, “The less we take responsibility for what we say and do online, the more likely we are to behave in ways that reflect our worst natures – or even the worst natures of others.” Digital technology works as an impersonal communication tool that often brings out the worst in its users. We should act online in the same manner we would in front of those we are connecting with.

Truth is also important, as Rushkoff notes, “The more valuable, truthful, and real our messages, the more they will spread and better we will do.” Such a notion is commendable, but problematic today in a time when facts are relative. People believe whatever they want if it comes from a subjectively ‘correct’ source. Nothing has to be substantiated as long as it ‘sounds about right.’ Like. Retweet. Share. Perpetuating opinion and angry feelings online is easy because there is minimal thought involved. One click can reach hundreds or thousands of people who may spread it to hundreds or thousands more.

The end result here, when rushed emotional messages are shared widely, is substantial polarization. The authors of The Rhetoric of Agitation and Control note “the strategy of polarization encompasses tactics designed to move the individual into the agitation ranks – to force a conscious choice between agitation and control.” The viral nature of social media allows outrage to spread like wildfire and all control is lost. The potential for agitation is greatly multiplied in the digital world where users type passionately from a distance using rhetorically shallow ‘truth bombs’ and trendy hashtags. Such actions only fan the flames of polarization that currently burns uncontrollably through our country.

The trip from primetime talking point to hashtag is only a continuation of the journey from Newspaper/TV broadcast to poster board slogans of past generations. When issues get simplified to a catchphrase, critical thinking takes a back seat while emotions take the wheel. Neil Postman prophesized the disintegration of our society through media in his 1992 book Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology. Postman argues that a fully mediated world “has an emphasis on progress without limits, rights without responsibilities, and technology without cost. The Technopoly story is with out a moral center. It puts in its place efficiency, interest, and economic advance.” The same can be said about today’s social issues that manifest into digital trends. When Twitter is used for politics, the 140-character platform surrenders context for immediacy and critical thinking for emotionality.

It’s no secret that opinions are too often formed on sound bites, tweets, and slogans than on research and critical thought. What must be spread is the knowledge that digital technology is effective in terms of communication speed but incredibly defective in terms of efficiency. We constantly get new information fed to us through digital means that is regularly questionable. Anyone surprised at the violence, protests, assassinations, and general cultural unrest should not be. Cultural agitators have always known exactly how to make everyone’s blood boil, however, digital media has sped up the process, becoming a monster of its own. Provoked anger now goes viral in seconds. Like. Retweet. Share. Repeat.

In his conclusion to Days of Rage, Burrough quotes Sekou Odinga, a prominent 1960s radical recently released from prison, who said, “What I care about is my children, and your children, and the children of tomorrow. I want them to study the past, and learn about it and carry on. Because America has only gotten worse.” Odinga ultimately predicts the fall of America if we cannot learn from the past. Similarly, Postman quotes Cicero in his final chapter of Technopoly, “to remain ignorant of things that happened before you were born is to remain a child.” Today’s headlines of outrage, violence, and social unrest are nothing new. We have just reached a new peak of agitation that is magnified by the Internet. Digital media has programmed us for outrage. It is our job to find the civility that the digital divide has blinded us from.


Chris Yogerst, Ph.D. is assistant professor of communication for the University of Wisconsin Colleges. His new book, From the Headlines to Hollywood: The Birth and Boom of Warner Bros., will be out on September 15th.

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