The number of issues on our social media feeds that generate a sense of outrage and the ease with which we can express this raise the question: Does social media fuel outrage? And what is the impact of outrage on our lives?


Public outrage has become much easier in the 21st century. Rather than joining the crowd in the town square to throw fruit and day-old veggies at some miscreant in the stock, we can express our outrage in the comfort of our homes by pressing ‘send’ while sipping our soy latte or chardonnay.

The number of issues on our social media feeds that generate a sense of outrage and the ease with which we can express this raise the question: Does social media fuel outrage? And what is the impact of outrage on our lives?

In considering the impact of outrage expressed through social media, it is important to clarify two terms that, while connected, are different.

Outrage and Moral Panic

Social media algorithms feed outrage and moral panic, and while outrage can very easily tip into moral panic, there are essential differences between the two.


Outrage is characterised by intense anger and indignation and occurs when a person perceives a violation of their moral norms or personal values. The sense of injustice or wrongdoing fuels the outrage and motivates the person to act against the perceived wrongdoer.

Moral Panic

Moral panic is an exaggerated societal reaction to perceived threats that often arises when specific groups are blamed for societal problems. A current example in the political realm is the way far-right politicians blame refugees or migrants for societal problems such as lack of housing, unemployment, or crime. The aim of blaming these groups is that they become the “folk devils” for all of society's problems.

Historically, the media has played a crucial role in framing and intensifying moral panic. These days, social media and digital platforms are used to construct and amplify the panic. For example, the rise of hate speech on social media has been linked to a global increase in violence towards minority groups, including mass shootings and lynchings.

There is a link between outrage and moral panic. When enough individuals feel intense anger fuelled by

a)     a sense of injustice that another group of people is getting preferential treatment  and

b)     a sense of disempowerment and inequality resulting from failed economic policies. 

it is easy for this outrage to coalesce into moral panic. The rise of far-right groups in America and Europe is linked to this sense of injustice and disempowerment.


This article will restrict itself to considering outrage and social media.


The function of outrage

Expression of outrage is not a new phenomenon. People in society have always expressed outrage, as far as we can tell from historical accounts. In the Middle Ages, the town square, the person in the stock, or public beatings provided the outlet for outrage.

If outrage is something we have always expressed, what is its function?

Outrage has both a societal and a personal function.

Societal function

Outrage promotes a sense of social cohesion and cooperation. It says that someone has done something against the group or that something a person has done is morally wrong. Public punishment reinforces what the group considers acceptable behaviour and encourages group cohesion.

Another reason for outrage in a society is simply that it feels good. In his 2017 book Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst, Rober Sapolsky states that pushing a perceived wrongdoer releases dopamine within the brain, which relates to how the brain processes pleasure. He claims these neurological rewards are one of the reasons humans have engaged in public shaming rituals.

Personal function

The personal function of outrage is perhaps the more interesting. When a person expresses their anger at what they believe to be wrong, they may also be performing moral grandstanding. In other words, they are highlighting their virtue by pointing out the non-virtuous attributes of the other person.

When people use phrases such as:

      I would never do that!

      Can you believe it?!

      What kind of person would do that?

or similar, their outrage is much more about virtual signalling. That is, putting someone else down to boost themselves and declare their virtual to others. Virtual signalling provides the dopamine boost we would have received in the Middle Ages by joining the crowd in the town square for a public shaming ritual.

Outrage and social media

While outrage may have had a historical and societal function, the internet and social media have amplified our means of public shaming by taking it into the global network in a way that was not previously possible.

While the owners of social media platforms would like us to believe they are simply providing neutral platforms that facilitate freedom of expression, the reality is that the way these platforms are designed, outrage is rewarded.

Outrage is rewarded

A study from Yale University found that when people express outrage online, they often receive likes and shares. These likes and shares act as positive rewards and encourage further expression of outrage.

This becomes a feedback loop. The more likes and shares, the more the person will continue using language that triggers outrage. However, the question then becomes whether the person is outraged or simply using the language of outrage to generate positive reinforcement through dopamine release.

Hence the statement in the title, “I am outraged….at least I think I am”.


One of the interesting findings, when data on tweets was analysed, was the mismatch between the perceived greater outrage in the tweets and the outrage the authors reported feeling when writing them. This indicates a gap between the outrage people were feeling, the outrage they were expressing, and the over-perception of outrage by the reader of the tweet.


When outrage is overperceived, people may be more likely to conform to what they perceive as a norm of expressing outrage – even though outrage may not be the norm. This is where we need to be aware of pluralistic ignorance.


Pluralistic ignorance occurs when a person may privately reject an idea, but because they believe most of the other members in the group believe the idea, they decide to accept it. In other words, if our social media feed is made up of people we tend to agree with, and they are expressing outrage over a particular topic, we may feel compelled to be angry about it, even though privately, we feel neutral about the subject.

Social media as a feedback loop

Social media is a feedback loop. The more we like and share a post, the more we are rewarded with similar posts. This means if we like and share posts that express outrage over a range of issues, we will begin to see similar posts. The more posts we see like this, the more we will believe that outrage is the norm rather than a product of the posts we have liked and shared in the past. Sophia Moskalensko, a researcher into radicalisation, states that ‘over time, people shift their opinions to closely resemble what they feel is the social norm.”

This again raises the question of whether our outrage is based on our belief that something is wrong or on our response to what we think is the social norm.

Too much outrage and a sense of powerlessness

While our ancestor's sense of outrage was usually limited to what was occurring in the local village or town, social media has opened the window to global injustices and the possibility of a continuous feed of doomsday posts that can overwhelm us.

Prolonged outrage leads to a sense of depletion and exhaustion, apart from any adverse health impacts that arise from being continually angry. Not only does it lead to exhaustion, but outrage also leads to a sense of despondency and powerlessness to do anything effective.

Given we are wired for outrage and social media exploits it, how do we avoid the outrage trap?

There are several questions we can ask ourselves to avoid the outrage trap.

      Am I virtue signalling by expressing my outrage? In other words, am I trying to show how good, caring or compassionate I am compared to the other person? If we are virtue signalling, finding another way to boost our sense of self-worth rather than by spreading our pseudo-outrage is essential.

      If I am going to express my outrage, what is one concrete thing I am prepared to do apart from sharing the post on social media? For example, am I prepared to donate, volunteer, or contribute in some practical way to resolve the situation? If all I am prepared to do is share on social media, then it may be better not to share.

      If I am going to share a post on social media that is critical of another person or situation, have I considered them as individuals, or am I simply responding to preconceived ideas, either my own or the preconceived ideas of people posting in my social media feed? If I were the recipient of this post, how would I feel?

      How will I balance my outrage at what is wrong with compassion and enjoyment of what is good and beautiful in the world?

While biology and social media make it easy to become caught up in the loop of outrage, by thinking through some of these questions, we can exercise more agency and decide what we will do to bring about change for good rather than simply feeding into the outrage on social media.