It starts with a tweet, perhaps, or a brief video clip. Someone, somewhere, has violated your core values—those of every correct-thinking person. How could this have happened? Not only were the weak abused and justice violated, but it was done with impunity—with perverse pleasure even—by agents who hate you and yours. You find the article that best explains the moral dimension of the injustice. You retweet it with a comment about the diseased mind of the perpetrator. You return to your day reassured.
You have now not only become a viewer of outrage porn, but have contributed to the production of the pervasive outrage porno which surrounds us. Just as pornography sidesteps the complexity, risk and messiness of physical sexuality in favor of optimized voyeurship, outrage porno sidesteps the social function of gossip to facilitate low-risk self-righteousness. The costs are borne by the unwitting performers, the objects of our ire, who are frequently driven to mental health crises and may lose their livelihoods due to the deluge of harassment that ensues.
These performers often protest that they are much more than what was on display in one video clip. In fact, the performers often turn out to be entirely different people from the roles into which they were conscripted. The Covington Catholic kids turned out to not have been young Kavanaughs, seeking out a Native elder to abuse him. The story of the racists who attacked Jussie Smollett turned out to be far more complicated than initially reported. Sometimes, the outrageous event didn’t even occur in the present. Time and space are no barriers to outrage.
Unfortunately for us viewers, we are all potential performers in the outrage porno, nervously waiting on the casting couch. We are increasingly aware of the fact that the slightest misstep can put us on the receiving end. All it takes is an iPhone, a narrative and a mistake. We are thankful that our worst moments have never been caught on camera, nor our worst ideas published on Twitter, to be condemned by hundreds of millions of people. At least, not yet.
The term outrage porn was coined by essayist Tim Kreider in 2009 to describe manufactured indignation, optimized for virality. In 2019, social media, financial incentives and the pitfalls of human psychology have coalesced into a perverse production line, in which we are producer-consumers. Outrage porn is exploited by culture war profiteers, weaponized by memetic tribes, leveraged by wokonomic capitalists and kept alive by an outrage industrial complex.
Every angry retweet and snarky reply turns us into useful idiots for the outrage porno machine. Our perpetual outage has reduced our agency, ruined our sense-making apparatus and rendered us powerless to confront the numerous risks that require long-term, collective decision-making. How can we escape the outrage porno before we realize—horrified—that we’ve been cast in a starring role?
A Hippocratic oath for content creators is one possible avenue by which we could improve our social media climate. The Hippocratic oath famously centers the injunction to do no harm. In our social climate, in which it is easier than ever to harm others all over the world, through misinformation and abuse, such an oath is vital.
In our white paper on Culture War 2.0, we ask:
Could there be a Culture War equivalent to the Hippocratic Oath? One that chieftains of the memetic tribes could affirm? It would prove beneficial if journalists, authors, bloggers, and professors alike took this oath, but any social media user could take the oath, by pledging their name and accepting some sort of e-badge.
How could such an oath be taken? Podcasters and YouTubers could release an episode reading the oath. Bloggers could dedicate a post to it. Twitter influencers could add a link to the declaration to their profiles. The point is to publicly announce commitment to the oath’s principles.
Below, you’ll find our first version of the oath. We welcome suggestions for modifications and optimizations. What matters is that content creators commit to behavior their followers can hold them to. People who take this oath should feel the pinch of conscience before they call for somebody’s head. Psychological studies and the analysis of universities with honor codes has demonstrated the utility of this type of commitment. By taking the pledge, creators would put skin in the game. Many of us claim to want peace and civility. In the Wild West of social media, we not only have to practice and preach civility, but we have to encourage good behavior towards each other.
If even a small percentage of players in the culture war took such an oath, the virtue being signaled could make non-pledgers conspicuous, causing a cascade of commitment. We do not need 100% commitment, or even 51% commitment. All we need is an intransigent minority of peacemakers, who are sovereign actors, stubbornly peaceful, and whose behavior will provide a tacit model for those who don’t participate. Those inclined can start using this version of the oath on whatever platform they deem appropriate.
I swear to fulfill, to the best of my ability and judgment, this covenant:
I will be truthful in content creation. I will not willingly distort or misrepresent reality.
I will create content and engage others in the hope of improved understanding. While there might be multiple reasons for me to create content, my overarching intention to keep conversation open will keep my other intentions in check.
I will be sensitive to the human proclivity to engage in motivated reasoning. While creating content, I will be aware of the fact that I am just as likely to be guided by unconscious self-interest as anyone else.
I will engage in the principle of charity when interpreting opposing arguments. I will apply the strongest possible interpretation to the argument I am addressing, independently of how it comes across to me.
I will engage in the principle of humanity when interpreting motives. I will recognize that if I had experienced the same circumstances as the person I am disagreeing with, I might have made similar arguments.
I will conduct myself with intellectual humility. I will operate under the caveat that I could be wrong about the ideas I put forth. In contributing to conversation, I accept that my opinions are not the final word.
I will have evidence for the propositions I put forth, and will present it readily when asked.
I will be clear on the difference between verbal and factual disputes. If I am using a word that has competing definitions, I will acknowledge this and will define my usage.
I will be explicit in my political orientation. If asked, I will state any current intellectual commitments I may have.
I will recognize that, in our current information ecology, accusations have the power to ruin reputations and livelihoods. If I believe such an accusation to be warranted, I will acknowledge the power I am exercising and will publicly justify why I am using it. If I am mistaken, I will retract immediately, apologize and make recompense.
If I do not violate this oath, may I enjoy similar goodwill from others. May I always act to preserve healthy dialogue, and may I experience the joy of adding to a robust public conversation.
Some of these commitments are broad orientations, others are narrow prohibitions. The first six are ways in which anyone can improve the health of their social media usage. If two people who have pledged to be honest, humble and charitable have a disagreement, their conversation will be much more productive than the average debate without those pledges. Too many arguments barely begin before being derailed by strawmanning and emotional reasoning.
The final three points are particularly important for content creators with substantial followings. The power and trust that comes with a high subscriber count is easily abused. When the holders of such accounts make claims without evidence, they spread noise throughout the information economy. When creators trusted for their insight use terms like socialism or alt-right imprecisely to describe vast swaths of people, the quality of debate is degraded and the public’s capacity to disagree with nuance is hampered. The ability of prominent figures to destroy livelihoods is too easily exercised. What we need are public figures who want dialogue, not victory—civic care, not civic destruction.
It is too dangerous for us to indulge in outrage—and too easy. We take the easy way out when we let our tribal instincts control us. But we can use our tribalism against itself. By taking the oath, we step away from our memetic tribes and closer to a pan-tribal collaboration. We will never agree on everything. Our values vary too widely; our passions run too hot. But we still have a choice. We can accept a world in which we live in fear of outrage mobs, or we can choose to cooperate, even agonistically. YouTubers, freelancers, editors, bloggers, commentators, bystanders: the choice is ours.