Bad Mobs of Good People: The Paradox of Viral Outrage

By Neuroskeptic | September 2, 2018 2:45 pm

People become less approving of social media outrage the more people join in with it. One person rebuking another is fine, but ten people doing it looks like a mob.

This is the key finding of an interesting new paper called The Paradox of Viral Outrage, from Takuya Sawaoka and Benoît Monin of Stanford.

According to the authors, the titular ‘paradox’ is that “individual outrage that would be praised in isolation is more likely to be viewed as bullying when echoed online by a multitude of similar responses.” In other words, how can it be that lots of individually good actions add up to one not-so-good whole?

Sawaoka and Monin carried out six experiments to investigate how people perceive online outrage. Participants saw an initial post and a series of outraged replies to it. The provocative posts were taken from real viral scandals, although the names and faces of the original posters were changed. How many do you recognize?


The main finding across all six studies was that people view outraged commentators more negatively if there are 10 of them (‘viral’), compared to only 2 of them (‘non-viral’), attacking the same target. Interestingly, even the first person to leave a comment was seen more negatively if lots of other people subsequently followed them:


The main result was replicated several times, and all of Sawaoka and Monin’s experiments had good sample sizes (e.g. N=390 for Study 1), so the ‘paradox of viral outrage’ looks very robust. The effect is not very big, roughly 0.4-0.5 points on a 7 point disapproval scale, with a Cohen’s d effect size of 0.3-0.4. Then again, in the real world, a viral ‘mob’ could have many more than 10 members, so the effect could be bigger.

Further experiments showed that the disapproval for viral outrage was mediated by sympathy for the target. Yet this sympathy could be extinguished by asking participants to write their own ‘tweet’ condemning the target. These first-hand commentators did not feel bad about the viral outrage, unlike participants in the role of third-party observers:

Viral outrage creates a widening gap between how commenters see themselves and how they are seen by others, as individuals who participate in viral outrage continue to believe they are in the right, even as outside observers come to disagree.

The authors conclude that there is a real paradox here that offers no easy answers:

How can a person condemn injustice without suffering backlash? Our findings do not provide easy solutions… The challenge lies in reconciling the counterintuitive notion that a collection of individually praiseworthy actions may cumulatively result in an unjust outcome.

Personally, I do feel sympathy for the targets (most of them), but I don’t think we can blame individual members of viral mobs. I see both the targets and the mobbers as victims, in a sense, of the real monster, which is social media itself. I like social media, I use it, but it’ll eat you if it gets a chance.

These studies could be extended, and I hope they will be. I wonder how participants would view a hypothetical social media user who sees an outrageous post and consciously decides not to reply to it? It would also be nice to see what happens if we add some comments agreeing with, or defending, the target. This would be more realistic, and I predict it would actually reduce the disapproval of viral outrage.

Finally, I note that all of the outrageous original posts included in this study had been intended as humorous, with the arguable exception of the one in Study 4B. It would be interesting to see whether the same results would be seen for viral outrage against an outright hostile or hateful statement.

  • 7eggert

    You think viral mobs are something new? No, as you can read here:

    Exodus 23 New International Version (NIV)
    Laws of Justice and Mercy

    1 “Do not spread false reports. Do not help a guilty person by being a malicious witness.

    2 “Do not follow the crowd in doing wrong. When you give testimony in a lawsuit, do not pervert justice by siding with the crowd, 3 and do not show favoritism to a poor person in a lawsuit.


    Many “new” misbehaviors can be read in the bible, Egyptian hieroglyphs or Latin text books.

  • Pingback: Bad Mobs of Good People: The Paradox of Viral Outrage – Numerons()

  • C’est la même

    Anyone need some stones? I’ve got some cheap throwing stones for sale. 😉

  • OWilson

    We are getting into “Crowd Psychology” here.

    It explains mobs, riots, lynchng and lemmings!

  • Uncle Al

    People are tribal. People want peer acceptance. People enjoy destroying things – potlatch, mobs, war. HELTER SKELTER

    The singular driving force for all is charity. There is no limit to what you can create, but there is only so much that you can steal.

  • Jacob

    Is there really a paradox here? People who might support a 30 day jail sentence for a crime might very well be against a 30 year sentence, and consider it highly injust. The more people that participate in a hate-mob, the more severe the sentence. There are some portions of the experiment which don’t quite fit my analogy (theoretically the first person should have the same moral culpability), but people often don’t pay super close attention to detail.

  • DaveW

    Well, Neuroskeptic, two people are not a mob, whether you agree with them or not. Everyone is entitled to their opinion. Well of course not, but that used to be common sense. When twits start screeching like the Pod People when they see a non-pod (I’m thinking of the 1978 version here), I find it hard not to get disgusted, no matter what they are virtue-signalling about. Truthfully, none of the examples you post offend me at all – well maybe the gimp – and range from trite and trivial if poorly put to slightly funny (am I totally non-pc or isn’t Study 2 slightly humorous?). Nice that they repeated the experiment though (I just wasted an hour trying to convince a student and his committee the value of repeating an experiment [‘but I had 6 replicates in my study’]), but the value of categories ‘2’ and ’10’ is not clear. I don’t see a paradox here – no one likes a mob who isn’t in one and ‘injustice’ is a vague term even when one is trying to be objective and on social media it always seems to be political posturing rather than any actual injustice.



No brain. No gain.

About Neuroskeptic

Neuroskeptic is a British neuroscientist who takes a skeptical look at his own field, and beyond. His blog offers a look at the latest developments in neuroscience, psychiatry and psychology through a critical lens.


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