Social media winning battles for ‘everyman’, but beware

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Illustration: KAREN MOOLMAN

It seems social media has succeeded (again) in delivering justice in an unlikely scenario.

In 2018, in reaction to intense online pressure, Momentum overturned a decision to repudiate a life insurance claim based on misrepresentation at policy inception. Last week it was Woolworths’ turn. The retailer capitulated, all but admitting design plagiarism in the case of a “strikingly similar” baby carrier.

It appears Woolworths, inspired by the design of a local entrepreneur, proceeded to manufacture and sell a similar product at a third of the price. The retailer (which ironically prides itself on its ethical practices) ignored the owner and designer’s objections until an outcry on social media resulted in an embarrassing about-turn.

In both cases society is celebrating an improbable victory of the wronged and powerless David over a hubristic Goliath. More importantly, society celebrates a shift in power between the vulnerable everyman on one side, and ruthless corporations on the other.

What made the shift possible is everyman’s newest weapon: the river pebbles of public indignation given explosive force by the slingshot of social media. Where common decency, ethics, reason and even the law fails, social media comes to the rescue. Through a novel mechanism one could describe as “moral crowdfunding”, big corporates are at last being called to account.

There is reason for celebration. Large corporations have long had the upper hand, getting away with injustices while consumers, small businesses and society at large are vexed by an utter lack of accountability.

Consider the relative lack of consequences for the absurdly unethical practices that resulted in the global financial meltdown. Consider also the frustration consumers experience when attempting to get satisfaction for transactional wrongs through call centres.

The obvious power asymmetry between corporations and everyman, and the resulting injustices have led to legislative and regulatory attempts to restore balance. In SA we recently entered the twin peaks regime and introduced the Financial Sector Conduct Authority (a kind of “ethics police” for financial services).

Corporations are now expected to proceed beyond compliance with the law and must manage organisational culture to ensure the fair treatment of customers and stakeholders. While this sounds commonsensical, it is quite far removed from the century-old principle of caveat emptor.

But even these developments are inadequate to defend consumers and small businesses against big corporates. In the Woolworths controversy it was clear the local entrepreneur had little chance of success in a legal battle. It is simply too expensive to challenge the likes of Woolworths. Against this backdrop, the arrival of social media justice seems praiseworthy.

From an ethics perspective, however, there is reason to temper enthusiasm for online moral campaigning.

I am not arguing for the morality of the actions of either Momentum or Woolworths. In any event, I regard the two cases as significantly different. My focus instead is on a potential dangers in this means of resolving moral disputes. Friedrich Nietzsche famously warned: “Beware that, when fighting monsters, you yourself do not become a monster.” This warning is especially relevant here. In triumphing over corporate “monsters”, we may create another monster we will regret, a monster related to so-called “moral outrage”.

Moral outrage is an emotional response triggered by violations of moral norms. When we see people trying to benefit through cheating, stealing or exploiting vulnerable others, we experience anger which we express through attempts to shame and punish the transgressor. This response helps us regulate behaviour in society by promoting co-operation — or so evolutionary thinkers argue. Expressing moral outrage also gives us a form of pleasure or relief.

According to Yale psychology professor Molly Crockett, we normally express moral outrage through gossip (hurting the transgressor’s reputation), verbal sanction or physical aggression. When we see someone cutting in line or parking badly, frustration builds up. When we react — asking the person to stand in line or leaving a sarcastic note — we receive an immediate psychological reward.

Of course, these behaviours already raise moral questions, but they are mostly constrained by the effort they require, our reluctance to confront and the natural distress we experience when causing others harm. We might shout at the call centre agent, only to apologise five minutes later.

Now consider online moral outrage. The platform of social media increases the potential effectiveness of moral outrage. It is easier to garner support (to enlarge the quantum of outrage) online. Violations are more easily exposed, and moral outrage more easily triggered. On top of that, the potential for shaming is greater.

In the digital age, people and businesses can become instantly famous for all the wrong reasons. In the Momentum and Woolworths cases, we have seen how a complaint that would have reached few and made negligible ripples in the past became a material risk to the companies involved.

But the downside of digital outrage is that an appropriate moral-emotional response, backed by sound moral reasoning, can escalate into (or become indiscernible from) mob morality, or lack of morality.

According to Crockett, social media mutates the triggers, responses and outcomes of moral outrage. The triggers of moral outrage we encounter are multiplied, our expressions of outrage are accelerated, and the consequences are less apparent and more removed from us.

As a result, we are less selective in the causes we back, less critical of the motives behind shaming, and less distressed by the possible consequences of our actions. In short, holding individuals and corporations to account is done in a less accountable way.

When the effort and constraint of face-to-face moral responses is removed, the responses can become more intense and less civil. In the digital age, we have packaged (even commoditised) the psychological kick of expressing outrage, but removed the consequences.

In the wake follows the reputations, careers and livelihoods of individuals, and the sustainability of corporations. The targets of our outrage become caricatures of people and lose the nuance we ascribe to ourselves. The most important victim, however, is moral reasoning.

One could argue that social media outrage is not completely out of control. For a person’s outrage to trigger the type of response we are seeing requires, first, that personal outrage resonates with the moral sensibilities of an online community. Secondly, it seems a moral high horse only achieves the status of “moral high ground” once traditional media influencers saddle the horse. But if these controls were adequate we would not have witnessed Vodacom carrying an olive branch to defuse the misplaced online (and later off-line) outrage of EFF supporters.

In the extension of these developments, I fear we will not see corporations spending more time in moral reflection, aligning their practices with their values, or trying to “do the right thing”. Common decency or moral reasoning will not win the day. Instead, corporations will spend money on public relations experts, gauge the mood, and do whatever will make the issue go away, irrespective of what is “right”.

While in some cases these campaigns achieve the right outcome, a quick scan through the Twitter thread of a moral campaign may reveal what we overlook in the celebration — the uncivil monster we become online; the rough beast full of passionate intensity.

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