Efficient aggregation of repugnance

The cycle of outrage on the internet seems to have a well-defined pattern by now, so if you're on your game, you have a contrarian piece which is the backlash to the backlash prepped and ready to go as soon as the outrage descends, and if you're really advanced you have the backlash to the backlash to the backlash volley in your quiver. It's an advanced play. Or you can float above it all with a meta piece about the workings of the internet outrage cycle, which I guess this post is some variant of.

In his great new book Who Gets What and Why, about market design, economist Alvin Roth defines repugnant transactions as ones that some people want to engage in that others object to even if they aren't directly harmed. For example, it's forbidden in most countries to buy and sell kidneys. If you spread a wide enough net across the world, you'll find all types of cultural practices that are repugnant in some societies, legal in others. In America it's illegal to eat horse meat; it's a delicacy in Europe. In medieval times the idea of lending money and charging interest was forbidden; today it still is in a few places, but it's a bedrock of the banking system most everywhere else.

The shooting of Cecil the Lion was a flash fire on social media this week. And of course, suddenly everyone was outraged at the hunting of lions, leading inexorably to the backlash wondering why we aren't more outraged at the shooting of unarmed black teens, or 5 endangered elephants. Why aren't we more outraged at ourselves for eating chicken?

It is too exhausting for most people to live in a state of moral outrage all the time, and so it largely simmers below the boiling point of our consciousness. Every so often, though, some event occurs that comes in a weaponized package, in the perfect form to capitalize on the viral amplification powers of the internet. For example, the murder of a lion so beloved that he is, despite being an apex predator, referred to by the adorable name of Cecil.

And so a practice that many people probably objected to but rarely thought of—trophy big game hunting—suddenly swells up like a tsunami and exceeds our collective dam of ignorance. The internet is more efficient at transmitting information than any human invention ever, but not all information travels equally efficiently. I had never heard of Cecil the Lion a week ago. Now he's up there with the MGM lion and Simba as the most famous lions in the world. His face showed up in every one of my social feeds again and again, his title a perfectly compact hashtag: #CecilTheLion.

More and more, we'll see these flash floods of outrage, because the internet is the most efficient aggregator of repugnance in history. Formerly disparate, even mild pockets of repugnance can carry disproportionate magnitude on social media if formatted optimally to fit into the entry slot of the internet's megaphone. It's one reason something can lie dormant for years, like Bill Cosby's sexual crimes, and then suddenly become the nexus of national outrage. As one victim Tamara Green said:

In 2005, Bill Cosby still had control of the media. In 2015, we have social media.

It goes both ways. Lobbying is one area where this dynamic can take on a destructive power. A narrow interest can aggregate its strong feelings into targeted, weaponized money that can overwhelm the mild objections of the majority. And so we have corn subsidies and other oddities locked into place. It's not great for most of us, but most of us don't care as much as the small but vocal corn lobby.

But for many other issues which have long wished to ignite the public imagination and support, there is no better time. Buzzfeed was one of the first media companies to recognize that some types of news, packaged a certain way, attain exponential organic distribution given the way most people discover news through social media.

Alan Moore predicted this all in his great graphic novel Watchmen. Those of you who've read it will recognize this as an early predecessor of Cecil the Lion: