The Danger of Outrage Narratives

This was originally published in my free weekly newsletter, How It Actually Works.

You might have seen some Tweets going around last week about how Apple can delete iTunes movies that you’ve purchased:

As of this writing this tweet has > 11,000 retweets and almost 20,000 likes.

Da Silva (the poster) goes on to show the back and forth between him and Apple customer support, and how they don’t “get it” and try to buy him off by offering a few free iTunes rental codes.

And of course people respond in the comments about how this is “theft” by Apple, or mention potential class action lawsuits, or say things like “this is why I don’t buy movies or music from Apple”, and on and on.

The whole time assuming that Yes, Of Course Apple intended to do exactly what da Silva is saying

That one of the most beloved companies on the planet intentionally meant to permanently revoke one of its customers’ purchases.

The Truth is Complicated

Thankfully Cnet did a writeup on what actually happened:

It’s some combination of 1) him moving from Australia to Canada, and 2) the different versions of a movie that are available in difference licensing zones.

Those 2 reasons are both boring and totally missing in the narrative presented in his tweets.

I’m not saying da Silva lied. Clearly he didn’t, as he seems to have posted his entire conversation with Apple.

But in as complex an organization as Apple, and on a topic as complicated as worldwide digital licensing rights, isn’t it possible that something other than “Apple intentionally took away my movies” could have happened?

But we feeble humans don’t take more than 2 seconds to consider other possibilities. We get hammered from all sides w/ different cognitive biases:

  • Narrative bias: it’s a good story
  • Confirmation bias: confirms your priors if you don’t like Apple or big companies
  • Appeal to anger: Right in the tweet: “Tim Cook: when did this become acceptable?”

It feels good to be righteously upset.

It’s enjoyable to feel genuine outrage at a big company like Apple taking advantage of the little guy.

We pat ourselves on the back, confirm that the world works as we think it does, and get to feel like we’re smart by and right by sharing and commenting on the Tweet.

That is why complicated stories can spread quickly even when no one is acting in bad faith.

It’s just that in our complex and complicated world it’s easier to follow a simple narrative that plans on our natural biases.

Not Enough Time For Outrage

This is what led me to stop getting upset about almost anything I read online.

I got “had” by outrage culture too many times.

I’d see some alleged travesty, become outraged at the OBVIOUS absurdity, share it with a friend and… well, they’d respond with a fact that I hadn’t seen yet.

This would confuse me and make me question the whole narrative. Striving to pursue truth above all else I’d jump into a 30-minute deep dive of online research and eventually discover that yes, something not great had happened, but no, it wasn’t remotely as bad as the narrative said.

After this happened a few times I decided I had to give it up. There was too much outrage relative to what was actually outrageous.

This is especially true with political narratives, on both sides of the aisle. (I’ve wanted to talk about this for a while but needed a mostly apolitical topic to safely do so.)

The entire system is greased by outrage: who’s going to vote when the world is functioning perfectly?

No. You have to rally people to your cause, and AFAIK the best way to do that today is via outrage.

An Invitation

So take this as my plea to you, in the name of truth: be skeptical of anything online that gets you upset. Some things truly are as outrageous as they same, but most aren’t.

Not only is the world full of nuance but we almost never know the actual intentions of the people behind the behavior. And we aren’t in the room when they’re considering the tradeoffs between whatever options they have.

I’m optimistic this won’t be as big a deal for the kids born today being raised in outrage culture. They’ll be immune to it.

But for the rest of us we have to try sharing less, thinking more, and generally focusing on truth over emotional righteousness.

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