The rise of moral bubbles?

We may be headed for a world of endless moral bubbles, where targets for outrage can be identified and turned into bogeymen in record time, with record audiences. It would be QAnon, but for anything you can think of and some stuff you can’t.

Author’s note: What follows is speculation. It may very well be wrong. I’m thinking out loud. Let me know if it prompts any thoughts at your end.

Now that technology has democratised authorship and boosted signals about audience response, we are finding out where mass demand for narrative really lies. And it lies with not with nuanced storylines but with something else: simple moral tales.

Simple moral tales are powerfully attractive to a wide audience. The US film industry learnt this in 1977 with George Lucas’s Star Wars, and didn’t look back: these days, superhero flicks have taken up permanent occupation of the US box office.

But these are stories. The interesting new development is this:  the hunger for black-and-white stories is infecting the real world.

Black and white in the real world

The most remarkable characteristic of two remarkable real-world 2021 events is this: large numbers of people have been ready to put themselves on the line for stories that are black and white and dumb all over. They are silly almost beyond comprehension.

Most of the people involved in them have been watching black-and-white morality tales most of their lives, and they evidently have developed a powerful urge to take part in one.

First QAnon believers stormed the US Capitol in disorganised insurrection, convinced that then-president Donald Trump was leading a secret movement to root out election-stealing paedophiles from the top levels of US government.

Then a crowd of Redditors from the /WallStreetBets forum tried to do the same in the world of investment, convinced that by taking down one small US investment house in a short squeeze they could demonstrate their power over the same Wall Street that was busy selling them wildly overpriced shares. They said, loudly, that they just wanted to prove a moral point.

The bubble

These two episodes, and a few others in recent history, display a brand of dumb that we haven’t seen much before, certainly not in this quantity.

True, these affairs make suddenly more comprehensible all those puzzling quests in the history books, from the Grail to the communist paradise.

But the big dumb moral quests of 2021 have lacked any big idea like communism or fascism or even the prospect of vast profit.

Wedge Antilles and Darth Vader

Black helmet, white helmet. This won’t end well.



Their followers are not in the grip of anything that really counts as a worked-out view of the world. Reading what they say, they seem to have been animated much more by the desire to embark on a quest, any quest, with a moral purpose that can be summed up in a few incendiary words – like, say, “Hillary Clinton sacrificing children” or “Wall Street rigging the game”, or “Bill Clinton controlling us with vaccines”, or “George Soros controlling our thoughts”.

They needed a moral mission. Anything would do. They took the first one they saw.

Both QAnon and WallStreetBets seem already to be receding into the distance, despite what Donald Trump and a few holders of overpriced stock would like. QAnon rioters are beginning to show up in court, mostly crestfallen that their quest turned out to be a tilt at a windmill.

And these causes don’t have obvious staying power. If they resemble anything, they resemble the investment bubbles that pop up every few years, the ones where you start getting stock tips from taxi drivers. Then, as they say in the markets, the bubble bursts.

So if we need a label for them, here’s one: “moral bubbles”.  

How moral bubbles grow

Moral bubbles seem to happen when values manage to shove facts right out of the way. They often happen in small communities , such as the US town of Salem in 1692. Occasionally they have broken out in larger communities, as in the 1980s when southern California was gripped by the McMartin pre-school case. (A single spurious claim of child molestation triggered an epidemic of bizarre tales, their creation fuelled by those aiming to help the children “tell their stories”.)

In 1692 Salem, isolation was enough for a witch panic to briefly take hold. The McMartin case was fuelled by journalists and prosecutors keen for a righteous cause. But online forums, fuelled by their visitors’ desire for views and likes, seem to provide a particularly powerful device for inflating moral bubbles.

Moral bubbles need something stronger than the analysis that drives many political causes. They need raw moral outrage. It’s no surprise that paedophilia featured in both the McMartin and QAnon stories.  Nothing could be better calculated to cause rational people to lay rationality aside. As motivating forces, even racism and tribalism and envy cannot match the chance to express hatred of kiddie-fiddlers.

Now, I admit I was startled to see the cross-hairs of outrage move so quickly from paedophiles to Wall Street short-sellers. On reflection, I shouldn’t have been so surprised. “They’ve taken all the money” worked as a powerful narrative for communism, despite the thinness of its philosophical foundations. Now we see that unmooring anti-capitalism from political theory works just as well, at least for a few days or weeks.

Politicians, being fairly responsive to feedback, have jumped on this emerging trend. Trump is the giant here. Other politicians have been interested to see that a man almost completely uninterested in policy and incompetent in execution can nevertheless gain a huge following. That it has never been quite enough to win him a majority vote in an election hardly matters. He is teaching a masterclass in developing and exploiting moral bubbles. People in the same line of work have been taking notes, from Tucker Carlson to Vladimir Putin. (The woke end of politics hasn’t generated a true moral bubble yet, preferring to stay with political ideology – but that could soon change.)

The digital bubble-blowers

And social media such as Twitter and Facebook seem to provide a warm, moist place for such ideas to take root and grow.

Moral bubbles may have been less common in the back half of the 20th century because mass media mostly filtered out the wacko messaging that would have let them happen. But now the media filter is gone. Online media has taken over. And for all its many advantages, online media seems a good place for moral bubbles to pop up.  

I have no idea how this ends. Perhaps QAnon and the Capitol insurrection are a couple of one-offs that happen to have occurred close together in time. Or perhaps these moral bubbles really are suited to the times, and we face a future full of them.

About David Walker

David Walker runs editorial consultancy Shorewalker DMS (, editing and advising business and government on reports and other editorial content. Newsletter: . Among other roles, David has edited the award-winning Acuity and INTHEBLACK magazines, been chief operating officer of online publisher WorkDay Media, held senior policy and communications roles at the Committee for Economic Development of Australia and the Business Council of Australia and run the website for online finance start-up eChoice. He is a former economics writer for The Age and News Ltd. He has qualifications in law and corporate finance.
This entry was posted in Cultural Critique, Democracy, Economics and public policy, Political theory. Bookmark the permalink.
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Graham Young
3 years ago

This article appears to me to be a sign of yet another “moral bubble” – nice neologism btw. The author appears, by his selection of examples, to think that only one small part of the spectrum is subject to this problem, but why pick on them when the largest moral bubbles are on the left. Bubbles like the idea that racism is systemic (and rampant) in the least racist societies in the history of the world?

I see the member for Hughes being counselled for his “wrong” views on COVID, when they appear to me, on a reading of the facts to, in fact, be “contestable” views where he may well be “right”.

These are more serious moral bubbles than QAnon, because there is huge buy-in from mainstream media and significant institutions. Salem witch trials don’t happen at the fringes of society, they happen in the centre.

Graham Young
3 years ago

Something else I thought of after I left the comment was the abuse that Gigi Foster, and I’m sure Paul Frijters, have copped for performing a cost benefit analysis on COVID and being prepared to talk and write about it. Just a thought.

Look forward to seeing any revisions you make.

Chris Lloyd
Chris Lloyd
3 years ago

Super post Don.

However, “The woke end of politics hasn’t generated a true moral bubble yet, preferring to stay with political ideology – but that could soon change” leaves me breathlessly incredulous. Identity politics is one huge moral bubble and can be just as oxymoronic as QAnon. Everybody has to pretend Caitlin Jenner is a women otherwise you are contributing to suicide. There are woke folks and hateful bigots – exactly the black and white you began the article with.

BTW: Here is Victoria we just passed a bill making it compulsory to affirm whatever sex a patient says they are.