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.
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.
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.
Tweet that promises false hope for how to end the pandemic gets close to 150,000 likes.— Max Roser (@MaxCRoser) February 3, 2021
Articles that explain how vaccines are actually produced are barely read.
Some people value outrage more than solutions. That seems to me a big problem for making the world a better place. pic.twitter.com/VSXx57en4F
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.