A Journal of Rhetoric, Writing, and Culture

Digital Outragicity

Jeff Rice, University of Kentucky

(Published November 22, 2016)

In a July 2015 Atlantic essay, James Hamblin tells the Cecil the Lion story as one of digital outrage. Cecil, the GPS tagged Zimbabwe lion studied for scientific research, was killed by Minnesota dentist Walter Palmer who paid $50,000 for an African hunting safari. The moment, and the anger it evoked, serves Hamblin as a focal point for discussing how outrage spreads in social media. Tracking responses to the lion killing, Hamblin surveys social media as a space of “one-upmanship” where one outrage, such as a protected lion’s killing by a hunting tourist, triggers another outrage which, in turn, triggers another outrage, and so on until various aggregations build upon one another into an overwhelming digital anger removed from the moment itself. “The Internet launders outrage and returns it to us as validation, in the form of likes and stars and hearts,” Hamblin argues about this process. In his analysis of digital outrage, Hamblin interprets the Cecil incident as an aggregation that causes one animal’s killing to attract more attention than other timely events. This aggregation includes: the lion’s comforting name (Cecil suggests innocence), the profession of his killer (we all hate dentists), and the killer’s past (a record of other violations).  All of these items juxtapose for readers so that this killing (and no other hunting death) sparks outrage.

It’s hard to think of a more innocent name than Cecil. Had the lion’s name been Satan or Derek, the international firestorm might have been attenuated. Had Palmer not had a past that included sexual harassment complaints and pleading guilty to lying to federal wildlife officials about killing a black bear, he might have been less hateable. He also might have been less hateable had he been a humble cobbler, or literally anything other than a wealthy dentist. But every element of this story fell into place in a way that sparked international outrage beyond any outrage storm this year.

In this particular moment, an audience identifies Cecil’s death with a number of factors, situates those factors together as a current reality, and responds with outrage. Because of the aggregation, such as the one Hamblin outlines, audience outrage in social media environments can be understood as not directly tied to one occurring moment, but instead, such outrage is a response to multiple items juxtaposed into one representation, moments real and imagined.

With social media and the interactions it fosters, outrage becomes a digital aggregation. Another prominent space of aggregation where social media launders outrage, and one prompted by recent events, is the digital projection of social protest. Aggregation, as many Web users know, is the assemblage into one space of often disparate items. Known best via RSS feeds, within the browser aggregation compiles into a reader publications from a variety of sources. I tend, though, to think of aggregation as a digital, rhetorical gesture, a move to assemble various items into a belief, ideology, movement, identity, and so on. I also understand aggregation as a type of digital response. As with the Cecil example, with protest, individuals respond to and identify with wrong doing as the protests move from physical to digital spaces. In this movement, a number of activities, current and past, become aggregated into the present image (whatever has occurred or is being objected to). The Charlie Hebdo massacre of January 2015, for instance, in which cartoonists at the satirical magazine were murdered by Islamic extremists, produced a moment of social media outrage summarized in a single identifiable sentence: I am Charlie. The I am Charlie proclamations circulated from the physicality of France to online spaces as those upset over the murders showed solidarity with these senseless deaths. The murder of four Jewish shoppers in a French kosher supermarket the following day (aligned with the Hebdo killings), too, was followed by statements of identity. The widely disseminated I am a Jew proclamation (Je Suis Juif) quickly circulated as a response to these deaths, a response aggregated from the Hebdo moment as well as recent, French racist feelings and violence towards its large Jewish population. Declaring I am a Jew online and in physical spaces situated protesters within a broader cultural and political history of anti-Semitism in France, one with deep historical and contemporary connections.

The “I am” meme is a well circulated digital response that, too, is an aggregation of outrage; each “I am” aggregates a previous iteration. Many protest statements utilize “I am” to aggregate beliefs, and in turn, “I am” spreads across platforms and moments. “I am” is a digital response to events, one tied to previous proclamations of identity spread by digital media. As with the Charlie Hebdo and Kosher supermarket moments, “I am” allows individuals to overcome a sense of anonymity in a socially oriented realm and adopt a unified cultural position. We’ve seen this gesture previously in other media, such as Fight Club.  The narrative’s focus initially is on anonymity (the faceless/nameless rebellion without cause). When Robert Paulson (Meatloaf) is killed in a raid, his anonymity suddenly is replaced by the group chanted repetition, “His name is Robert Paulson.”  The chant aggregates the nameless rebellion into a figure. Through social identity, Paulson becomes the rebellion.

Digital and social media prompt similar identifications triggered by the topos of “I am.”  Into a given protest, I am aggregates a number of digital moments. Occupy Wall Street circulated the “I am the 99 percent” claim in order to protest issues of economic power. “Yo Soy 132” aggregated the claim for Mexican Ibero-American University students angered over police brutality in the state of San Salvador Atenco.  Treyvon Martin’s murder was followed by an “I am” social media campaign where photographs featured African Americans replicating Martin’s hoodie. “I am Liberian” attempted to shift an assumed identification (Liberians equate Ebola) from its stereotype to a reality not captured in the public aggregations of Africans and disease outbreak. So, too, did the “I am Harvard” campaign which challenged aggregated assumptions about race and enrollment at the elite Ivy League school.

While the “I am” movement of digital aggregation offers various levels of symbolic action or even equipment for living (in Kenneth Burke’s terms), it also provides an example of the power of social media circulation as each campaign gains traction through digital media platforms (Facebook, Twitter, Instagram). The origins of “I am” might be traced to 1968 when Memphis garbage workers proclaimed “I am a man” to protest their lack of civil rights through an enthymemic declaration of identification. Media (newspapers, television) captured the declaration and projected it outward to audiences. The aggregation of this moment (realized or not) into contemporary “I am” statements of identification offers insight into what Vilém Flusser called “the technical image”: the moment the image becomes a computation, a processing of a variety of beliefs and ideas outside of the representation itself. That is, “I am” does not emerge out of one murder or one misplaced assumption about race and higher education. “I am” is an aggregation of other “I am” cultural responses regardless of the meme’s creator’s knowledge of these previous responses. To paraphrase McLuhan, one does not have to be aware of media to be influenced by it. Aggregation operates at the level of digital media logic. 

Aggregations that fuel cultural and digital responses are also based on what Roland Barthes called the power of stereotypes to shape identification. Stereotypes (as in Barthes’ example of Japan or an Italian advertisement or more recently Liberians and disease) shape assumptions which become juxtaposed with other assumptions which produce a point of: That is X. The process can be identified in a mimetic repetition of “I am” statements that, as digitally reproduced, become associated with social protest (as the initial 1968 “I am a Man” enthymeme was). Or these moments become aggregated into the other level of Barthes’ analysis: the notion of “icity.”  In “The Rhetoric of the Image,” Barthes explains the concept of aggregation without ever using that term.  In the essay’s canonical discussion of advertising, Barthes describes aggregation as the  “message without a code” (36).  Reading an advertisement for a line of Italian Panzani products, Barthes calls such a message “Italianicity” for the way the ad’s display of ingredients (a tomato, pasta, onions, garlic in a string bag among yellow, red, and green colors) produce a sentiment of being Italian even if one does not know how to use the ingredients to make Italian food. Knowledge of being Italian already exists in the aggregated objects because of a pre-existing cultural stereotype about Italian food.  Examining the assembled objects within the advertisement generates an association called “Italian.” “The perceptual message and the cultural message” are assembled by the viewer of the ad so that a sense of what is Italian is understood (36) even if that sense is not representational. Barthes never claims for the ad an exact representation of being Italian. Just as he will compose Japan in Empire of  Signs, Barthes explains how aggregations – the assemblage of stereotypes, assumptions, beliefs, preset values, and so on – create an idea of what something is –  not what something actually is (whatever that may be), but what we believe it is.

This aggregation (not the actual thing called “Italian”) become other versions of icity when we look at social media moments as they circulate. Identificationicity – may be one level of icity signified by the repetitive aggregation of “I am.”  Outragicity is another: the feeling or sentiment of outrage over not a reality (whatever that may be) but a representation based on various levels of aware and unaware aggregations. (“I am,” a lion’s death, a massacre, other moments). These aggregations are technical images. Social media is a space of outragicity because of how we compute the various associations, beliefs, ideologies, moments, assumptions, and stereotypes we encounter in headlines, images, and links. In the social media space of aggregation, we compute belief out of a given representation without recognizing that representation’s “icity” features. Facebook is an appropriate, contemporary site of aggregation, for “I am” or for other digital, outragicity responses.

I am always on Facebook.  In fact, I spend a lot of time on social media in general. Over the last few years, I’ve noticed how users of social media, Facebook being the most dominant usage, often engage with aggregation in ways similar to Barthes’ Italianicity example.  The reader of a headline, viewer of an image, or clicker on a link, often aggregates a number of previously held positions into one conceptual space in order to make sense of the information she is engaging with. Doing so, I note, produces its own variation of Barthe's generic “icity” where aggregation replaces whatever the moment is. My focus here, though, is on one form of digital icity – a sentiment or aggregated moment that I call outragicity. Recent events of “I am” demonstrate that outrage, as do many others. The question is not whether I condemn or condone digital outragicity. Outrage assembled into one image (mass murder) may, indeed, justify an aggregated sense of outrage while another assemblage (a lion’s death, or as I will show, a false news report), may not.  It is important, though, that we place emphasis on the conditions that give rise to outrage’s rhetorical output without assuming, to paraphrase Barthes, that outrage is natural.

Outragicity, I contend, is the digital aggregation of a variety of items that produce the feeling or sentiment of outrage because of the aggregation created (and not necessarily because of what has occurred).  For instance, along with the initial markers I suggest as aggregated into Cecil the Lion’s death and public outrage, we could add others: The Lion King movie (loveable lions), the cowardly lion (The Wizard of Oz’s canonical depiction of gentle creatures), orphaned lion cubs raised by humans (Born Free) and other narratives internalized by a general public into an icity of lion traits overturned by one specific animal’s death (as opposed to other animals killed for sport who produce no outragicity). Along with Barthes’ notion of the image reservoir  as a site of aggregated identity – of which his Italian advertisement reading belongs – I also turn to Vilém Flusser’s concept of the technical image. The technical image, Flusser tells us, is a computation  –  or what he terms a “computational concept” situated within a given digital image. Whatever the image represents it does so via the computations we make when viewing the image. These computations show “relationships among things that no one would otherwise suspect.” Flusser argues that “technical images don’t depict anything; they project something” (Into 48). “Ontologically,” Flusser claims, “traditional images signify phenomena whereas technical images signify concepts” (Toward 14). Like Barthes’ “icity,” a technical image is not a representation. It is a network of associations or what we call an aggregation (and thus, a concept). I am is one such aggregation. Lions are another. Barthes’ reader of the Italian image is a respondent to media (the ad). Flusser’s technical images is the result of viewer response. The Facebook user is often a respondent to aggregation – via the newsfeed – but also via images or links. Flusser expresses trepidation over the conflation of an aggregation with a representation, calling the response to technical images a succumbing to magic. “The magical fascination of technical images can be observed all over the place: the way in which they put a magic spell on life, the way in which we experience, know, evaluate and act as a function of these images” (Toward 16). That magic often leads to responses based on outrage.

Like many other users of Facebook, I often share links. On November 3, 2011, I posted a link on my Facebook status update from Chow.com entitled “They Eat Horses, Don’t They?”[1] The short piece I linked to outlined some of the American aversion to eating horses by placing this disgust within the context of an impending Congressional bill to ban horse slaughtering for consumption. The piece noted that while horse meat may seem exotic to many in The United States, even humble and boring Canadians enjoy eating horse. By sharing the link, my intent was to express my curiosity for eating horse and to see what kind of responses the status update would evoke. I assumed, therefore, that readers of my Facebook page would aggregate the shared link into previous conceptions that they held regarding eating horse.

Most people who responded to my shared link were angry. Eating horse evokes a feeling of outragicity even if no horse is being consumed or being offered up for consumption.  Karine Nahon and Jeff Hemsley call media moments that users focus on in such ways remarkable. “By this we mean that they exhibit qualities such that people want to make a remark about them” (98). Eating horse, it seems, is one such remarkable moment. But why? How does media aggregation evoke a sentiment of outrage over eating one particular kind of animal, an animal used for racing and show purposes in the state I live in, activities far more abusive and widespread than the number of horses that could possibly be eaten in Kentucky or anywhere else in the United States?

Media share with us the knowledge that some people eat horses in Belgium, Canada, Japan, and elsewhere. Chow.com helps facilitate that knowing, as I indicated with my shared link. In Strange Foods, after a historical overview of nations that have eaten horse, Jerry Hopkins facilitates that knowledge by providing a recipe for horse tartare (10), noting that horse meat “is particularly suited for raw dishes” (12). The Travel Channel helps circulate this knowledge as well. Andrew Zimmern, host of the popular Bizarre Foods television show, demonstrated the suitability of raw horse meat in the show’s Toronto episode when he ate horse tartare at the Black Hoof restaurant.

When Zimmern focuses on the consumption of horse, he displays a remarkable moment. Viewers are expected to respond to that moment by tweeting it, linking to its hosted YouTube videos, and commenting on Facebook (as I did as well), thus helping aggregate the moment further. Remarkable moments are meant to be shared. Remarkable moments, however, are not arbitrary social media projections nor do they form out of a simple moment of shared fascination or interest. Instead, remarkable moments are shared with socially connected groups in order to continue facilitating the specific knowledge at stake when the main channels of  media communication (book, website, travel show) cannot on their own distribute the moment. Remarkable moments, such as eating horse, can produce digital outragicity. Cecil the Lion is a remarkable moment. I am is a remarkable moment. So is eating horse. 

So is Israel. On February 22nd, Agence France Press posted a video to its website under the headline “Gaza village flooded as Israel opens dam gates.” The next day, The Daily Mail repeated this headline. So did Al-Jazeera and Maan, as well as anti-Israel blogger Juan Cole. So did a number of Facebook posts. The problem with this repetitive circulation of outrage is that there are no dams for Israel to open into Gaza, and contrary to the reports circulating across social media as outrage, Gaza is not in a valley. The inaccuracy of the reporting is problematic, but the circulation of a false story as a reality reflects how a technical image aggregates an audience’s preset beliefs, whether love for lions or hatred for a country. In this case, such beliefs are based on a long standing conflict, a recent summer war, other news reports, etc. The circulated headline becomes aggregated into these moments in order to produce outragicity. This digital outragicity is not at what actually occurred (such as a rainstorm’s effects in a troubled area), but at what one wants to believe occurred. Much as one wants to believe that a few items in a picture construct the idea of being Italian, one may want to believe that anything awful occurring in Gaza must be Israel’s fault. Digital aggregation foregrounds already held beliefs by computating them within a current, circulated image. 

As I have written elsewhere, one of the more well-known recent occurrences of this process is the John Pike image. John Pike was a University of California Davis police officer who, on the University of California Davis campus, pepper sprayed protesters associated with the Occupy movement.  The photograph of Pike’s act quickly circulated on Facebook and other social media outlets.  Pike’s act was remarkable. It produced outrage based on the aggregation of a number of past and current moments - a history of campus protest and social activism, a history of campus protest and social activism in the UC system, protest at University of California Berkeley in the 1960s, and Kent State. The items are assembled for the reader of the image into various pixels so that a belief comes into being: pepper spraying kids is wrong. Outrage at this “wrong” stems from initial feelings of disgust at violence, but also because of these other historical images that are aggregated into the public one of Pike’s act. What happened prior to, during, or after the photograph was taken is not as important as what we assemble in the picture. Outrage is an aggregation.

When I show the John Pike image to students in social media classes I teach, they have little reaction beyond some initial confusion or curiosity. That happened? Ok. Kent State? Berkeley?  What’s that? Beyond not knowing the event occurred, the keyword associations of campus protest and violence do not register for 2015 college students the way they do for academics in their 40s or 50s. These students do not feel digital outragicity. They don’t respond to the event on Facebook. They don't retweet it. They didn’t respond to Charlie Hebdo either (the cultural issues of France far removed from Lexington, Kentucky). They don’t care about my horse eating posts projected on the classroom wall either (mostly responding with a yawn). To compute the digital image of outrage, one has to have these other accumulated aggregations stored in memory, emotion, action, personal history, or otherwise. If you believe Israel is evil already, you believe the dam story. If you have interacted with a number of anti-war or protest images and headlines, you will be outraged with John Pike’s act. Such aggregations have always existed, but digital circulation and social media interactions make them extremely powerful today as technical images. The overall question, though,  is how we confuse representational moments as outrage without identifying the aggregations that form the outrage in the first place. Digital outragicity is a confusion of representation with aggregation. Digital outragicity is the social media logic of aggregation. 

[1] Nicholassday. “They Eat Horses, Don’t They?”


Works Cited

Barthes, Roland. “The Rhetoric of the Image.” Image, Music, Text, translated by Stephen Heath, Hill and Wang, 1978, pp. 32–51.

Burke, Kenneth. “Literature as Equipment for Living.” The philosophy of literary form; studies in symbolic action, Vintage Books, 1938, pp. 10–13.

Fincher, David. Fight Club. 1999.

Flusser, Vilém. Into the Universe of Technical Images. Translated by Roth, University of Minnesota Press, 2011.

---. Towards a Philosophy of Photography. Reaktion, 2000.

Hamblin, James. “My Outrage Is Better Than Your Outrage.” The Atlantic, July 2015. The Atlantic, http://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2015/07/outrage-rip-cecil-lion/400037/.

Hopkins, Jerry. Strange Foods. Periplus Editions, 1999.

Nahon, Karine, and Jeff Hemsley. Going Viral. 2013.

Nicholassday. “They Eat Horses, Don’t They?” Chowhound, 17 Nov. 2006, http://www.chowhound.com/food-news/53692/they-eat-horses-dont-they/.

Rice, Jeff. “Occupying the Digital Humanities.” College English, vol. 75, no. 4, 2013, pp. 360–378.