Internet boycotting: this is the industry of outrage
Late Monday afternoon, a peculiar thing started trending on Twitter: #BoycottStarWarsEpisodeVII. These type of things are often meaningless, and almost always worthless, and while none of the people involved are likely to actually boycott the new Star Wars movie, it certainly inspired at least a brief inquiry.
Internet boycotts are usually inspired by one of three things: a cast or crew member saying something offensive, a joke, or something entirely more absurd. This hashtag fell hard into the third category, being almost laughably insane at first, then depressing, then shifting to just plain tedious.
The details of the hashtag aren't worth getting into — It was something about the movie encouraging white genocide — because just as quickly as it became obviously offensive, it became obviously fake. It was a scheme cooked up by some Internet villains so they could watch everyone on Twitter get real, real mad at nobody. Sure, if you scroll through this hashtag you will see racist people being racist, as you can with many hashtags. The entire conversation,though, was started on a false premise. It was designed so that unaware people could provide a day’s worth of entertainment to people without anything better to do.
The fact that this hashtag was fake doesn’t mean it —or the party behind it— isn’t horribly racist; it just means it isn’t worth talking about. #BoycottStarWarsEpisodeVII essentially serves as an echo chamber. Twitter users are incredulous at the fact this tag is trending, and they express their feelings by using the hashtag and helping it trend more. As the conversation goes on, it seems to have shifted to making fun of all of the people who fell for it. Within the hour, the pendulum swings back, and the tag will be littered with think pieces about the truth at the center of the fake outrage.
This is similar to the never-ending plight of one of Twitter’s favorite companies to trend: Urban Outfitters. Every year or so, Urban Outfitters unleashes a piece of clothing insensitive, offensive, or just plain gross enough to get the outrage machine cooking online. Now, this is a two-sided issue. On the one hand, Urban Outfitters shouldn't be able to make a shirt that says “Eat Less,” or a bloody Kent State sweatshirt, without facing consequences. Those are unethical, lame things to do, and people should be bothered by it. There also isn't much good in plastering these images all over Twitter, helping Urban Outfitters be the number one trend in the world at that time.
At this point, one has to figure that Urban Outfitters has an employee with the title “Outrage Specialist” on their door. It’s free guerilla advertising to get the internet mad at your company. It just takes a post about a product on your website — you probably don’t even have to make any actual products. You follow that up with an anonymous tip to Buzzfeed about the new horrible Urban Outfitters shirt, spend a few minutes writing your insincere and condescending apology, and you’re making headlines, baby.
We must find a way to damage the reputation of a company that does something worthy of having their reputation damaged other than screaming into the void about it on Twitter. It's better to live in a world with flawed social activism than none at all, and Twitter has proven a useful tool for activists in the past, with protests in Ferguson and the Arab Spring both being largely organized via Twitter. That’s why the lack of creativity from the best social activists on the site is confusing.
If a group of anonymous internet people — allegedly from 4 Chan, but who can keep track at this point — can get some fake racist thing trending so quickly, why is it so difficult to counter? The next time the CEO of a chicken restaurant says he doesn’t support gay marriage, the bright, kind users still left on Twitter must think of something more creative than “Ugh, Popeye’s is the worst.” Start a hashtag about how much you love KFC. Tweet about how gay marriage is legal and how happy that makes you. Tell us about your daughter, how’s she doing in school? When people or companies do something unethical, it deserves outrage; but outrage has become an industry, and that’s as outrageous as anything.