Megan Rapinoe Did Not Stomp on the Flag. Here's Why People Got Outraged Regardless | Opinion

What will it take to bring Americans together in divisive times like these? A U.S. Women's World Cup championship should be enough. Yet even that triumph led to controversy, as some took offense to the post-game celebration on the field Sunday—particularly the actions of star player Megan Rapinoe.

The outrage began with a tweet by former Navy SEAL Jonathan Gilliam that made the incendiary claim that Rapinoe had stomped on the American flag. "You should be disturbed by this unpatriotic narcissistic behavior," Gilliam wrote a few hours after the match. "@mPinoe is neither a hero or a role model."

This tweet, which has not been deleted, has been retweeted about 4,500 times, "liked" over 9,000 times and continues to influence discussions of the event.

All this, despite the fact that the video Gilliam posted with his tweet pretty clearly shows Rapinoe neither dropped nor stomped on the flag.

You should be disturbed by this unpatriotic narcissistic behavior. @mPinoe is neither a hero or a role model. I rewound and watched the entire celebration on the field. Rapinoe didn’t want anything to do with an #Americanflag before she stomped it. #repulsive

— Jonathan T Gilliam (@JGilliam_SEAL) July 7, 2019

It is no secret that social media is a hotbed of false information that often leads to anger. The Pew Research Center conducted a survey last year in which 87 percent of social media users reported witnessing others "making accusations or starting arguments without having all the facts," and 88 percent acknowledged seeing "overly dramatic or exaggerated" posts.

This problem is not confined to any particular ideology.

Last January, when a group of students were pictured surrounding a peaceful Native American war veteran with a drum, the fact that they were white, a bit smug-looking and wearing "Make America great again" red hats was enough to start the Outrage Express toward its destination: Destroy the kids.

Upon further inspection, however, the story was not so clear. It turned out that the Native American, Nathan Phillips, had approached the students, not the other way around. And the students were themselves the target of racial harassment, to which Phillips had been reacting.

Another recent example is the $11 million lawsuit won by a bakery falsely accused of racist behavior toward African-American students at Oberlin College.

The temptation to jump to outrage is especially strong on social media, where our virtual communities of the likeminded, created by choosing our "friends" and whom to follow, reinforce our preconceptions and can block any facts that get in their way.

Seventy-one percent of social media users, according to Pew, said they see content that makes them angry—and anger spreads. A Chinese social media study looking at the microblogging site Weibo found that anger, rather than joy or sadness, is the most viral emotion online.

The real question, though, is why.

Because collective outrage, along with other emotions we experience as part of a group, makes us feel good.

Decades ago, the French sociologist Émile Durkheim argued that there are real emotional underpinnings to the act of coming together with others to share certain sentiments or emotions. He called it "collective effervescence." People feel excited, bonded to one another in a spirit of unity.

Research has suggested that mob behavior, even violence, can be exciting and "fun."

While Durkheim was referring to social and religious activities, the concept applies to social media viral outrage. When users publicize what they perceive as harmful actions, they're inviting others to join them in castigation and shaming, and every like or retweet is affirmation of their charge that the target is worthy of punishment.

That punishment often includes "canceling"—immediately unfollowing or blocking—the transgressor. Some research shows stigmatizing shaming that leads to permanent ostracism is less effective at changing anti-social behavior than inviting someone back into the fold. Also, severing communication only cements the problem of low or false information.

Megan Rapinoe World Cup Final
Megan Rapinoe celebrates during the 2019 FIFA Women's World Cup final match between the United States and the Netherlands on July 7 in Lyon, France. Marc Atkins/Getty

Of course, outrage is not all bad. The treatment of migrant children on our border, continuing racial and gender inequities, and global climate change are among the many worthy causes to direct our energies toward.

But when we see a meme, post or tweet that sparks that familiar tingle of outrage, take a minute to look into it, verify sources or, better yet, wait to see how the story unfolds once more information is gathered. Remember that we're wired to crave that collective anger, and stigmatizing shaming may do more harm than good.

Michael Rocque is an assistant professor of sociology at Bates College in Lewiston, Maine.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.