Moral Outrage and Social Media: The Perfect Storm

Cecil the Lion has dominated world headlines since the announcement of his killing at the hands of American dentist Walter Palmer. Cecil’s death has brought the controversial practice of trophy hunting, the serious issue of poaching and the concerns of the animal conservation movement into the spotlight.

Cecil the Lion (source: Wikipedia)

The outcry has been especially prevalent on social media, where news is amplified and extended at rapid pace. Individuals and organizations accused of criminal, defamatory or regulatory transgressions are often wary of how online attention can remain focused on an issue long after traditional outlets have moved on.

When social norms and trust are violated, moral outrage follows. Social media amplifies the outcry. In some cases, it spurs updates to regulatory policies that are no longer aligned with stakeholder values.

According to Daniel Diermeier, dean of the Harris School of Public Policy Studies at the University of Chicago and author of Reputation Rules, “moral outrage is accompanied by powerful emotions like anger, disgust and contempt, which in turn may trigger desires for revenge or dissociation.”

Palmer violated social norms such as:

  • Fairness: the hunter was armed, Africa’s lion population is dwindling, Cecil had not threatened anyone, Palmer paid US $55,000 for a hunting permit in a country where the average household income is less than US $4,000
  • Trust: poaching is a crime, a passport is a privilege, national parks are protected territories

If you signed the online petition calling for the extradition of Palmer to Zimbabwe, you might have supported the type of revenge that Diermeier refers to.

If you “liked” the social media posts supporting talk show host Jimmy Kimmel’s appeal to support the lion research project in Hwange National Park where Cecil lived, you’ve dissociated yourself from his actions by communicating your moral stance.

An intentional act that sparks moral outrage will destroy the reputation of the individual responsible (Walter Palmer) and damage the system that supported it (transport of big game killed by trophy hunters from Africa to North America).

What remains to be seen is how sustained social pressure will spur strategic thinking in addition to emotional reactions.

Some commentators have noted how the scale of the response to Cecil’s death compares to issues affecting others in Africa, namely its people. Others have pointed out that social media perpetuates the bystander effect, where individuals share news of a bad situation rather than offer tangible assistance.

Lawyers working with crisis communications experts should observe how this incident will influence associated industries and regulations. It is an excellent – albeit very unfortunate- example of how social media impacts reputation management. Rest in peace, Cecil.

The original version of this post was published on the Canadian legal blog, on August 5, 2015.