Signaling outrage is a signal about the sender: moral perceptions of online flaming

Charles Kevin Monge, Sean M. Laurent

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Most flaming research addresses explanations for and the immediate effects of flaming on those engaging in and targeted by flaming. However, online interactions are increasingly visible, suggesting that understanding third-party evaluations of flaming is important. By integrating considerations in computer-mediated communication theorizing with the social-perceptual effects of online moral outrage, we explore how third-party observers evaluate flaming, also assessing beliefs about the signaling social function that flaming serves. In seven experiments (total N ¼ 3,178), we manipulated the intentionality of triggering events and compared flaming to other types of online responses (less-toxic criticism; supportive), measuring reactions including moral regard, comment approval, and positive/negative engagement. Findings suggest that flaming may sometimes act as exculpable moral outrage when responding to egregious behaviors. However, contrary to participants’ beliefs, flaming does not reliably or persuasively influence perceptions of those whom it targets; rather, it mostly appears to send negative signals about the flamer. Lay Summary Researchers have long been interested in antisocial behaviors like flaming, where people aggressively insult, curse at, and otherwise berate one another online. When flaming research began, flaming usually happened in private online spaces such as emails, and was therefore a relatively private form of communication. Currently, flaming is often a highly visible public behavior in online spaces such as Facebook and Twitter. Given this wide visibility to people uninvolved in online interactions, it is important to consider the impact flaming has on attitudes toward those involved. For example, do people think that flaming is sometimes appropriate? How do we feel about people who publicly insult others or the people who have been insulted? Over seven experiments, we explored these questions. Results suggest that people carefully consider the contexts in which flaming occurs, sometimes even approving of it. Despite this, flamers are generally disliked and flaming fails to influence opinions about those people it targets. These results are surprising because people appear to believe that the goal of flaming is to harm people’s reputations, and people believe that flaming achieves this goal (even though it does not). This suggests that flaming may be commonplace because people incorrectly believe it works.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article numberzmae001
JournalJournal of Computer-Mediated Communication
Issue number2
StatePublished - Mar 1 2024

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Communication

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