The Internet: Land of riskless virtue signaling

Raleigh, NC. (TFC) – ‘Virtue signaling’ is a phrase coined by James Bartholomew who writes for The Spectator. James wrote an article in which he recaps the terminology and usage of the term virtue signaling, he summarized it as:

“the way in which many people say or write things to indicate that they are virtuous. Sometimes it is quite subtle. By saying that they hate the Daily Mail or Ukip, they are really telling you that they are admirably non-racist, left-wing or open-minded. One of the crucial aspects of virtue signalling is that it does not require actually doing anything virtuous.”

I, however, would theorize to expand this definition to riskless and/or risky virtue signaling. Signaling can require doing virtuous things. For instance, someone could be virtuous in real life, such as donating to a cause or shelter, or feeding the homeless, and could then signal this virtue online. The risk posed in the virtuous deed is another matter entirely, but seems to be in direct correlation to the actual signaling of virtue and its merits.

To continue with this example, if you are a wealthy person choosing to do these things, there isn’t a lot of risk involved. You aren’t putting your wealth in danger to donate a fraction of it, your life won’t change drastically, you don’t put your body in harm’s way, and you get to look like a good person. That’s why presidential candidates visit disadvantaged people for photo-ops. The poorer you are, the riskier donation gets, because it could possibly or even marginally be at the sake of your own comfort or livelihood.

There are also a lot of political connotations to the virtue that is being signaled. If it is a “risk-free” cause, ie: political, but not controversial, the risk is low. If the cause is controversial, the risk grows, to the point that it could pose a threat to their political career and thus their livelihood. The riskier the cause, the less likely someone is to signal their virtue.

There’s also the threat of bodily harm that would increase the risk of the virtue signaling. Attending a high profile protest or uprising, where one might risk arrest or police brutality, is risky. Traveling to dangerous areas for reporting or solidarity could also be considered risky.

But the clusterfuck that is the internet is largely a land of risk-free virtue signaling. With the settings on Facebook, for instance, one can make their posts friends-only, as to control where messages can be seen. One could also create a new facebook altogether to separate their political lives from their personal lives in order to avoid the severing of familial or other ties in their real lives, thereby lowering their risk.

Several massive, obvious, viral, risk-free virtue signaling campaigns that took to Facebook were: embedding France’s flag over a profile picture, the Ice Bucket Challenge, and #bringbackourgirls.

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Because of the internet’s viral nature, some virtue signaling has lead to the rise of street activism and risky virtue signaling, such as DeRay Mckesson‘s street activism in Ferguson and Baltimore during the uprisings. The ironic part is, much like Mckesson’s activism, risky virtue signaling can also boost your career as an activist and/or politician because it paints you as a person who is daring and willing to go to where the danger is. Mckesson’s activism grew over the years to the point that he’s a widely recognized activist and has decided to run for mayor of Baltimore.

Virtue signaling is a complex topic, in my opinion, and needs to be analyzed as a tactical method in its usage, much like any other activist tactic. Virtue signaling has the potential of going viral and causing narrative, cognitive, and actual social impacts. In the land of Twitter and Facebook where millennials have taken their discontent and grief, we need to understand how our internet activism can or has changed political landscape, and how it can be used more effectively.

The first step, in my opinion, is to call out and do away with risk-free virtue signaling, and focus on the virtue signaling that is risky, and therefore more likely to be effective.

Charles Rae writes about power, social justice theory, and tactical analysis.