For the Uninitiated: Virtue Signalling

Virtue Signalling: To take a conspicuous but essentially useless action ostensibly to support a good cause but actually to show off how much more moral you are than everybody else.

Virtue signalling essentially involves an act of self-aggrandisement where someone communicates support or disgust regarding an act, ideology or person primarily for the purpose of promoting the possibility that they themselves are a good and moral person.

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The origin of the term is slightly debated.  British columnists Libbey Purves and James Bartholomew have both been given credit based on articles published in May 2015 and April 2015 respectively, however Mark Peters from the Boston Globe  has established that “virtue-signalling” has existed in isolated pockets since at least 2004.

It is generally but not exclusively associated with online communication.  For a tweet, retweet, share or post to be considered to be pure ‘virtue signalling’, this action should have no real intrinsic purpose or value over and above making the sender look good.

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This newly prominent phrase sums up actions (mostly online) that send the message “I’m a good person” — though they might not be accompanied by doing anything good at all. Since the only thing people seem to like more than virtue signaling is judging other people, this term has caught on like, well, the ice bucket challenge.  Mark Peters – Boston Globe

Virtue signalling is informed by a person’s understanding of political correctness on any given day and is closely related to the act of ‘slactivism’.

Slacktivism: in which one donates or takes actions that have little to no effect beyond making one feel like one contributed.

For example, in January 2015 the Kony 2012 viral video became an internet sensation after it was shared and ‘liked’ over two million times on social media over a short space of time.  Popularity quickly subsided after it was criticised for oversimplification of complex political events and even mocked for calling for the Ugandan authorities to arrest an indicted war criminal even though it was widely known that he and his forces had fled northern Uganda in 2006.

Virtue signalling can be seen as a relatively passive, possibly pointless act but it can also lead to quite damaging or negative outcomes when practiced in sufficient numbers focusing on a specific issue.  In this context it can help to create the level of momentum required to create a public controversy or ‘twitter storm‘. For example, see The Tim Hunt Kerfuffle.

A statement purported to be released by Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army rebels described Kony 2012 as “a cheap and banal panic act of mass trickery to make the unsuspecting peoples of the world complicit in the US rogue and murderous activities in Central Africa”.

To whatever extent that claim is true (or not), the fact remains that the act of passively promoting any particular cause can have unintended consequences.  It can also serve to distract, discredit or diminish support for equally worthy and important causes.

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See also Richard Herring’s International Non Wassocks Day

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