Is calling out #virtuesignalling a way to shut ‘the people’ up?

With the UK now a smartphone society and growing use of social media, new trends and ways to communicate will inevitably surface.  ‘Virtue signalling’ is one of those terms I’ve noticed people use a lot lately –  describing a public declaration that makes the commenter look good.

In this post, I want to link:

  • what I see as the intense snobbery of branding all social or political expressions of allegiance or outrage as ‘virtue signalling’,
  • how we in the UK are expressing ourselves online in response to the Paris attacks,
  • and what this means for citizen involvement in public services.

(Everything I’m thinking seems to come back to public service communications!)

The main thrust of this post is this: everyone has a right to ‘signal’ – but we still have much to learn about respecting those who share what they feel.

The dangers of watching daytime TV

I caught this short (2 minute 34 seconds) opinion piece on the BBC’s Daily Politics on November 4th. It’s about the idea that when someone takes a political stance on Twitter and Facebook, they are doing it to try to look good and they don’t actually change the world for the better.

It got me feeling indignant.


Ironically, by creating this and having it broadcast to viewers with no suggested solution, one could argue this guy is virtue signalling at full gas.

I believe this framing of the argument – that (mainly left-wingers) people voicing an opinion or talking about their beliefs online is an assertion of moral superiority – is unfair. And I think that it says more about the person who points out virtue signalling, than the poster of the comment.

Professors, politicians, journalists, business leaders and clergy have been sharing their thoughts for ages. Some of them influencing opinion, changing world-views, some manipulating arguments to suit their circumstances, some clever and generous, some self-important, privileged pseuds.

But now we can all do it, these guys get snotty because we’re joining in with the noise. They call it virtue signalling, as though it’s an affront to their special remit for communicating an opinion.

It’s all very well for the powerful and confident to brand someone as ‘all talk and no action’, but many of us feel powerless in all sorts of situations. If we have not led life of privilege or we’re poor or lack education  – it’s not a case of ‘I feel angry or upset, how will I change the situation?’.

We do not feel important enough, or strong enough or bright enough to come up with solutions.

But social media has given us a chance to articulate and work out what we think. To feel connected to others.


I tweeted my thoughts on the video, not to show myself as a wonderful human being, but because I don’t want just one view on a situation to be part of public discourse. I feel ‘Does everyone think this way? Let’s see if anyone can argue for or against my reading of the situation so I can examine the issue further’.

When I tweet about the Daily Mail, it’s not to display moral superiority, it’s to comment or hear others respond to this example of how journalism has been changed by the new audiences and behaviours that the Internet brings. I don’t need to tell people I’m a good person, I’m quite comfortable with my quota of goodness!

It is perhaps a part of a construction of my identity, but it’s not JUST about showing off or saying I am better than someone else.

I am entitled to form and express a view on it. Finding a group of people to discuss things I’m interested in is so valuable as a self-employed, secretly shy woman living out of the big metropolis.

Paris attacks

The horrific events in Paris have provoked many reflections on how we, the public, use social media to signal our views.

We express empathy, sympathy and question powerful and established views and also the more unconventional ideas: arguing, sharing our fears and sadness.

We discuss why to have a French flag on your Facebook profile picture and why not, whether the media and Facebook favour France over other terrorised countries, or if they do not

Not all of us are writers or commentators. If we can’t articulate it but want to start a conversation with friends or show our emotional response, we can add a French flag filter to our Facebook pictures. It won’t help Parisians, but it may give people a chance to talk and work out what they think.

We get it wrong sometimes, we’re new to social media, we’re not trained like journalists to check credibility of sources and stories like the one in the story of the tweet in this article will be part of public understanding of being more savvy online.

We are all subject to being misled or fooled or saying things we regret while our emotions are high events haven’t fully unfolded. Professional writers and powerful people get caught out as much as the rest of us.

We’ll never agree with other people’s views on all subjects, but branding anything you don’t like as virtue signalling is either

  • suggesting they’re attention seeking layabouts


  • is a form of virtue signalling in itself.

Public Services can’t take this approach

The new opportunities for everyone to publicly communicate have come at such speed. Ten years ago, the smartphone and Twitter and Facebook had yet to be born. We’re all learning quickly how to do this.

But public institutions have old systems and habits and attitudes that run deep though each organisation for decades and decades.

Before the age of the social web, government workers and members had status, were seen as expert decision makers and the higher in the hierarchy they sat, the less they had to do with the common person.

Only those with the power and the money could get quoted in newspapers, produce leaflets and newsletters.

And now everyone can have a say, they don’t know what to do. It’s hard for them to take it seriously. “It’s alright for them to say, but we’ve got a job to do”, they think.

It’s no wonder ‘consultation’ and ‘engagement’ and ‘citizen involvement’ don’t come easy to them. These terms are fancy ways of describing an organisation listening to people and, more importantly, acting on what they say.

As a communications person, I have always loved getting communities talking and helping decision makers understand what people say about their public services.

But the hardest nut to crack is getting those voices to be taken seriously.  Explaining to senior execs and politicians that those expressing a critical view aren’t trolls.  And that lack of power is not lack of interest.

Perhaps the changing role of communicators in these roles is to monitor, acknowledge and report to their organisation on what people care about and to campaign internally on behalf of all the voices, regardless of if they are sent by an MP’s press team or from a disenfranchised citizen in a Facebook post with txt spk. And once we help these decision makers to care, we can help them to join in the conversations too.

And if you think that this is all me virtue signalling then, good for me because you read this far! At least I had your attention for this long and I await your critique.

6 thoughts on “Is calling out #virtuesignalling a way to shut ‘the people’ up?

  1. Thought provoking and very interesting piece – and I read until the end!

    1. Haha, you have stamina! Thanks Jo 🙂

  2. Bravo Helen… enjoyed this most interesting read skillfully communicated…Would be keen to explore #vicesignalling when feasible, too…?

    1. Thank you and yes to #vicesignalling – brilliant idea! We’ll try it out very soon!

  3. Ref: the Eiffel Tower thing.
    Yesterday, I was checking the location of the siege in St Denis while watching rolling news. On Google Maps, the street view option was not available directly around the siege site. “Aha!”, I thought. “Google must have been asked to turn it off temporarily, so as not to show the street scene and in some way aid the terrorists or their helpers.” Sensing a possible nugget, I nearly Tweeted. But then I actually used street view to double check …. and saw that the roads around the siege location are actually pedestrianised, so Google’s little car had left them unmapped.
    Dodged that one.

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