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Virtue signalling

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Virtue signalling is expressing a moral viewpoint to communicate good character. It is often used as a pejorative, seeking to characterize expressions of morality as disingenuous.[1][2][3]


According to the Cambridge Dictionary, virtue signalling is "an attempt to show other people that you are a good person, for example by expressing opinions that will be acceptable to them, especially on social media... indicating that one has virtue merely by expressing disgust or favour for certain political ideas or cultural happenings".[4] The expression is often used to imply by the user that the virtue being signalled is exaggerated or insincere.[5]

One example often cited as virtue signalling is "greenwashing" (a compound word modelled on "whitewash"), when a company deceptively claims or suggests that its products or policies are more environmentally friendly than they actually are.[5][6]


According to The Guardian, the term has been used since at least 2004,[7] appearing for example in religious academic works in 2010[8] and 2012.[9] Nassim Nicholas Taleb cites Matthew 6:1–4 as an example of "virtue signalling" being condemned as a vice in antiquity ("Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven")."[10]

British journalist James Bartholomew claims to have originated the pejorative usage of the term "virtue signalling," in a 2015 Spectator article.[11][12] His 2015 formulation described virtue signalling as empty boasting (directly or otherwise):[11]

No one actually has to do anything. Virtue comes from mere words or even from silently held beliefs. There was a time in the distant past when people thought you could only be virtuous by doing things...[that] involve effort and self-sacrifice.

Merriam-Webster editor Emily Brewster describes both "virtue signalling" and "humblebrag" (a term coined by Harris Wittels in 2010) as examples of "self-glorifying online behavior."[13]


Social media[edit]

Angela Nagle, in her book Kill All Normies, described Internet reactions to the Kony 2012 viral video as "what we might now call 'virtue signaling'", and that "the usual cycles of public displays of outrage online began as expected with inevitable competitive virtue signaling" in the aftermath of the killing of Harambe.[14] B. D. McClay wrote in The Hedgehog Review that signalling particularly flourished in online communities. It was unavoidable in digital interactions because they lacked the qualities of offline life, such as spontaneity. When one filled out a list of one's favourite books for Facebook, one was usually aware of what that list said about oneself.[15]

Blackout Tuesday, a collective action that was ostensibly intended to combat racism and police brutality that was carried out on June 2, 2020, mainly by businesses and celebrities through social media in response to the killings of several black people by police officers, was criticized as a form of virtue signalling for the initiative's "lack of clarity and direction".[16][17]


In addition to individuals, companies have also been accused of virtue signalling in marketing, public relations, and brand communication.[18] Virtue signalling has been noted in some brands' reactions to the COVID-19 pandemic.[19][20][example needed]

Film industry[edit]

Actors and other celebrities may be accused of virtue-signalling if their actions are seen to contradict their expressed views.[21]


Psychologists Jillian Jordan and David Rand argued that virtue signalling is separable from genuine outrage towards a particular belief, but in most cases, individuals who are virtue signalling are, in fact, simultaneously experiencing genuine outrage.[22] Linguist David Shariatmadari argued in The Guardian that the very act of accusing someone of virtue signalling is an act of virtue signalling in itself.[7] The Conversation's Karen Stollznow said that the term is often used as "a sneering insult by those on the right against progressives to dismiss their statements."[3] Zoe Williams, also writing for The Guardian, suggested the phrase was the "sequel insult to champagne socialist".[23]

Vice signalling[edit]

Financial Times editor Robert Shrimsley suggested the term "vice signalling" as a counterweight to virtue signaling:[21]

A vice-signaller boasts about sneaking meat into a vegetarian meal. He will rush on to social media to denounce as a 'snowflake' any woman who objects to receiving rape threats, or any minority unhappy at a racist joke...Vice-signallers have understood that there is money to be made in the outrage economy by playing the villain. Perhaps, secretly, they buy their clothes at the zero-waste shop and help out at the local food bank, but cannot be caught doing so lest their image is destroyed.

Stephen Bush, also in the Financial Times, describes vice signalling as "ostentatious displays of authoritarianism designed to reassure voters that you are “tough” on crime or immigration.", and that it "risks sending what is, in a democracy, the most dangerous signal of all: that politicians do not really care about their electorate’s concerns, other than as a device to win and to hold on to their own power." In particular, Bush cited Donald Trump's Mexican border wall pledge and Boris Johnson's Rwanda asylum plan.[24]

"Vice signalling" has been used variously elsewhere, to refer either to "show[ing] you are tough, hard-headed, a dealer in uncomfortable truths, and, above all, that you live in 'the real world'", in a way that goes beyond what actual pragmatism requires,[25] or to "a public display of immorality, intended to create a community based on cruelty and disregard for others, which is proud of it at the same time."[26]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Levy, Neil (16 April 2020). "Virtue signalling is virtuous". Synthese. 198 (10): 9545–9562. doi:10.1007/s11229-020-02653-9. ISSN 1573-0964. S2CID 215793854.
  2. ^ "'Virtue signalling' and other slimy words". Eureka Street. 19 March 2019. Retrieved 2021-09-04.
  3. ^ a b Stollznow, Karen (28 September 2020). "'Virtue signalling', a slur meant to imply moral grandstanding that might not be all bad". The Conversation. Retrieved 2021-09-04.
  4. ^ "Virtue signalling". Cambridge Dictionary. Cambridge University Press. Retrieved November 26, 2021. an attempt to show other people that you are a good person, for example by expressing opinions that will be acceptable to them, especially on social media
  5. ^ a b Eriksen, Olivia (August 2, 2021). "Virtue Signaling: What Is It and Why Is It So Dangerous?". RealClearEnergy. Retrieved November 26, 2021. Virtue signaling is defined at the act of publicly expressing opinions in order to demonstrate that you are a good person. However, this has become muddied with placing more importance on the appearance of moral correctness, than the correctness itself.
  6. ^ Fancy, Tariq (November 4, 2021). "Tariq Fancy on the failure of green investing and the need for state action". The Economist. Retrieved November 26, 2021. We, along with virtually every other large asset manager, eagerly engaged in a form of financial virtue-signalling that has become de rigueur in the industry, exaggerating how beneficial ESG information had suddenly become to all our investment processes.
  7. ^ a b Shariatmadari, David (January 20, 2016). "Virtue-signalling – the putdown that has passed its sell-by date". The Guardian. Retrieved 2016-04-11.
  8. ^ Pyysiäinen, Ilkka (2010). Religion, Economy, and Cooperation. De Gruyter. p. 36. ISBN 978-3-11-024632-2.
  9. ^ Bulbulia, Joseph (2012). "Spreading order: religion, cooperative niche construction, and risky coordination problems". Biology & Philosophy. 27 (1): 1–27. doi:10.1007/s10539-011-9295-x. PMC 3223343. PMID 22207773. Other cultural evolutionary models show that prestige and success biases may combine with imitative learning and virtue-signalling to favour religious cultural transmission (Henrich 2009)
  10. ^ Taleb, Nassim Nicholas (2019). Skin in the Game: Hidden Asymmetries in Daily Life. Great Britain: Penguin. pp. 185–187. ISBN 9780141982656.
  11. ^ a b "The awful rise of 'virtue signalling'". The Spectator. 2015-04-18. Retrieved 2019-11-24. It's noticeable how often virtue signalling consists of saying you hate things. It is camouflage. The emphasis on hate distracts from the fact you are really saying how good you are. If you were frank and said, 'I care about the environment more than most people do'.. your vanity and self-aggrandisement would be obvious
  12. ^ "I invented 'virtue signalling'. Now it's taking over the world". The Spectator. 2015-10-10. Retrieved 2019-11-24. The phrase came to me after years of trying to come up with the something. Researching my previous book, The Welfare State We're In, I came to realise that the Victorians and Edwardians gave vastly more money to charity than people do now.
  13. ^ "Virtue signaling and other inane platitudes - The Boston Globe". BostonGlobe.com. Retrieved 2019-11-25.
  14. ^ Nagle, Angela (2017). Kill All Normies. John Hunt. ISBN 978-1-78535-544-8. LCCN 2017934035. Retrieved June 21, 2020 – via Google Books.
  15. ^ B. D. McClay (2018): "Virtue Signaling", The Hedgehog Review, vol. 20, no. 2, pp. 141–144.
  16. ^ Framke, Caroline (June 2, 2020). "Why Posting Black Boxes for #BlackoutTuesday, or Hashtags Without Action, Is Useless (Column)". this rush to virtue-signal support without providing substantive aid is an all too familiar instinct on social media, where an issue can become a trend that people feel the need to address in some way, whether or not it makes sense or does any actual good.
  17. ^ Ho, Shannon (June 13, 2020). "A social media 'blackout' enthralled Instagram. But did it do anything?". NBC. Retrieved November 26, 2021. The word "slacktivism" traces to 1995 as a portmanteau of "slacker" and "activism." As elements of life have moved online in the 25 years since, slacktivism has come to represent halfhearted social media-based activity, along with other terms like "virtue signaling" and "performative allyship."
  18. ^ "As Brands Rush to Speak Out, Many Statements Ring Hollow". The Business of Fashion. June 2, 2020.
  19. ^ "Beware of Virtue Signaling in Brand Communications About COVID-19". Social Media Today.
  20. ^ Wallace, E; Buil, I; de Chernatony, L (March 2020)[21 August 2018]: "'Consuming Good' on Social Media: What Can Conspicuous Virtue Signalling on Facebook Tell Us About Prosocial and Unethical Intentions?" Journal of Business Ethics, 162, pp.577–592. doi:10.1007/s10551-018-3999-7.
  21. ^ a b Shrimsley, Robert (May 10, 2019). "Once you're accused of virtue-signalling, you can't do anything right". Financial Times. Archived from the original on 2019-05-11. Retrieved December 25, 2021. Virtue-signalling, for those who have never felt drawn to the term, is the apparently modern crime of trying to be seen doing the right thing...One regular whipping girl for this abuse is the actor Emma Thompson, who recently rocked up at the Extinction Rebellion protests to give her support, only to be caught days later sipping champagne while flying first class. How her opponents howled.
  22. ^ Jordan, Jillian; Rand, David (2019-03-30). "Opinion | Are You 'Virtue Signaling'?". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved 2019-11-25.
  23. ^ Williams, Zoe (April 10, 2016). "Forget about Labour's heartland – it doesn't exist". The Guardian. Retrieved 2016-04-11. it doesn't have very much meaning, beyond 'person X holds views less compromised and more ambitious than mine, ergo, person X is a narcissist who uses other people's misery as grist to their own self-fashioning.
  24. ^ Stephen Bush (2022-06-23). "How 'vice-signalling' swallowed electoral politics". Financial Times.
  25. ^ Cohen, Nick (2018-05-25). "The Tories are the masters of 'vice signalling'". The Spectator. Archived from the original on 2021-10-02.
  26. ^ Berlatsky, Noah (2020-05-07). "As Bethany Mandel's 'grandma killer' tweet proves, vice-signaling is the right's newest and most toxic trend". The Independent. Archived from the original on 2020-05-08.

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