At 2:03 PM on January 7th, 2022, the official account of the Texas GOP posted a meme on Twitter showing people standing in a Covid testing line, with the text "If you can wait in line for hours for testing.… You can vote in person.”
Within just moments of posting, the meme sparked an angry response, with tweets like, "If you can go without the protection of a mask, then you can go without the protection of a gun. Politicians also jumped in with tweets of their own, including Beto O’Rourke calling out Gov. Greg Abbott for Covid deaths in the state, followed by Jaime Harrison tweeting, "From the same people who thought: let's sacrifice grandparents to COVID to save the economy…”
The Texas GOP fired back mocking the critics. In all the ensuing back and forth, they also used the opportunity to crowdfund, asking supporters to donate $10. The meme quickly rose to a top trending post and did exactly what it was designed to do.
A form of trolling, “rage farming” or “rage-baiting” is used to drive engagement and generate clickbait. Rage farming stokes political tribalism to get a reaction from the opposing side, while also galvanizing support from its own. In that sense, it's a highly effective marketing strategy, because no emotion drives more reaction and engagement than anger.
Researchers in Beihang University in China, found, by tracking different emotions embedded in millions of messages on a Twitter-like platform, that no emotion spread more quickly than anger. They observed that one user expressing anger can start a chain reaction among other users, triggering a widening circle of hostility. This ripple effect can also be highly activating and drive people to share rage farming content. To make matters worse, expressing anger on social media also get rewarded by generating more likes than other interactions. So the positive social response to anger only encourages more anger.
This vicious cycle can also get people more dug into their beliefs, since anger, more than any other emotion, promotes close-mindedness. For believers, rage farming works because it delivers compelling, yet simplistic content that confirms their own bias. For skeptics, it also works because it creates the need to set the record straight or push back. Hence, rage farming content is often intentionally mistake-ridden or blatantly false, to make people want to correct it. A tweet based on a lie that goes viral can trigger a cascade of user activity – not just corrections and insults, but jokes, side debates, entire ecosystems that live on for a news cycle. Someone, anyone, getting upset over something, anything really from an M&M to a rumor about a school curriculum, can become trending news because, with rage farming, anything can become a heated controversy.
To manufacture controversies, those doing the baiting often seek out obscure or controversial opinions that are held by a minority and then amplify them to a larger audience. This Santa post appears to shed light on a growing public movement to change Santa’s gender to female or gender neutral. What's not so apparent however is that the “survey” asked respondents “If you could 'rebrand' Santa for modern society, what gender would he be?” The answer choices provided were “Male, Female, and Gender Neutral.” So the respondents were not asked IF they wanted to “rebrand” Santa’s gender, but HOW they would. The post demonstrates just how easy it is to manufacture a controversy and then harness the reaction of others to drive engagement.
To avoid becoming part of the problem, when you see a post or tweet that gets you riled up, instead of taking the bait, take a deep breath. The reason rage farming works so well is the same reason it should be ignored. Adding your voice to the exchange, positive or negative, only generates digital currency for the rage baiter. Reacting in a way that doesn't give the original post traffic, like sharing a screenshot, is a better way to react, but it still resurfaces the content. So the best way to engage with rage farming is not to engage with it at all.