Rage Bait Works… But At What Cost?

Iris Cheang-Deis/Shutterstock icon Stocker/Shutterstock s_maria/Shutterstock Remix by Caterina Cox

Building 100 wells in Africa isn’t really the sort of project you’d expect to garner widespread condemnation. That’s a positive and charitable thing to do, which most people would rightly single out for praise. Still, when you’re as popular as YouTube Jimmy “MrBeast” Donaldson, that level of notoriety turns you into a pretty large target, even if you’re engaging in the kinds of activities that would typically be celebrated.

So when MrBeast posted his video about constructing 100 new wells in Africa, and then tweeted/X’ed that he expected to be “canceled” for his efforts, most people accepted this message at face value. Not just fans either, but the mainstream American press. 

While some outlets simply reported Donaldson’s remarks, noting that he EXPECTED to be canceled, others went a good deal further and responded as if the cancellation (or attempted cancellation) had already taken place. Even though he was still out there posting videos and selling candy bars, The New York Post called Donaldson the latest victim of “cancel culture.” According to the blog LAD Bible, Donaldson was already “hitting back” after “getting canceled” over the video. In record time!

But while a few obscure African activists and commentators responded negatively to MrBeast’s viral video, it doesn’t actually look like any real, significant backlash took place whatsoever. In its piece, CNN cites a lone “aspiring Kenyan politician” (translation: regular guy) who said that the video perpetuates negative stereotypes about Africa. Is this even a “backlash” or just a reaction to the video? His comment doesn’t even mention Donaldson by name, and at no point suggests he should be barred from making more videos. 

A widely-shared X thread from media analyst Collin Rugg claims that activists are upset with Donaldson, but then misleadingly cites comments from FACE Africa founder Saran Kaba Jones, who actually praised Donaldson’s efforts in the same CNN piece. She’s upset at a system that demands outsiders like Donaldson come in to perform charity, but she’s not upset at MrBeast himself. 

Outrage Works!

Nonetheless, it’s undeniable that discussions around “backlash” helped to fuel interest in the original video, which now has over 104 million views. Major news outlets led their reporting with the “controversy,” and it became a hot topic among political pundits and influencers who frequently speak out about “virtue signaling,” “wokeness,” cancel culture, and related issues, even if they’re not the sort of folks who would typically share MrBeast’s content.

The simple fact is, in terms of garnering eyeballs and attention, outrage works. There’s a growing stack of research emerging to demonstrate the effectiveness of what some analysts have termed “rage farming,” the idea that you can garner more clicks and attention on social media and content platforms by making people angry than by delighting or informing them. 

A 2019 study from psychologist Jay Van Bavel at New York University found that, on social media platforms, words that evoke moral or emotional responses increase the likelihood that a message will be shared by 15-20%. (For example, a tweet criticizing a new political policy in purely pragmatic terms would be significantly less shared than one post that called the policy “diabolical” or “evil.”)

With more entrants into the attention economy each day, and creator payouts dwindling along with the digital ad market, it’s getting harder and harder to earn a living as a creator, particularly if you’re just getting started. That naturally means reliable viewership hacks – like saying things to get your viewers irritated enough to leave a comment or share your post with a snarky rejoinder – are on the rise.

It’s always duplicitous, but a lot of the rage clicks farming that happens every day online is also pretty innocent, and even relatively easy to spot, once you know to look out for it. 

Of course, “rage bait” on Twitter/X is so common, the GIF of Tom Hardy from “Fury Road” pointing and saying “That’s Bait” is among the platform’s most recognizable memes. As well, social media platforms — particularly Instagram — have recently been awash in clips from fake podcasts, in which the hosts make over-the-top, wild arguments that appear to be pulled from an ongoing conversation, but are just designed to garner attention. In fact, many of them are designed to drive traffic to OnlyFans or other sites where creators can get direct compensation.

On TikTok, this kind of performative rage-baiting has risen to the level of an art form. You may have noticed influencers making particularly disgusting recipes or preparing food in unsanitary conditions while seeming oblivious to the clearly obvious mistakes they’re making. That’s purposeful, to get people upset to leave angry comments. I remain convinced that TikTok influencer “Butter Dawg” mispronounces “Beefaroni” in this viral clip purely to upset people. He even posted the clip separately to YouTube so more people could get upset with him over such a simple mistake.

Or Does It?

You don’t need to be Freud to understand the psychology here. People love to feel right and to correct others in public, so posting videos inviting everyone to come and correct you is a quick-and-dirty way to grab a lot of eyeballs, even if these folks immediately move on with their lives and never think about you again.

TikTok is also home to the “fake Karen” phenomenon, in which users post scripted re-enactments of demanding middle-class white women appearing to freak out in public and abuse people in the service industry, in hopes of going viral. Again, the same kind of rage clicks mechanism is at play here. People love to feel morally superior to someone else, so a clip depicting a stranger acting terribly, that folks can watch and feel momentarily better about themselves in comparison, is a guaranteed watch.

Nonetheless, duplicity is hardly the ideal way to build a following online, even if it’s initially effective. In some ways, driving traffic by steering into controversy is an outdated model, a cynical strategy that emerged from an entirely SEO and algorithm-driven culture. Before there was social media rage bait, there was of course search engine clickbait. When the exclusive goal is to appeal to either bots or basic human urges like anger and tribalism, then yeah, making people upset and encouraging them to scream at one another works. 

But if the goal is to grow a community of like-minded people who you want to spend time around, and who will likely share and evangelize your work with others, it’s better to engage with them honestly and transparently than constantly try to trick them into clicking on your latest release.

Ultimately, creators end up with the community they foster. (It’s a lot like that old parable about how there are two wolves inside you… Whichever following you feed is going to grow.) Using tricks and mock outrage to garner a larger audience is a short-term solution, but eventually, you will end up being the kind of person who puts more negativity and hostility out into the world, with a following of angry haters.

Gore Hounds

Which brings me, at last, to long-time film pundit Chris Gore, who founded Film Threat magazine way back in 1996. While he became best known in the nerd/geek space as the resident movie reviewer on G4’s “Attack of the Show,” Gore has recently held on to his audience by becoming one of the many, many, many internet critics who are fixated on “wokeness” and “forced diversity” in Hollywood films. (A recent tweet complaining about Marvel and Star Wars becoming “girl brands” essentially sums up this argument.)

Clearly, Gore’s strategy is having some baseline success. His tweet about Marvel becoming a “girl brand” scored 4.5 million “views” on X and has over 1,000 comments. A non-controversial Gore tweet from the same week has 11,000 views and 290 comments.

But the reputational cost is real and significant. Search for Gore on any of the major platforms where he shares content, and this controversy is the only thing about him that people are discussing. On Wednesday, he collaborated on a video with Film Threat writer Alan Ng, who himself is embroiled in a controversy over his review of “The Marvels.” Even if the outrage was purely intended as bait, that’s their take on the movie now, and it will define them and their channels moving forward. It might be harder to capture the world’s attention while being forthright and authentic and acting in good faith, but if it works, you’re on much more solid ground to build a real following.

What are your thoughts on farming rage clicks? Email tips@passionfru.it to share your thoughts.

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