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The idea that liberal outrage is being weaponized by the GOP is nothing new. Since its inception, Trumpism has made a point of eschewing policy in favor of “owning the libs” to garner likes, retweets, and small-dollar donations. And it has worked. Look no further than the 2020 election, where the GOP refused to even write a new platform for its convention. Trumpism didn’t need a new platform, because besides racism, the only tenet of Trumpism is baiting Democrats. Who could forget the meme of the protester in the black cap weeping? Much of Fox’s evening programming consists of making fun of liberals for their earnest beliefs.
But something more specific is happening on social media. On Friday, the Texas GOP Twitter account posted a meme that showed people waiting in line in New York City for a COVID test and superimposed the text, “If you can wait in line for hours for testing … you can vote in person.” According to Erin Douglas, a reporter for The Texas Tribune, the meme “quickly provoked anger from the left, giddiness from the right, and rose to one of the top trending posts on the platform that day.” Trolls—including Donald Trump himself—have been posting dumb stuff like this for years. What the Texas GOP recognized was that one of the two dominant American political parties tweeting it from an official account was going to get some attention.
John Scott-Railton, a senior researcher at the Citizen Lab at the University of Toronto’s Munk School of Global Affairs, tweeted: “You are being rage farmed. Your angry quote tweet = the goal. Left: the tweet everyone is dunking on. Right: Texas GOP gloating at the engagement they got.” I caught up with Scott-Railton on the phone. He told me that he started noticing this trend on his own Twitter timeline; it “was filled with quote tweets of inflammatory things, that seemed almost structured to provoke that kind of engagement. I began suspecting that in some situations either by accident or by design, the inflammatory content was being amplified by an algorithm-driven engagement loop.”
“There’s a precedent for this,” he continued, with “neo-Nazi and extreme far-right groups seeking to do extreme and inflammatory things in the hopes of provoking a conflict or a reaction that will garner media attention. What I see here with rage farming is the distilled tactic of this strategy for social media … A lot of people experience social media as a 24-hour cage fight. The algorithm is giving us more of the people engaging with problematic content and less of their original thoughts. We’re quickly beginning to live in a dunkocracy. The dunkocracy is killing democracy.”
In 2020, The Wall Street Journal reported that Facebook “algorithms exploit the human brain’s attraction to divisiveness,” according to one slide in an internal Facebook presentation. More recently, in the Facebook Papers, the case of the fictitious user Carol Smith, created by a Facebook researcher, made this clear. The researcher’s experiment showed that “within one week” of joining Facebook, “Smith’s feed was full of groups and pages that had violated Facebook’s own rules, including those against hate speech and disinformation,” Brandy Zadrozny explained in an article for NBC News. Rage farming is not the same thing as an inherently polarizing algorithm, but it’s certainly a way for the right to game these technology platforms’ relationship with engagement.
On Friday, the Texas GOP account doubled down with a follow-up tweet: “Only #4 on trending, cry more.” Since the Republican Party has no moral core, there’s no one left to call out things like the Texas GOP Twitter account’s straw-man argument. There are no grown-ups in the room; there’s no one to tell whoever is managing the account that they have gone too far, because going too far is the brand now.
“The trick for these accounts like Texas GOP is to harness the energy of other users in order to get their own ideas or accounts to trend,” Sam Woolley, an assistant professor at the University of Texas at Austin, whose work focuses on emergent technologies in political communications, told me when I reached out to follow up on his comments in the Tribune. “They often use manipulative tactics in order to get people to respond just so long as they’re actually engaging with the message … If you can get enough people, it doesn’t matter how they’re engaging, your message is going to go viral.” As Ryan Broderick wrote in the Garbage Day newsletter, “The American right wing understands that Trending Topics are a launchpad that run on a dumb enough algorithm (with lazier enough moderators) that they can use it to dominate the online conversation and then crowdfund off of it.”
Rage is a currency in today’s GOP. Think of all the culture-war tropes that rely on it, many of which have resulted in legislation: Rage against critical race theory, masks, vaccine mandates, COVID testing, shutdowns, unions, voting, trans people, abortion, Muslims. (And that’s before you even get to the made-up stuff, like the War on Christmas.) The modern GOP is for just one thing: Making Democrats mad. Think of Representative Thomas Massie’s Twitter Christmas greeting showing him and his wife and children holding what Forbes estimated was tens of thousands of dollars’ worth of guns, or Republican politicians’ obsession with the anti-Biden meme “Let’s go Brandon,” which they are using in everything from campaign advertisements to dresses. What do Senator Ted Cruz and Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene have in common? A single-minded goal of owning the libs.
Donald Trump is gone (for now), but the very worst vestiges of him continue to drive the Republican Party: rage, grievance, and an obsession with the idea that others are getting something you’re entitled to. Rage farming is the product of a perfect storm of fuckery, an unholy mélange of algorithms and anxiety. And the social platforms that are making all this possible? They’ll take the engagement wherever they can get it.