This week, the Washington Post ran a story about a viral left-wing influencer named Erica Marsh who became a poster-child for conservatives as an example of liberal insanity. Marsh’s outrageous opinions enraged millions of people, sparking endless mockery, vitriol and debate. The most controversial thing about Marsh, however, is that she doesn’t seem to exist. Marsh’s obviously doctored photos, cartoonish tweets and lack of any other online presence raised suspicions that she was a fabrication of conservative or even foreign agitators trying to stir up division.
When the Post contacted Twitter about Marsh, the company suspended her account without explanation.
If you want to get a lot of attention on social media, one winning strategy is “rage baiting,” the term for inflammatory posts that goad people into engagement.
“We’re all being influenced by it, even if we think we’re in control,” said Tobias Rose-Stockwell, author of the upcoming book Outrage Machine: How Tech Amplifies Discontent, Disrupts Democracy—And What We Can Do About It. “It’s nothing new, but in the past it was just something you’d see on TV or the radio. Now with social media, we’ve all been pulled into this broad moral play together.”
Social media algorithms are tuned to promote controversy. Rage baiting is an easy way to advance political goals, such as advancing particular positions or even spreading discontent among your opponents. “It’s been a bonanza for political operatives, activists, and even conflict entrepreneurs,” Rose-Stockwell said. But it’s also something regular people can fall into unintentionally. “If you post about something you’re extremely angry about and it gets a huge amount of traction, then our brains will start to assume that this is what the world wants.”
The phenomenon deepens societal divisions and advances misinformation. It’s also bad for the people observing and responding to it. Rage baiting is a distraction that prevents us from engaging with what’s actually going on in the world, and thanks to the stress that comes with furry, it’s bad for your mental health.
The most effective solutions to this problem require action from social media companies and the governments who regulate them. But Rose-Stockwell said there’s a lot you can do as an individual, too.
Rage baiting strategies fall into a few broad categories. By understanding these techniques, you can spot rage baiting when it’s happening. That will help slow down your own thinking so you don’t fall into the trap, and make it less likely that you’ll contribute to the problem by reacting or sharing the content.
Rose-Stockwell compiled a list of the most common rage baiting techniques and the kind of people who use them that you should watch out for. Click through the slideshow above to see the most hall of shame, or scroll through if you’re reading on a mobile device.