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Inside The Outrage Cycle
Earlier this week, I had the pleasure of presenting at a remote session for OPEN, the Online Progressive Engagement Network. My talk was about how outrage is being weaponized by right-wing actors to create artificial grassroots campaigns. I wanted to take some time today to put it all down here because I think it builds a lot on what I’ve been covering in Garbage Day.
Since the beginning of the year, online outrage has become more and more powerful as a social force. We’ve seen this with “Bean Dad” and the TikTok bee lady, but it happened as recently as this week with the massive UFC Addison Rae temper tantrum.
My fellow Sidechanneler, Charlie Warzel, in a live Discord audio chat on Monday said he thinks it’s because platforms like Twitter are warped from five years of Trump mania and now their recommendation systems are churning thousands of mini-Trumps every day. This is the “main character of Twitter” effect. I’m inclined to agree.
As these trending main characters go viral on Twitter, hundreds of online outlets race to turn this into content. And there’s a real financial incentive for covering these stories. As most people working at various content mines can tell you, the thing Facebook readers love the most is getting mad about stuff that’s happening on Twitter.
But this Trending Topic outrage aggregation is not just happening at mainstream outlets. It’s happening with particular precision in tabloids and on right-wing news sites. And as the DFR Lab’s Emerson T. Brooking observed recently, these right-wing outlets have a much bigger Facebook footprint, which means they can make these stories trend with incredible ease. Also, as Brooking pointed out, even outlets trying to debunk or downplay these random controversies help amplify right-wing narratives. You can’t win a game if you’re letting the other team not only pick the playing field but also make the rules.
This Twitter outrage-to-tabloid-to-right-wing Facebook pipeline is probably best exemplified by the recent story of Oli London, the UK nano-influencer who underwent dozens of surgeries to look like BTS band member Jimin. London announced last month that they identified as “transracial,” linking it to Pride month. This tied into an insidious bit of anti-trans rhetoric commonly employed by TERFs, or trans-exclusionary radical feminists, who use “transracialness” as a way to undermine the trans community.
London’s story was picked up by right-wing influencers like Ben Shapiro and outlets like the New York Post and OAN, who used it as a way to ridicule and further torment trans people.
And, of course, the main vector point for this kind of content is Twitter. On Monday, the app’s trending topics included Marco Rubio attacking President Biden’s comments on the recent Cuba protests, racism from English football fans after their Euros 2020 loss, and two different trending topics about Marjorie Taylor Greene dead-naming Caitlyn Jenner and hurling transphobic abuse at her. The way the app surfaces these stories is disjointed and, frankly, editorially worthless. At best, these Trending Topics appear with barely a line of context before plunging a user into a vortex discourse.
Meanwhile, on platforms like Facebook and YouTube, conservative commentators take these topics and turn them into articles, posts, and videos. And, by the very nature of their network size, however they choose to cover these stories will outperform anything that isn’t explicitly conservative.
The best example of how this outrage infrastructure manifests is the recent anti-critical race theory backlash in the US. Architected by The Manhattan Institute’s Christopher Rufo, right-wing influencers scan tabloid headlines and random viral ephemera for anything they can put under the umbrella of critical race theory and then condemn it.
Critical race theory broke through into the American consciousness in a major way last year after Rufo went on Fox News and called it “cult indoctrination”. Shortly after, Trump tried to ban federal agencies from “practicing” it.
Meanwhile, over the last six months, local right-wing Facebook pages have been pushing anti-critical race theory content at a fevered clip. According to research from Kevin Reuning, an assistant professor of political science at Miami University, by early May, critical race theory scaremongering accounted for almost 5% of the content being shared on local Republican Facebook pages for 3,141 US counties. And at the top of this networked moral panic is Fox News’ Tucker Carlson, who uses his show to both aggregate and amplify what’s already trending on Facebook.
This entire apparatus, after months of build up, has been extremely effective. It’s created an illusion of a grassroots conservative movement to save children from anti-American propaganda. As of July, almost 30 states have introduced legislation to ban critical race theory. At a recent school board meeting in Virginia, two anti-critical race theory protesters were arrested. And according to a recent NBC News report, this chaos is being seized upon by QAnon followers, who intend to infiltrate local schools boards across the country.
But what makes me think this is not just a quirk of American conservatism is that it’s happening all over the world at the moment. In Australia, conservative politicians are waging a war against critical race theory. In the UK, this same Twitter-outrage-to-local-moral-panic cycle is happening around transgenderism. In France, right-wing pundits are debating “Islamo-gauchism,” or “Islamo-leftism,” which is being weaponized in ways extremely similar to conservative race theory in the US. Meanwhile, in Brazil, where vaccine rollout has been both slow and deeply distrusted, conservatives use WhatsApp and Facebook to rage against vaccines and share ridiculous conspiracy theories. And nowhere is this kind of online outrage more present than India, where the country’s trending content is a dizzying kaleidoscope of Hindu nationalist anger powered by recommendation algorithms. And Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s BJP party has gone so far as to try and censor and exert control over different platforms’ Trending Topics.
Online outrage seems inescapable and everywhere. And more troubling, fixing this doesn’t seem as easy as “voting out the bad guys.” It feels increasingly undeniable that the very systems that surface viral content are broken, stuck in a negative social impact loop. These apps feel more fun when they’re making us angry and it’s having serious consequences. Trump the person may have been removed from the machine, but in his wake, his presence can be felt everywhere now. A decentralized and automated right-wing anger we can’t escape.
Jake Paul Has A Big Robot
lol so apparently Jake Paul’s giant robot friend is called The Problem Bot, which is a play on Paul’s nickname, which is apparently “The Problem Child”. The Problem Bot is 10-feet tall, but I can’t find anything more about who is inside this robot. I assume some poor contractor is being forced to walk around in this thing? If you know how much Paul is paying someone to walk around in a robot suit, please let me know! I have questions.
No Such Thing As A Coincidence Guy Finally Speaks
I wrote about William Knight a few weeks ago. He’s big on TikTok and uses his account to warp the very fabric of reality. You know, usual stuff. He’s gone viral a few times this year because his videos are completely wild. Yesterday, Know Your Meme published an interview with him. It’s worth heading over and reading the whole thing, but here’s a part I thought was pretty interesting:
I believe people resonated with my videos almost immediately because people are starving for knowledge and truth. People were intrigued by my appearance, but most importantly, they fell in love with my message. I was excited but not at all surprised by the early success of my TikTok account. I was heavily using Law of Attraction techniques, and after years of practice, I have it down to a formula that works every time.
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The Perfect Bad Tweet
Click through and read the replies. This single tweet has inspired Avengers: Endgame levels of collaboration across multiple factions of Twitter. Thousands of exasperated bluecheck accounts trying to explain to this wellness coach that acne was not invented in the 2000s. A truly incredible piece of content. Based on what I wrote above, I would say it’s probably worth interogating why so many very serious people are engaging with this tweet 🤔🤔🤔
Charli D’Amelio Is No Longer The Most Popular Person On TikTok
Good news for people who don’t know who Charli D’Amelio is, she is no longer the most popular person on TikTok. That title now belongs to Khabane Lame, a 21-year-old Senegalese-Italian video creator who makes incredible videos. I’ve seen a bunch of these come across my Tumblr dashboard. His main schtick is doing extremely basic responses to completely dumb viral DIY hacks. His videos are super funny, but I’m going to guess the major thing that has helped propel him to TikTok domination is the fact you don’t need to speak any specific language to understand what’s going on.
You Can Finally Be A VTuber
This was dropped in the Garbage Day Discord by Mitch. It’s a web app called Kalidoface 3D. It has about nine characters to choose from and tracks facial expressions you make on your webcam. A quick explainer for those out-of-the-loop, VTubers are a relatively new, but extremely popular phenomenon, where influencers stream as cartoon (anime) avatars. The technology to do this used to be pretty specialized, but it’s getting more and more accessible every day. Excited for the thinkpieces in about three years titled, “Is It Acceptable to Let Gen Z Employees Attend Zoom Meetings As Their Anime Avatars”.
Dark Minimal Techno Trip Live Radio 24/7 Dark Monkey Music
Looking for a good soundtrack for your Wednesday afternoon? Look no further than “Dark Minimal Techno Trip Live Radio 24/7 Dark Monkey Music,” which is a YouTube livestream that is, uh, exactly like what it sounds like. I actually was listening to this while staring at the monkey image for a bit and completely disassociated. So that’s cool.
A Tumblr Icon Resurfaces On Tiktok
The “cute english teacher who’s high key banging the history professor” guy is on TikTok! If you were on Tumblr in like 2015, he was EVERYWHERE. The post was super viral. I think it’s nice that a decent-sized chunk of the adult millennial population is currently walking around with secret cringy Tumblr backstories.
Some Stray Links
P.S. here’s a really good comic.
***Any typos in this email are on purpose actually***