Pressing Issues

Manufactured Outrage Is Big Business

Republicans believe that stoking their constituents’ rage by inventing controversies wins at the voting booths. So why aren’t news outlets exposing these campaigns of terror for what they are?

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Last month was one of the most frightening in recent memory for the LGBTQIA+ community. Pride events across the country were canceled out of safety concerns, with violent anti-LGBTQIA groups disrupting and menacing previously safe havens like libraries, bookstores, and bars.

GOP-led legislatures across the country have passed nearly 80 anti-trans laws, from banning gender-affirming medical care to defunding libraries that carry books about sexual and gender identity. In Arizona, teachers have to use the pronouns correlating with a student’s assigned sex at birth regardless of how they identify. In Alabama, trans students are forbidden from competing in sports. In Indiana and Florida, teachers may not speak about “human sexuality,” even to refer to a same-sex spouse in day-to-day conversation.

That drumbeat is echoed on social media as a parade of outrages, minor situations or events knitted together—like a trans influencer drinking a beer, a store displaying a rainbow shirt, or a teacher reading a story about diversity—to give people the false idea that their way of life is under attack.

The influencer, the store, the teacher—they’re not forcing anyone to do anything. People can scroll on by, walk past, shrug. They can go back to their jobs, their hobbies, their concerts, their churches, their board games and bike rides and sports leagues, without being affected by the teacher or the store or the influencer ever again.

But posted, memed, re-recorded and TikToked, dishonest right-wing media figures turn these things into calls to arms—they claim that these people are out to corrupt and recruit our children, knowing full well that it isn’t true. Protest the influencer! Ban the teacher’s book! Smash the store windows and burn the rainbow shirt!

These bad actors, funded through Republican think-tanks and donor organizations by billionaires who see anti-gay hate as a way to sway votes, are being well compensated to produce anger. It’s their major product:

And this:

And this.


And this:

They’re being paid to make you think there’s a war and you have to enlist immediately, lest some amorphous idea of “your way of life” or “your children’s future” or “America as we know it” dies without your action. To make you feel like violence is the best and only answer to these “groomers” and “monsters,” whom they characterize as subhuman.

These are like lessons taken from the oldest fascist playbook on Earth, but they’re playing louder now, on social media, with the sources of these attacks on marginalized people harder to trace for the average person. Following a widely shared online misconception back to its origins isn’t something most consumers have time to do, so cautioning people to be careful about sourcing their information has limited impact, and those pushing these rage-bait stories know that.

They know that between work and kids and hobbies and obligations most people don’t have time for a more than cursory glance at something that looks official. For example, The Daily Wire certainly sounds like a real news source! You’d have to read more than just one story that someone you know shared in passing to understand that it’s a GOP-donor-backed bigot page dedicated to quarter-truth conspiracies about books turning your kids gay and trans, and liberals hating on the flag.

Something shows up at your house that looks like a newspaper, you might be inclined to read it not knowing that it’s produced to push the same anti-equality framework favored by Republicans in Congress.

So it’s all the more critical now that professional reporters, editors, and producers dedicate themselves to providing context to their audiences. Real news outlets’ reach on social media far exceeds that of even the most popular activists, and they’re uniquely positioned to educate people as to why they’re being asked to become outraged now, and who might benefit from that outrage.

This is actually a moment when the press might do work that opens eyes and rouses minds to a deeper understanding of the modern world. Tragically, most corporate media seem satisfied to cover this campaign of terror as a tit-for-tat checkers game between the usual two “opposing sides.”

Teachers reading kids a story or singing a song “trade barbs” or “clash” with unhinged screamers accusing their classrooms of harboring pedophiles. Activists helping AIDS patients are depicted as the equal opposite of an anti-abortion group using those same activists as an excuse to sign up new supporters and gather emails for coming political campaigns.

GOP organizations printing signs and busing in protesters to school board meetings are characterized as having “heated exchanges,” as though the tenor of the words was the most interesting facet of this story. Local TV news covers the “shouting” and “tension” before even beginning to reckon with what anyone was shouting about.

The national press is failing at this moment as hard as they ever have in the past. The New York Times, America’s preeminent traditional news source, spent the past year interviewing prominently dishonest anti-trans activists pushed at them by God knows who and then had the audacity to ask how an anti-trans GOP campaign “happened.”

The Washington Post, which proclaims that “democracy dies in darkness,” stated that trans rights “emerged” as a “political flashpoint,” a pair of words that means absolutely nothing and enlightens no one as to the cause of said emergence.

With each new attack on marginalized people, editors and producers have an obligation to outline the right-wing media pipeline that takes a random social video, launders it through a popular Twitter feed, incites some low-level conservative columnist to make it the topic of the week, which launches it onto the toxic fake news channel, Fox and thus into the dentist’s offices and airport lounges of the world.

How did some individual’s TikTok become so urgent that if we don’t discuss it we risk the downfall of the country? Who keeps asking every minor celebrity to provide some cringeworthy quote about “woke ideology” for the entire right-wing media to amplify and dunk on?

When a group of screamers show up on a bus with pre-printed signs at the municipal meeting, even the busiest local stringer can ask who t told them to be there and provided them with their signs. Journalists can extrapolate bus costs, FOIA protest permits, and query participants about the poisoned game of telephone that led them to a place where they’d accuse school boards of sex crimes.

Describing the origins of these flash mobs of rage will do more to serve audiences than merely repeating the lies told by propagandists, even to debunk them. People don’t just need to know that something they’ve shared isn’t true.

They need to know who had an interest in showing it to them in the first place. Who wanted them to be mad about it, and who’s getting something out of that anger.

Without that understanding, people seeing anti-gay riots on TV or reading a hateful meme online might imagine these campaigns of bigotry are homegrown and normal, examples of the prevailing sentiment of the day. They’ll see the created, coordinated response of a political party on the wrong side of history as the attitude of their friends and neighbors, and far too many people will give in to societal pressure to go along with it, or at least keep silent.

And that’s how authoritarian campaigns win.

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