How right-wing media embrace social media-generated rage bait to drive website traffic

Melissa Joskow / Media Matters

The internet tells me that I’m outraged, or at least that I should be outraged. It tells you that, too.  

Charcoal Face Masks Deemed an Example of ‘Racism’ and ‘Blackface,” reads a February 20 headline at the National Review. The article, written by Katherine Timpf, cautions that “crying racism where none exists makes people a lot less likely to listen to real accusations of racism.”

“Apparently, wanting to draw toxins out of your skin using a charcoal mask is actually pretty problematic — because the masks resemble blackface and are therefore ‘racist,’” wrote Katherine Timpf. The entire article is based on three tweets, one of them written by a user with 11 followers. The other two examples are jokes from comedians Neel Nanda and Ali Macofsky. But the fact that just a single person was (maybe) making this argument wasn’t about to stop Timpf’s battle against this digital strawman.

Charcoal has some unique properties that other substances don’t have. It can absorb pollutants and toxins and unclog your pores. It also happens to be black, which means that if you want to get these benefits for your face, you’re going to have to put something that is black on your face — and I don’t see why that should be a problem. After all, the reason that actual blackface is offensive is because it has historically been intended to demean people with black skin. Wearing a charcoal facemask, however, has none of this history nor this intention. No, the intention of a charcoal facemask is simply to improve your skin, and there’s absolutely nothing offensive about that.

Charcoal masks aside, this is an irritating trend. From Timpf’s National Review archive, there’s also “A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving is Deemed ‘Racist’” (four tweets, several of which seem to be jokes) and “Not Wanting Your Boyfriend to Wear Lace Shorts is Deemed Problematic” (one tweet). Not one tweet in these articles came from verified accounts or public figures.

None of this is to definitively say that these things aren’t racist or can’t be racist. For instance, there was a news report in March 2018 about college students who donned charcoal masks to mock the movie Black Panther. In September 2016, two college students posted photos to Snapchat of themselves in dark skincare masks with a caption that included the n-word. The added context in both of these cases shows that, yeah, these were pretty clearly racist incidents. But it’s disingenuous to say that people have “deemed” the existence of charcoal masks for skin care as racist.

The goal of Timpf’s work appears to be to make people -- especially those on the political left -- appear oversensitive and offended by everything. She’s not the only one doing this.

A quick glance at the Fox News website shows articles dedicated to:

These stories were all based on tweets, some of which were just jokes about the subject. But even when stories do use genuine anger about an issue as the jumping-off point, it seems to end up like The Blaze’s 2017 article “Social justice warriors outraged over ‘white woman’ cast as ‘The Mummy.’ There’s just one problem,” in which a total of five tweets were used to make the entire case.

The reason these types of articles are effective has to do with the emotion they evoke: anger.

The stereotype of the “snowflake” liberal, and the conservative opposition to the people who embody it, is based at least somewhat in anger. This could be anger from conservatives who feel they can’t say what’s on their mind without having to worry about someone criticizing them for it (79 percent of self-identified “strong Republicans” in a December 2018 NPR-Marist poll indicated they were “against the country becoming more politically correct and upset that there are too many things people can’t say anymore”). Or it could be a sense that “politically correct” culture actually puts them in physical danger (after a gunman shot and killed 49 people at Orlando’s Pulse nightclub in 2016, then-candidate Donald Trump slammed Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, saying, “They have put political correctness above common sense, above your safety, and above all else”). In any case, the emotion elicited by a frustration with political correctness is anger.

There’s certainly some irony in the fact that stories meant to illustrate liberals’ tendency to anger are being used to evoke anger from conservatives, but that’s just the kind of bizarre world we live in.

But here’s why anger is important:

In a 2012 study published in The Journal of Politics titled “What Makes Us Click? Demonstrating Incentives for Angry Discourse with Digital-Age Field Experiments,” author Timothy J. Ryan explored what effect feelings of anxiety and anger have on people and their news-seeking habits. His abstract explains:

Across three studies, I find anger, evoked alone, to increase information seeking to a large degreesubstantially increasing web users’ proclivity to click through to a political website. The results suggest that anger can engage and speak to psychological incentives for political communication, under some conditions, to employ angry rhetoric.

In other words, anger is a powerful tool in the worlds of both politics and media. Anger is why narratives about people being “outraged,” written with the intent of actually making readers feel an outrage over that (real or imagined) outrage, are so popular in political media. A lot has happened since Ryan published his study in 2012, but the state of politics and media would seem to only bolster his conclusions.

Keeping audiences lathered into a perpetual state of outrage is good politics and good business. Look no further than Fox News for proof.

Was there ever really a “War on Christmas” involving mass calls to ban Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer and the song Baby, It’s Cold Outside? No. Is Purdue University trying to ban the word “man”? Also no. Does Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) want to steal your steak? Not at all. Is Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) proposing that we “get rid of children?” Absolutely not.

Each one of these stories is meant to make viewers feel as though their freedoms and traditions are under attack. They’re designed to make viewers angry. On Fox News, there’s no shortage of outrage bait. In the case of the aforementioned outrage over supposed progressive attacks on Rudolph, it all originated with a round-up of jokes posted to HuffPost’s “Comedy” vertical. “The North Pole needs a HR department. All these bosses are horrible,” read one of the tweets. “ comes Comet. The worst coach you've ever seen since on screen since the last move you ever watched about youth sports,” said another. They were very, very clearly jokes.

HuffPost put a number of these tweets into a video and jokingly posted, “The holiday TV classic ‘Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer’ is seriously problematic.” Right-wing media, including Fox, reported out the story as though the point were being made in earnest. “‘Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer’ classic called bigoted, ‘seriously problematic’,” read one headline on

Days after the post and the video went up, disgruntled conservatives who’d been told that HuffPost was being serious (again, remember that this originated in the site’s “Comedy” vertical) began raging in the replies to the site’s tweet.

“Take your ‘offended by everything’ agenda and shove it right up your offended ass,” said one user. “Piss off!” went another.

People were angry, and as we know, anger is great for traffic.

Sadly, there’s no real incentive for news organizations to provide a measured response to an event. Even shows and websites not dedicated to political topics are in constant search of content.

An April 2014 article published in The Guardian explored the science behind what it called “Upworthy-style headlines.” (Full disclosure: I worked at Upworthy between 2015 and 2018 as the site tried to shake its clickbait-y reputation.) If you had a Facebook account between 2012 and 2014, you likely know exactly what the article is referring to.

Headlines like “The truth behind ‘men’s body wash’ and ‘women’s body wash’ will make you feel dirty” and “Student comes out to teacher in writing assignment. Her response will make you cry” were wildly successful on the internet for a short time. There are a few things that made them clickable and shareable, but there’s one formula they all followed: They told you how you’d feel after you finished reading them. They primed your emotions before you even clicked in.

What Upworthy did during the short period when it ruled the internet was use the promise of a feeling to encourage clicks. This is the same basic approach right-wing rage bait uses today. While there’s certainly a difference between using that strategy to draw people in to watch a heartwarming video of long-lost family members meeting for the first time and the creation of a manipulative message aimed at reinforcing harmful political stereotypes, strong emotions remain the constant factor in both.

In both cases, these stories tend to originate with tweets, Facebook posts, Instagram updates, or YouTube videos, making it easy for a writer or curator to build an entirely custom narrative by plucking specific posts from the ocean of online content. Those messages can be easily manipulated to fulfill a political purpose.

Unfortunately, the past several years seem to have seen an ever-increasing number of news organizations adopting an approach of overpromising on what kind of emotional reward someone will get when they click through. Now that this has all been ramped up, it’s almost impossible to dial back down. We’ve come to expect stories to fill very specific niches, without much room for nuance. Nobody wants to read a book review that says, “This book was fine. It wasn’t my favorite, but it was adequate.” Instead, we’re drawn to headlines proclaiming, “This is the greatest book I’ve ever read, and you need to pick it up immediately,” or “That book was such garbage. Click through to find out why.”

In an environment where media continue to financially struggle, a conscious return to nuance would be a risky move.

The worlds of social media and news media have become inseparable, and that’s bad for us all.

I reached out to Jon Ronson, the author of 2015’s So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, for his thoughts on the subject. Shamed shares the stories of people involved in minor internet scandals, and it’s an exploration of some of the darker elements of human nature in a digital age. Ronson believes that traditional media are too reliant on social media in their hunt for stories. One factor worth considering is that newspapers are no longer prepping for just whatever will fit in a single paper, and news shows are no longer limited to an hour here or there. There’s an expectation to provide round-the-clock regular content. This will inevitably result in the publication of stories that almost certainly aren’t newsworthy. For instance, it’s probably pretty hard to make an argument that one person on Twitter saying charcoal masks are examples of “blackface” is of interest to the wider public.

Ronson pointed me to a 2016 interview he gave to Zendesk Relate in which he addresses this topic, and he elaborated a bit on his thoughts about the trajectory taken by traditional media and its relationship with social media:

I think when Twitter started, the old media thought, “If we ignore it it'll go away.” Then it didn't go away, so the media thought, “Let's control it. We'll run all these stories like 'Who are the best 100 tweeters?'” So they turned it from being egalitarian into a hierarchy. Which I thought was a real shame. But that didn't work either. The media realized they couldn't control social media. So now they're the nerdy kid sucking up to the bully.

I don’t have the answer for how we can decouple social media and news media from one another, and I don’t know how to lessen the effectiveness of politically motivated outrage bait. What I do know is that it’s in our best interests, as producers and consumers of media, to start reflecting on how social media is used to craft emotionally manipulative narratives. The ability to communicate with one another and avoid stereotyping those we disagree with may very well depend on it.