What are ‘rage bait’ influencers?

There’s a new wave of influencers who specialise in making content specifically to incite rage.

Before Twitter imploded on itself and turned into what we now know as X, it was often considered a breeding ground for trolls and amateur comedians who often adopted online personas crafted to push the buttons of the masses. However, since then, TikTok has become the platform where so-called “rage-bait influencers” have found newfound success.

By staging interactions and filming them for content, these influencers have engineered a new way to garner views through manufactured controversies – and spark heated debates in comment sections.

“I realised that videos really blow up when there’s like controversial things going on in the video,” 22-year-old New York influencer Winta Zesu explained to Rolling Stone. She gained a following after her videos featuring skits of her confronting rude waiters gained traction. After a 2022 red carpet of her captured two people seemingly gossiping about her in the background, she realised that she could profit off of manufactured drama, and has since amassed a following of 515,000 followers.

Although most of her followers are well aware of the kind of satirical, provocative content Zesu makes, when those rage-bait videos make it to different platforms, the irony of them gets lost in translation and often leads to a genuine public outcry.

The content of rage-bait videos can range from something as benign as Zesu’s videos of pretending to fight with her sister to something more contentious, such as making outlandish political statements to bait controversy. The latter is a tactic commonly employed by far-right internet personalities who want to get more views, according to reports.

These methods take a page from broadcast news pundits like Tucker Carlson who often weaponise anger to increase viewership. But in the age of social media, rage-baiting has reportedly led to the internet becoming more toxic, especially since algorithms like that of TikTok tend to prioritise engagement above all else. “Rage farming is the product of a perfect storm of f***ery, an unholy mélange of algorithms and anxiety,” writer Molly Jong-Fast noted in The Atlantic.

But amateur far-right pundits are not the only ones flourishing amid the rise of rage baiting on TikTok, with left-wing commentators – including Aunt Karen, who uses her account to call out racist behaviour, and RX0rcist, a pharmacist who fact checks unfounded medical advice – using rage baiting tactics as a way to challenge misinformation and microaggressions.

Aunt Karen – whose real name is Denise Bradley – explained to Insider that she never went out of her way to rage-bait with her content, but urged people to ask themselves why they label her content as such. “Many people believe that my content is rage-baiting simply because they’re uncomfortable with the reality Black people and other people of colour face in this world,” Bradley told the outlet. “I believe in order to push for change, we must see the world as it is. I don’t believe in sugarcoating issues … so if people feel that I’m rage-baiting, you should ask yourself: ‘what is she trying to get us to see?’”

Data suggests that videos with an angry tone are quicker to go viral on social media than a more positive message. In 2013, researchers found that users on Weibo, a Chinese social media platform, were more likely to share content that elicited disgust and righteous indignation than those that sparked feelings of joy or sadness.

“The goal of social media platforms is to keep people engaged for as long as possible,” University of Buffalo professor Yotam Ophir – who specialises in misinformation and extremism – told the outlet. “It doesn’t matter to them if we enjoy the video or we get angry at it, as long as we’re staying, listening, commenting, and sharing it with our friends.”

Online outrage receives more likes and by validating that content, it rewards people to be angrier online. According to researchers, social media is proven to incentivise users to express more moral outrage over time, and the algorithms that keep these platforms running tend to prioritise content that elicits and evokes outrage to maximise engagement, no matter the cost.


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