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Rage Farming Is Poisoning Our Politics. How to Resist

The strategy drums up emotions, followers and cash. But we pay a huge price by sacrificing civility.

Jared Wesley and Fajr Ahmad 18 Jul 2023The Tyee

Jared Wesley is a professor of political science at the University of Alberta. Fajr Ahmad is a student at Barrett, the honors college at Arizona State University, studying communication.

An annual ritual, the Calgary Stampede helps many Canadians reconnect with the province’s “Wild West” heritage. A different type of agriculture was on display at this year's event, however, as the rage farming conducted by some conservative leaders signifies a discouraging trend in our public discourse.

On July 10, Danielle Smith and Pierre Poilievre posed at Stampede with a man wearing a bright green shirt advocating for “straight pride.” Questions surround how the man gained access to the events and to the front of the line, let alone how he managed to secure photos with two of Canada’s most powerful Conservatives.

Official responses from the leaders claimed neither read the content of the shirt before the pictures were snapped. These excuses earned ridicule among seasoned staffers and those that pointed out that the questionable garment was neon.

Others on social media leapt to the leaders’ defense, championing the content of the man’s message, which contained the erroneous claim that straight people are responsible for all of human existence. Poilievre and Smith undercut those narratives, at least somewhat, by distancing themselves from the concept of “straight pride.” Progressives mustered a much more forceful counterattack, pointing out the bigotry of equating heterosexual persecution to that faced by the LGBTQ2S+ community. The two sides went back and forth for days, with little evidence of genuine dialogue or persuasion.

We can debate whether the Stampede photo ops were a deliberate attempt to drum up controversy or simply a pair of accidents. Only the Poilievre and Smith camps and the green-shirt-man know for sure (although the fact it happened twice throws the talents of conservative staffers into question and stretches the definition of coincidence).

Regardless of whether the seeds were deliberately planted, the effects of this sort of rage farming are tangible. And, as experience and research demonstrate, the polarization it breeds can culminate in the erosion of democratic norms and institutions, and even lead to political violence.

Roots of the term ‘rage farming’

The origins of the term “rage farming” are contested. Some attribute it to John Scott-Railton, a senior researcher at the University of Toronto, while others credit Molly Jong-Fast’s 2022 article in the Atlantic.

Both describe rage farming as a cynical political tactic designed to bait opponents into overreacting to a controversial statement. This, in turn, paints the other side as unreasonable while simultaneously riling up one’s own base in defense of the original position. The conflict between the two sides spirals into a pit of rage, with neither side really aiming to persuade as much as humiliate, discredit and vanquish the other.

This tit for tat is a pox on all of our houses, further eroding Canadians’ trust in all politicians and our democratic institutions. More and more people disengage from politics, failing to vote let alone join parties or run for elected office. The democratic sphere is left to those drawn to the conflict and controversy, further perpetuating the politics of distrust and animosity.

Rage farming is a key contributor to this type of political tribalism or factionalism. Rather than treating one’s opponents as adversaries to be defeated during elections, rage farmers convince their followers that the other side are enemies to be destroyed.

Rather than treating politics as a dialogue among competing viewpoints in search of the common good, rage farmers foster an environment where the interests of the few are more important than those of the many.

Indeed, for the rage farmer, anger is an end unto itself. As much as helping their side to win (and the other side to lose), animosity is the desired result. Rationality and compromise are treated as vices, not virtues.

While it is by no means endemic or exclusive to conservative groups, rage farming has become increasingly popular among right-wing operatives. The consequences are only exacerbated by algorithms promoting sensationalist content and siloing conversations, with social media companies and influencers — like Jordan Peterson, Ben Shapiro, Alex Jones and others — benefiting financially.

Homegrown examples

Canada has also proven fertile ground for rage farming. In 2022, prairie premiers spread disinformation about the legal role of federal environmental officials on private lands, for instance, raising anger among right-wing farmers. Federal conservatives have peddled similar disinformation about looming fertilizer cuts. This rhetoric, along with COVID-19 conspiracy theories, allegedly influenced a man who physically confronted Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland in Grande Prairie, Alberta.

Similar tropes coincide with an increasing number of incidents of political violence, including gravel attacks on NDP leader Jagmeet Singh and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. Other examples include a concerted effort last year to intimidate and organize against women of colour journalists writing about politics.

Not all rage-farming results in violence, of course. Some of it amounts to mainstream deception. Columnist Deveryn Ross catalogues some of the cases involving Pierre Poilievre, including the apparently fabricated story of Mustafa from Calgary — a man who supposedly missed his wedding because “Trudeau’s passport offices are broken.” Tweets like this are among the most viewed and shared on the Conservative leader’s account. 

As its name suggests, rage farming works best when it cultivates anger among its targets. Temper-inducing headlines, memes and statements tend to encourage the audience to seek out even more inflammatory information, thus prolonging the rage and deepening the target’s connection with them. In this sense, playing off anger is more effective than drawing on anxiety or fear when it comes to building a loyal following.

This is one of the reasons political operatives are enticed by rage farming. Beyond votes, it can help them cultivate a larger and more devoted membership and donor base. This creates a vicious cycle, of sorts. In order to maintain the allegiance of their followers, rage farmers must drum up more anger. This pursuit often results in the generation of conspiracy theories and spreading of disinformation, as amping up outrage requires increasingly more outrageous claims.

Four ways to subdue rage farming

What can we do to slow the tide of rage farming? The first step is to identify how, when and where it is happening. Distinguishing it from “politics as usual” can be difficult; political tactics exist on a spectrum of nefariousness. When we see or suspect it, however, we should call it out for what it is: a deliberate attempt to manipulate voters into becoming angry. Related to this, Canadians must realize that rage-baiting is not normal or productive, and that there are alternatives.

Second, beyond refraining from the tactic themselves, members of the press and the rage farmer’s own party should hold politicians accountable for engaging in rage farming. In response to the “straight pride” photos, National Observer columnist Max Fawcett rightly urged reporters to press Poilievre and Smith for specific reasons as to why they disagreed with the man in the neon-green shirt. Allowing them to blandly disagree with the sentiment or to assert that they were unaware of the statement in the first place allows leaders to save face among less extreme members of their base, while still allowing them to reap the rewards of the rage that’s been sown. If leaders know they must defend their actions, it establishes a proactive form of accountability.

Third, Canadians should turn away from politicians, influencers, and platforms that sow the seeds of rage and reward others with their votes and business. This is easier said than done, as witnessed by the failure of most anti-Musk Twitter users to deactivate their accounts. Many of us continue to rely on social media and certain political parties as the best option. Regulating the social media giants is a possible solution. But until Canadians create economic and electoral disincentives for rage farming, it will persist.

Fourth, politicians and their staff need to appreciate the deeper risks involved with rage farming. Beyond fanning flames they cannot control — as Jason Kenney discovered — the continued deterioration of democratic discourse leads in ominous directions. Harassment of women, people of colour, and other traditionally marginalized groups is often the product of rage-farming. And it can sometimes lead to targeted violence or even attempts at insurrection. Only rage farmers and their most avid consumers would agree that those are acceptable byproducts of democratic discourse.

Once we are able to see rage farming for the manipulative tactic that it is, we can begin to bring democratic discourse back to its rightful place, rooted in understanding and building broader common ground to address the many challenges facing our society.  [Tyee]

Read more: Politics, Alberta

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