Alan D. Jagolinzer and Sander van der Linden highlight a dangerous trend of influencers who deliberately target corporations with disinformation, called “rage farming.” The authors use United Airlines to illustrate the damage this can cause to a business and argue that corporations should counter rage farming with proactive messaging rather than staying silent.

American right-wing influencers Charlie Kirk and Candace Owens planted the most recent seeds of corporate-targeted rage farming — the exploitation of emotions to spread misinformation — by accusing airlines, particularly United, of endangering lives through inclusive access to pilot training programs.

Ignoring irony, Owens claimed that she cannot trust female pilots after validating Kirk’s concern that pilots of color might be poorly qualified. These claims seem designed to further a social-political movement that targets marginalized communities, using the airlines as a proxy. They imply that offering flight training to a diverse pool of applicants suggests the airlines are sacrificing safety. They conveniently ignore, however, that pilots must meet very strict regulatory standards and that industry safety statistics do not support their claims.

Rage farming is an influential manipulation tactic that seeks to elicit outrage from viewers. Its purpose is to increase traffic and engagement — which ultimately translates into profit for the producer — as well as raise funds for political agendas, and place targets in defense mode to disrupt their activities. It is usually employed by media influencers who seek attention and is also associated with populist political movements. Corporate rage-targeting seems to be growing, according to the expanding list of available “woke alerts,” which offer dopamine hits to users who want to monitor crowd-reported “dangerous” corporate agendas. This messaging imposes significant risks to marginalized communities and companies that support them. Corporate boards and executive teams need to counter this threat by studying and exposing the rage farm systems.

In the United Airlines example, the company should have issued a press release to counter these claims. It did not. Instead, it took a reporter’s questioning to get the firm to say that its flight training standards are rigorous, regardless of the identity of the pilot. United likely tried to stay out of the fray by giving a muted response, but in this age of deliberately targeted rage farming, laying low can do more harm than good. Research shows that a lie “can make its way around the world before the truth even has had a chance to put its pants on.” Repeated lies are sticky and are very hard to undo in peoples’ minds, even when they are later shown the truth.

United’s tepid engagement and a lack of a highly visible industry response allows a false narrative to fester. The “Top” and “Latest” feeds on X (formerly Twitter) are full of dangerous interpretations of the rage claims. United may suffer a loss in demand due to people’s unwarranted fears that their flights are not safe, which can hurt United’s bottom-line and thus its shareholders. Posts suggest, for example, that people should avoid flying and instead seek alternative transportation, which is, in fact, statistically less safe. There are also spillover costs that are often undercounted. Rage rhetoric increases the likelihood of stochastic terrorism, which is defined as the incitement of a disruptive or violent act. If airlines are disrupted, so is tourism. Disruption also harms people who rely on timely air cargo, such as those with urgent medical needs. Airline workers from marginalized communities may also feel threatened or under supported. 

A proper industry response would be to clarify:

The general costs of rage farming are high. They harm targeted communities, by intention. They also pose direct business risks like declines in product demand, declines in equity market prices, business disruption, harassment, and security threats. For example, Anheuser-Busch InBev lost 30% of its operating profits to rage over its affiliation with a transgender influencer. Disney has been embroiled in a protracted legal battle after it expressed disapproval for legislation that would ban teaching sexual orientation and gender identity to some students. Target and Cracker Barrel have been targeted for Pride Month support, with the former facing physical security threats at some of its stores. In these instances, the targeted firms should have stated publicly why they support these communities, how influencers are exploiting rage for profit and a broader political agenda, and how rage threats can backfire by adding increased retail costs that flow back to consumers. They should have also called out the rank hypocrisy that their rights to express support for these communities have been threatened by influencers who demand their own rights to free speech.     

When a corporation is targeted by rage farming, it needs to take action to understand who the perpetrators are, what their incentives are, why they are crafting these messages, why are they using the company as bait, who is their audience, and how are they exploiting both us and this audience? Answering these questions will inform proactive counterstrategies that include high visibility prebunking (or inoculating audiences against these techniques), legal action, and political engagement.Corporate teams might be reticent to proactively oppose rage farming because of the consequential backlash. According to Ontic, a security and protective intelligence firm, most physical security and IT leaders say their companies face physical threats if they speak out on racial or political issues. This suggests it’s safer to lay low and focus on business operations. However, Ontic also notes that some companies face physical threats if they don’t express a position on these issues.  If companies continue to try to avoid conflict, rage farmers will continue to spin narratives regardless, so CEOs might as well get out ahead of them. One example is Disney CEO Bob Chapek who made it clear that the company “unequivocally” supports the LGBTQ+ community and that the company is caught up in a political agenda that goes well beyond the state of Florida. The systemic, societal and business risks are too high to allow the crops of rage to grow.

Articles represent the opinions of their writers, not necessarily those of the University of Chicago, the Booth School of Business, or its faculty.