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Invented Narratives and the Outrage Industry

Teri Kanefield covers the ongoing cycle of misinformation and outrage, fueled by fragmented media and profit-driven motives. What is the impact of partisan legal pundits and deliberate confusion tactics employed by certain media ecosystems on our public? Teri explains.
Published:March 14, 2024
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*Published with the generous permission of Teri Kanefield. Read all of her writing here.

By Teri Kanefield

First, a few words about partisan legal pundits

Not everything on MSNBC is wrong. Some commentators are reasonable and balanced.
Some people I admire appear on MSNBC. (One, however, told me she disliked the combative way she was questioned.)

If everyone who appeared on cable news was an emotional hothead, the network would have zero credibility. But when reasonable opinions are set alongside emotionally charged doomsday opinions, people remember doomsday opinions.

Moreover, putting lots of opinions next to each other doesn’t clarify an issue, particularly when the opinions are not flagged as opinions but are put forward as if they are facts. It creates noise.

Noise, in fact, is a Russian propaganda technique. Here is how it works: Russian TV doesn’t shut down truth-tellers. Instead, they release a lot of noise, putting bad information alongside the truth. People come away confused and feeling like the truth is unknowable.

As a result of our current information disruption, people who inhabit certain media ecosystems are being sprayed with a firehose of speculations, conjecture, and hype. They get confused. They don’t know what the truth is.

A different model: Offering facts and giving people the tools to understand them will not fill hundreds of hours of programming and will not keep people glued to the screen. All those clicks and hundreds of hours of viewing time and ratings would be lost.

Notice how this lucrative model of keeping people confused opens up new economic opportunities. I have had people tell me that if I charged $5 for a subscription to a newsletter that answers the questions of confused people, they’d subscribe. But I’d just be cashing in on a broken model. (This is not to disparage all people with newsletters.) Making a career of answering questions from confused people doesn’t interest me because I can see that there is an industry that deliberately keeps them confused.

Unfortunately, many people who are continually confused (and who are accustomed to casting blame) may conclude that the entire system is hopelessly broken. People who believe a democratic system is hopelessly broken, instead of seeing that democracy is flawed, will give up on democracy. Russian disinformation deliberately tries to confuse people and make them think democracy is hopelessly broken so they give up on it.

Guess what happens when enough people give up on democracy or decide the truth is unknowable?

The Outrage Industry


The Outrage Industry influences how we talk about politics with our friends and family—and why some people avoid talking about politics. It explains why some people are glued to the screen, following a 24-hour news cycle, breathlessly waiting for the next episode to find out how the latest doomsday situation (or thrilling episode) will turn out. The outrage industry dictates the behavior of elected officials (particularly conservatives) who are terrified of getting on the wrong side of the Outrage Industry because they know if they do, they will be primaried.

According to Berry and Sobieraj, The Outrage Industry is a for-profit genre that is loosely based on fact, but is mostly spin, hype, opinions, panic-inducing speculation, and constructed narratives,


The Outrage Industry is talk radio, cable news shows, and political blogs.

Outrage discourse, as a rule, ignores complexity and nuance. It is not about conveying accurate information or stimulating meaningful discourse. In the words of the authors:

“Outrage sidesteps the messy nuances of complex political issues in favor of melodrama, misrepresentative exaggeration, mockery, and hyperbolic forecasts of impending doom. Outrage talk is not rational discourse. . . instead, it takes the form of a verbal competition, political theater with a scorecard.” (p. 6 – 7)

The authors dispel the popular notion that the Outrage Industry is a result of our polarization. On the contrary, it is a highly profitable business that arose as a result of the Internet and cable-news-media information disruption in the late 1990s. Thus, it’s the other way around: Outrage arose because it was profitable and has exacerbated the problem of polarization.

Because of the fragmenting of media and the clutter of outlets, blogs, and talk shows, there is a lot of noise. There is also a lot of money in the outrage business. Outlets or pundits in search of an audience need to break through. The easiest way to break through is to be an “agent provocateur.” 

The Outrage Industry uses the terms “liberal” and “conservative,” so for the next few posts, I will adopt those terms. Because I am writing this in March of 2024, eight months before the presidential election, I will use “conservative” to mean “supports Trump” and I will use “liberal” to mean “wants Trump to lose.” I understand this shorthand doesn’t quite work because a great many people who call themselves “conservatives” will be voting for Biden in this election, but any term I adopt will be problematic because of the nature of terms.

Both sides use the same tactics. . .

. . . but conservative outrage is more outrageous, more hyperbolic, and more prone to misrepresenting the facts. As the authors put it:

“Liberal content is quite nasty. Conservatives are even nastier.” (p. 42.)

The conservatives are better at all things outrage–including making money. Back when Rush Limbaugh was earning $59 million annually, liberal outrage manufacturers were only in the single-digit millions.

The two sides feed off of each other. They are not separate media bubbles. They are sparring media bubbles. The Outrage Industry opens with the story about how liberal media amplified Rush Limbaugh’s outrageous comments about Sandra Fluke to drive outrage (and fundraising) among liberal audiences.

Outrage media isn’t news. It responds to the news. It reacts. It’s performative and entertaining. There is drama and conflict. The show hosts and pundits talk about the news, but they make no attempt to cover all the news. Instead, they select from the news of the day, and then reinterpret, reframe, and unpack the news “through the lens of ideological selectivity.”

The shows and pundits are personality-centered instead of news-centered. “There would be no Rachel Maddow Show without Rachel Maddow.” (p. 6 7.)

Consuming outrage content can be pleasurable. Viewers have their biases confirmed and are made to feel that they are part of a like-minded community. Outrage narratives are gripping the way a good thriller, mystery novel, or horror movie is gripping.

Audiences now are even more fragmented than they were 10 years ago when The Outrage Industry was published. Because of changes in social media, it is easier to enter and cash in. A person or group with a Substack newsletter who charges only $5 per subscription, and has only 5,000 subscribers can earn $25,000 per month with no overhead other than a computer and internet connection. Some Substack subscriptions are as high as $50 per month.

The Outrage Industry Drives Large Segments of the Population Away from Politics


The authors, Yanna Krupnikov, a professor of political science and communication, and political scientist John Ryan tell us that despite information disruption, the fragmentation of media audiences, and the rise of the Internet, most Americans have about the same engagement with politics. They check the news once or twice daily and then go about their business. They dislike partisan bickering and constant rage. They avoid political arguments and political postings on social media, and while they dislike the leadership of the opposing party, they have no ill feelings about the other party’s voters.

The Outrage Industry, in contrast, is a much smaller group of people plugged into a 24-hour news cycle. These are hyper-partisans who are more likely to raise their voices on social media and are more likely to get into heated arguments with people from the opposing party. In fact, many of them seek out social media fights with members of the other party.

In 2019, 68% of Americans reported “news fatigue” and were weary of the partisan bickering. (The Other Divide, p. 70.)

According to Krupnikov and Ryan, in 2019, only 15% of people liked seeing political posts and discussions on social media.

If you are inside the Outrage Machine, you may think it’s a large group. A million people feel like a large group if you are in it, but it’s a small fragment of the more than 155 million people who voted in the 2020 presidential election.

There is nothing wrong with fact-based outrage. Public outrage over the Supreme Court overturning Roe v. Wade, for example, may get lots of people to the polls and inspire citizens to become more engaged. Outrage based on invented storylines, however, is harmful. For democracy to thrive (and survive) enough citizens must be anchored to facts.

What demagogues, do, after all, is manipulate people by arousing strong emotions like fear and anger based on exaggeration or outright lies.

How People Stumble In

A cat lover may be watching funny cat videos on YouTube when a video catches her eye, perhaps something like, “Trump will soon go to prison!” Intrigued, she clicks. Soon the algorithm feeds her similar content. She’ll follow through on other platforms and find that people with impressive credentials are saying, “Trump will soon go to prison.” She will also find herself in a group with like-minded people.

After she spends some time feeling euphoria (“Trump will go to prison!”) followed by fury (“The legal system failed again!”) she will either turn it all off and ignore the hype, or she will find herself hooked.

This is what addiction to rage looks like:


LML (who I know personally and who teaches rhetoric and communications) said this about her retired aunt.



Indeed, most MSNBC viewers are of retirement age:

The median age of the CNN, Fox, and MSNBC audiences is, respectively, 67, 68 and 71. But this isn’t necessarily a bad thing for the industry. The 50-plus age group constitutes 43 percent of the television audience. 

This makes sense. Retired people have time to watch hours of programming or spend hours doomscrolling through a social media feed. The problem is that having a person’s fears stimulated too often is harmful. See this study about what constant fear does to the brain.

Some people, like two lawyers I admire, Stephanie Jones and C.C.J. spend much of their time fighting the rage maching by introducing facts and nuance.

Responding to the rage machine with facts and nuance often feels like putting out forest fires with a squirt gun. Because of the massive reach of the rage-merchants, the task is never-ending.

Almost always, when someone asks me a question, it’s because they want to know if the latest alarming thing they heard in the outrage chamber is true. They are rarely responding to something that was factually reported in the news. They are generally responding to spin, hype, and speculation. For example, a few weeks ago, a person on Bluesky, tagged me and Heather Cox Richardson and asked one of us to address this:



I told the person who tagged me to immediately stop following or listening to whoever handed her rage-inducing speculation. She went back to see who had directed her to this piece, and learned that it was Laurence Tribe:

(She told me that Tribe has deleted his post, but he has more than a million followers. The damage done is not undone by deleting the post.)

II. Invented (or constructed) Narratives

I have observed that most invented narratives produced by left-wing outrage merchants fall into two categories: Promise that a magic bullet will suddenly punish the bad guys and make everything right or conspiracy theories blaming the failure of the magic bullet on bad actors operating in the shadows or the flawed “system.”

Constructed Narrative #1: “There have never been any real consequences, but now, at last, accountability is just around the corner! It’s coming . . . any time now. . .”

As this former MSNBC viewer told me:

No matter how long the list grew, someone would come along and say something like:



Notice the date: February 14, 2023. Also notice how much engagement the post received. These were some of the replies:



Notice the level of groupthink. The striking thing about the groupthink is that it is complete divorced from the facts. There is a wish for an elusive “consequence” that isn’t precisely defined, that the powerful authorities are refusing to implement.

You see, rage-inducing simplifications are timeless. Once a person gets a hold of one, it becomes a hammer and everything in sight is a nail.

#2 In 2017 and 2018, the promise was that “Mueller is hot on Trump’s trail and will soon bring him to justice!”

This narrative fits into the broader narrative of “justice is just around the corner.” If you had peeked into Twitter in 2018, you would have seen Tweets like these:



Honig is talking about the possibility of one of Trump’s inner circle “flipping” on Trump, which, if it happens, would make it easier to prosecute Trump:



A few more:



When Mueller didn’t charge Trump for crimes, the level of anger directed at Mueller was astonishing. Nobody questioned whether the pundits, who didn’t have access to the information, had misjudged. It was entirely Mueller’s fault for not bringing the indictments that anyone could see were warranted. ( In this post, I wrote about what we learned from the Mueller investigation.)

#3: “Garland is doing nothing”

This was the narrative in 2021. After it became clear that Garland hadn’t been doing nothing, it morphed into:

#4: “Garland slow-walked the January 6 investigation for a year”

(I debunked both of those narratives in Part III, which you can see here.)

#5: The Supreme Court will give Trump a get-out-of-jail-free card!

Not only was this not true, in Part 5, I explained how liberals who believed that this was what U.S. v. Gamble was about were clamoring (without realizing it) for a poor Black man to spend additional time in prison after already serving his sentence. The misunderstandings resulted from news reporting through a partisan lens. People were so afraid that a particular outcome would help Trump that they didn’t care who else it hurt.

#6: The voting machines can be easily hacked and the Republicans are planning to steal the election by flipping votes!”

As I mentioned in Part 4, in the lead-up to the 2020 election, much of left-leaning Twitter was persuaded by a few self-appointed “elections experts” that the voting machines could be easily hacked. The fear (and people were genuinely afraid) was that malicious actors (Republicans) would flip thousands of votes causing Democrats to lose.

This conspiracy theory was popular until the Republicans lost the election and Trump adopted the narrative. Suddenly the self-appointed left-wing voting machine experts became experts in something else. For some of my experiences trying to tamp down this bit of misinformation, see this post. What If Rabbit Holes


If you spend time in the Outrage Industry, you will spend much of your time going down “what if” rabbit holes. A What-If Rabbit Hole occurs when a person thinks up the worst possible outcome and tells you that this will happen or is likely to happen. These are always based on speculation or assumptions about the future.

The liberal Outrage Industry is currently obsessed with this one:

What if the criminal trials don’t happen until after the election and Trump wins?

This one is based on lots of assumptions.

Assumption #1: A trial before the election will hurt Trump’s chances of winning

Maybe a trial will hurt his chances. Maybe a trial won’t hurt is chances. (Please don’t show me polls. They have been mostly wrong for years and have been underestimating Trump’s support.) Consider the following:

What if he is acquitted? The standard of proof in a criminal trial is high: To prove a person is guilty, a prosecutor must prove each element of a crime beyond a reasonable doubt. Did you think better of Kyle Rittenhouse after he was acquitted? Did you say, “A jury found him not guilty. Therefore, he must be a great guy and would make a good public figure?” Of course not.

What if he is convicted and his support strengthens as a result, or conservatives look into the left wing echo chamber, see unhinged posts about how Trump needs to be brought down “by any means necessary” and they start to believe Trump is right: Unhinged people spent years trying to bring him down.

Trials of political figures tend not to change minds. Did you think worse of Rosa Parks when she was found guilty of a crime? Of course not because you didn’t believe what she was charged with should have been a crime in the first place. How people feel about a criminal conviction depends on how a person feels about the underlying laws. If a guy thinks he should be able to grab women when he feels like it (the way it was in the good old days before laws against sexual harassment) he won’t care if Trump was found guilty of sexual assault.

Assumption: The voters deserve to know whether Trump is guilty of crimes in connection with January 6. 

If the January 6 hearings didn’t persuade a person that Trump was guilty of crimes in connection with January 6, a criminal trial will not do that. Besides, when people were insisting on Indictments Right Now because an indictment = accountability, one of the talking points was, “Everyone knows he is guilty! He committed the crimes in plain sight! What is taking so long?” Now the same people are saying, “We need a jury to find Trump guilty or nobody will know he is guilty.”

The rage machine doesn’t care about consistency because there is no collective memory.

Assumption: A trial will be gripping drama! It’s gonna be lit and I wanna see the show!

Real-life criminal trials (particularly involving complex matters) are not as thrilling as they are in movies. There are objections, motions, and side conferences. The judge will make decisions you won’t like. A few of the jurors will worry you. If these things do not happen—if it is clear from the outset that the judge and jurors are completely on board and there is nothing to worry about—you are not watching a real trial. People may conclude it is a show trial.

Assumption: Trump wants the trial after the election, therefore, we want the trial before the election!

If the Republicans were trying to put Biden on trial right now for something invented, and if he didn’t want to deal with it while he’s running for reelection, would you assume, “he must be guilty because he doesn’t want the trial now?” Of course not.

Moreover, if you say “Trump wants this so it must be bad for our team” you are viewing everything through a partisan lense and you are not being objective.

Assumption: If Trump wins the election, he will shut down the trial and there will never be one!

If, with everything we know about Trump, the voters elect to put him into the White house, the fact that there may not be a trial is the least of our problems.

Assumption: Most Americans are like me and their top priority is to see Trump finally face consequences (or be hauled off to prison)

If this was what most Americans, or even most Democrats, cared about, Biden would be talking about it. Instead, they are talking about reproductive freedom, climate change, and creating more economic fairness. It is only a particular echo chamber that is obsessed with putting Trump in prison. Why do you think Biden ignored the Garland hecklers but didn’t ignore the people who want students burdened with less debt?

Assumption: If Trump is in prison, he can’t be president!

I think this simple misunderstanding is fueling a lot of anxiety. If Trump is elected president, he will be president. The Constitution doesn’t contain an “A presidential candidate is immediately disqualified if he or she has been convicted of a crime.” If it did, trust me, you would see a lot of politicians accused of crimes. Even if somehow he won and was disqualified (which isn’t a thing) his vice presidential candidate would become president. I can assure you this is not the case.

This is the assumption that has been causing good people to have panic meltdowns. It is also propelling the liberal outrage chamber. (If you are in a position to know what is being said by liberal partisan pundits, you know what I am talking about. Most (if not all) are leading people down this particular rabbit hole.

The Ticking Clock: The narrative, “The Trial Must Be Held Before the Election” makes use of an age-old fiction writing device is called the Ticking Clock. It creates suspense. There is a deadline: The stroke of midnight. The main character must achieve the goal by midnight or all will be lost! Will the main character make it in time?

Every motion filed, every court date announced adds to the suspense: Will the trial be delayed past the election and democracy be forever destroyed? The victims are glued to the screen waiting, watching, having panic meltdowns if a hearing happens in April instead of May because the click is ticking . . .

Before law school I taught English and creative writing at the college and university level. When I log into social media and see all the victims of the rage merchants terrified that the immunity issue will cause the trial to happen after the election, I think of the ticking clock.

They are all been played by a for-profit industry.

Psychologists have done much work on what living in perpetual fear does to a person. When the fear is based on invented narratives and “what if” rabbit holes, I think we can conclude that the left-wing partisan echo chambers are hurting the health and well-being of a great many Democratic voters.

What-if rabbit holes keep people in fear. When you keep people in perpetual fear, this is what you get:

Becoming an “Agent Provocateur.”


The authors of The Outrage Industry observe that one way to break through the clutter and achieve TV fame and gather a large following on social media is to be an Agent Provocateur.

For example, before an election, announce that American fascists have a “secret plan” for stealing the election. This will instantly get you a lot of attention and may end up earning a “retweet” from a legal expert with a million followers.

Another example: Andrew Weissmann left his job at the DOJ in 2019 and immediately wrote an “insider tell-all” about everything that happened inside the Mueller investigation.

 


From the jacket flap:

Where Law Ends finally pulls back the curtain to reveal exactly what went on inside the investigation, including the heated debates, painful deliberations, and mistakes of the team—not to mention the external efforts by the president and Attorney General William Barr to manipulate the investigation to their political ends.

Weissmann accused Mueller and his top deputy, Aaron Zebley, of not doing enough to hold Trump accountable and backing down out of fear.

The book was timely. Much of the left-wing outrage bubble was seething with rage that Mueller hadn’t indicted Trump.

Here is the problem: The DOJ cannot answer these accusations without revealing sensitive information in violation of the DOJ regulations and ABA rules of ethics. The DOJ Manual has a full section about how prosecutors are not supposed to disseminate inside information. One reason is to protect the civil rights of citizens. The American Bar Association also has rules against prosecutors disclosing internal information on investigations to the media. (Garland explained this when telling people why he could not reveal the progress of investigations.) The only real way to refute, “They all screwed up” is to reveal information that shouldn’t be revealed.

In response to Weissmann’s accusations, Mueller offered a “rare” public statement refuting Weissmann’s claims. Mueller said:

“It is not surprising that members of the Special Counsel’s Office did not always agree, but it is disappointing to hear criticism of our team based on incomplete information.

“When important decisions had to be made, I made them. I did so as I have always done, without any interest in currying favor or fear of the consequences. I stand by those decisions and by the conclusions of our investigation.”

Notice how carefully worded Mueller’s denial is. He doesn’t give details because he can’t, but he says that the accusations are based on “incomplete information.”

Who is right, Mueller or Weissmann? We don’t know because we can’t see the evidence and we only have one side of the story.

I will note, however, that there is a bit of intellectual arrogance in being so sure he was right and that his bosses and the rest of the legal team (that obviously came to different legal conclusions) were wrong and he was right. He was so sure he was right that he wrote a book slamming his former bosses who he knew wouldn’t be able to offer a detailed refutation even if they had wanted to play out in public a debate that should have remained private.

Weissmann went on to become a left-wing hero and is now a partisan pundit who frequently (from his place on a panel at MSNBC) heckles the DOJ for being too slow, too timid, or just doing things wrong. A few examples:



Here he tells audiences that the DOJ did the January 6 investigation all wrong:



Here he is repeating the talking point that there have never been consequences:


Here Weissmann misuses the word “mooted” and offers speculation on why other charges were not brought:


Making statements in which other lawyers will accuse you of misusing the word “mooted” or making wild speculations is the whole point: It creates conflict. It helps the panel “erupt.”
People tell me that he is one of their favorite commentators on MSNBC. I understand why.

“There are never any consequences” and the Criminal Justice system

  • When the promised results do not materialize, rage merchants redirect the rage of their audience to “the system” like this:“Rich white guys are never held accountable!”
  • “The rich and powerful can just run out the clock using the court system. What’s to prevent Trump from playing a similar game?”
  • “At least while they are in jail, they can’t commit crimes”
  • “If Trump is in prison, he will be cut off from his supporters and won’t be able to incite any more violence.”
  • ” Justice Delayed is Justice Denied.”
  • “If all the lawbreakers are not brought to justice, rule of law in America will be dead.”
  • “I am losing faith in the judicial system!”


I have been calling these “rage-inducing simplifications.” The problem is that they ignore complexity and nuance. They are not intended to stimulate meaningful discourse. They are partial truths designed to create rage and anger.

I address each of these simplifications in this Criminal Law FAQ page.

The Fourteenth Amendment, section 3, keep-Trump off-the-ballot debacle 


I will offer one more example of an invented narrative before wrapping up this series. Click here to continue. 

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