"Likes" and "shares" fuel online outrage

Social media like Twitter amplify expressions of moral outrage over time, as users learn that appropriate sharp phrases are rewarded with more "likes" and "shares." That's according to a recent Yale University study.

This effect is strongest among users whose networks are actually politically moderate. This in particular is problematic, as it may encourage radicalisation.

Outrage is rewarded

"Social media incentives are changing the tone of political conversations online," warns psychology postdoc and study first author William Brady. With colleagues, he measured both how much moral outrage is expressed on Twitter during controversial events and also tested in controlled experiments whether algorithms that reward popular content encourage indignant words. In this way, the team was able to show for the first time that some users actually seem to learn ever greater outrage due to the basic design of social media.

Brady and psychology professor Molly Crockett assembled a team to first track moral outrage on Twitter using machine-learning software. They collected 12.7 million tweets from 7,331 users. The results showed that users who received more "likes" and "retweets" for outrage in a tweet were more likely to return to expressions of moral indignation in later tweets. This was also confirmed in the experiments that the team conducted as a control.

Middle becomes more extreme

To be sure, the team found that users with networks on the more extreme ends of the political spectrum are generally more likely to use indignant tones. "Our studies show that people with politically moderate friends are more responsive to feedback that amplifies their expressions of outrage," Crockett warns, however. "This suggests a mechanism for how moderate groups become radicalized over time - the rewards on social media create feedback loops that reinforce outrage."

The study did not address whether this is ultimately good or bad for society. "Given that moral outrage plays a crucial role in social and political change, we should be aware that tech companies can influence the success or failure of collective movements through the design of their platforms," the psychologist stresses, however. According to her, the results could very well influence the political discussion about possible regulations. (pte)

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