Study: Social media 'likes' of 'moral outrage' spread more extreme views

Social media 'likes' and 'shares' help amplify extreme views, according to a new study. Photo by LoboStudioHamburg/Pixabay
Social media 'likes' and 'shares' help amplify extreme views, according to a new study. Photo by LoboStudioHamburg/Pixabay

Aug. 13 (UPI) -- "Likes" and "shares" on social media help amplify expressions of moral outrage on Facebook and Twitter, often spreading more "extreme" views, a study published Friday by Science Advances found.

Twitter users who received more "likes" and "retweets" when they expressed outrage regarding a current event, such as the Senate hearings for Supreme Court appointee Brett Kavanaugh in a tweet were more likely to share similar sentiments in later posts, the researchers said.


A user who normally averaged five likes or retweets per tweet but received double that amount when they expressed outrage, increased their "outrage expression" by 2% to 3% the next day, the data showed.

Although this figure seems small, "it can easily scale on social media over time," leading to 100% increases in feedback over time, according to the researchers.

"Amplification of moral outrage is a clear consequence of social media's business model, which optimizes for user engagement," study co-author Molly Crockett said in a press release.

"We should be aware that tech companies, through the design of their platforms, have the ability to influence the success or failure of collective movements," said Crockett, an associate professor of psychology at Yale University in New Haven, Conn.


Although moral outrage online can promote social cooperation and spur social change, it can also lead to harassment of minority groups, spread of disinformation and increase political polarization, according to Crockett.

For this study, she and her colleagues measured the expression of moral outrage on Twitter during real life controversial events and studied the behaviors of participants to test whether social media's algorithms, which reward users for posting popular content, encourage outrage expressions.

They collected the full tweet histories of nearly 3,700 "politically engaged" Twitter users who posted at least one message about the Kavanaugh hearings in October 2018.

To test how results generalized to less politically engaged users, the researchers gathered the same number of Twitter users who tweeted at least once about an airline passenger mistreatment incident occurring at roughly the same time.

The analysis included more than 7,300 users and 12.7 million tweets, they said.

More than half of the studied tweets regarding the Kavanaugh hearings expressed moral outrage, as determined by a machine learning algorithm developed by the researchers.

The algorithm identified these tweets based on word choice -- such as "disgrace" and "disgust" -- and the use of capital letters and exclamation points, among other signs.


Members of politically extreme social networks expressed more moral outrage than members of more moderate networks, the researchers said.

However, members of politically moderate networks were actually more influenced by social rewards, which prompted many of them to take more extreme positions and express more moral outrage, according to the researchers.

"Our studies find that people with politically moderate friends and followers are more sensitive to social feedback that reinforces their outrage expressions," Crockett said.

"This suggests a mechanism for how moderate groups can become politically radicalized over time -- the rewards of social media create positive feedback loops that exacerbate outrage," she said.

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