Social media platforms amplify expressions of moral outrage over time

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Social media platforms like Twitter amplify expressions of moral outrage over time as users who learn such a language are rewarded with increased numbers of “likes” and “shares,” according to new research from Yale University.

And these rewards have had the greatest influence on users connected to politically moderate networks.

“Social media incentives are changing the tone of our online political conversations,” said William Brady of Yale, a postdoctoral researcher in the Yale Department of Psychology and the study’s first author. He led the research with Molly Crockett, associate professor of psychology at Yale.

The Yale team measured the expression of moral outrage on Twitter during controversial real-life events and studied subjects’ behaviors in controlled experiments designed to test whether social media algorithms, which reward social media users for the publication of popular content, encourage expressions of outrage.

“This is the first evidence that some people learn to express more outrage over time because they are rewarded with basic social media design,” Brady said.

The study was published on August 13 in the journal Scientific advancements.

Moral outrage can be a powerful force for the good of society, motivating punishment for moral transgressions, promoting social cooperation and stimulating social change. It also has a dark side, contributing to the harassment of minority groups, the spread of disinformation and political polarization, the researchers said.

Social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter claim they simply provide a neutral platform for conversations that would otherwise take place elsewhere. But many have speculated that social media is amplifying outrage. However, tangible evidence for this claim was lacking, as accurately measuring complex social expressions like moral outrage poses a technical challenge, the researchers said.

To compile this evidence, Brady and Crockett assembled a team that created machine learning software capable of tracking moral outrage in Twitter posts. In observational studies of 12.7 million tweets from 7,331 Twitter users, they used the software to test whether users expressed more outrage over time, and if so, why.

The team found that the incentives of social media platforms like Twitter are really changing the way people post. Users who received more “likes” and “retweets” when expressing their outrage in a tweet were more likely to express their outrage in subsequent posts. To support these findings, the researchers conducted controlled behavioral experiments to demonstrate that being rewarded for expressing outrage caused users to increase their expression of outrage over time.

The findings also suggest a troubling link to current debates about the role of social media in political polarization. Brady and his colleagues found that members of politically extreme networks expressed more outrage than members of politically moderate networks. However, members of politically moderate networks were actually more influenced by social rewards.

“Our studies reveal that people with politically moderate friends and supporters are more sensitive to social comments that reinforce their expressions of outrage,” Crockett said. “This suggests a mechanism for moderate groups to become politically radicalized over time; social media rewards create positive feedback loops that exacerbate outrage. “

The study was not intended to say whether amplifying moral outrage is good or bad for society, Crockett said. But the findings have implications for policymakers who use the platforms and policymakers who plan to regulate them.

The amplification of moral outrage is an obvious consequence of the social media business model, which maximizes user engagement. Since moral outrage plays a crucial role in social and political change, we must be aware that technology companies, through the design of their platforms, have the capacity to influence the success or failure of collective movements. . “

Molly Crockett, Associate Professor, Psychology, Yale University

She added: “Our data shows that social media platforms don’t just reflect what’s going on in society. The platforms create incentives that change the way users react to political events over time.”


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