What makes something go viral online? Much work has highlighted the role of emotions: social media posts that express strong emotions – and negative emotions in particular – tend to spread further.
Now a study in PNAS has identified another factor that seems to have an even bigger impact on how often posts are shared. Steve Rathje of the University of Cambridge and colleagues note that tweets and Facebook posts that contain more language related to political opponents are more shared. The team thinks these posts are popular because they arouse feelings of anger and outrage towards the political outgroup.
The first study looked at hundreds of thousands of tweets and Facebook posts made in recent years by media with either a liberal (e The New York Times) or conservative (e.g. Fox News) Outlook. The team was interested in how the language of social media posts relates to the frequency of posts shared. Using existing dictionaries developed for text analysis research, they investigated how many negative and positive emotion words (e.g. those found in both dictionaries for moral and emotional words, such as “destroy”, “peace” or “sacrifice”).
The researchers also compared the text to the dictionaries “Republicans” and “Democrats”. These contained the names of politicians and political terms related to one of the two parties – for example, “Donald Trump” and “right” were in the Republican dictionary, while “Pete Buttigieg” and “left” were in the Democrats.
The team found that posts were shared more frequently when they had more negative emotion words: each additional negative emotion word was associated with a 5-8% increase in the number of posts shared (excluding Facebook posts from conservative media). Likewise every further positive word decreased the number of shares by 2-11%. Moral-emotional words had an even stronger effect, increasing the number of shares by 10-17%.
These results are largely in line with previous findings that people tend to share negative and morally charged posts online. The really interesting finding, however, came from the analysis of political language. More “in-group” language (e.g. liberal media coverage with words from the Democrats’ dictionary) was generally associated with more proportions. The biggest effect, however, came from the language of the “outgroup” (e.g. posts in the liberal media that contained words from the Republican dictionary): every additional word outside the group increased the proportions by a whopping 35-57%.
A second study followed the same approach, but instead looked at the posts of congressmen. And the results were pretty much the same: negative and moral-emotional words were associated with more proportions, but this was dwarfed by the far greater effect of language outside of the group. In this case, each additional outgroup word increased the proportions by 65-180%. Looking at the results of both studies, the team comes to the conclusion that overall each political outgroup word increased the proportions by about 67% – a multiple of the effect of negative or moral-emotional words.
Posts about the political outgroup tend to be quite hostile, presumably, and this could be the reason for the engagement. The team found some indirect evidence of this by looking at how audiences used Facebook’s reaction emojis. They found that posts with more out-group political language elicited more “angry” and “haha” responses, suggesting that these posts were more intended to provoke anger or ridicule. More in-group language, on the other hand, predicted more “love” responses.
So overall, the results suggest that people tend to share social media posts that allow them to express their social or political identity – especially those that belittle political opponents. This has implications for understanding why social media – and the political landscape in general – are so polarized, the authors write. For example, we often worry that social media is becoming an “echo chamber” where people only hear from others they agree to. The study suggests that the problem is not just that people only hear from their own group, but that the posts they are most likely to see can actively encourage hostility towards the unfamiliar group.
Unfortunately, things can’t change that quickly. There are benefits to going viral: politicians or media companies can gain followers, while social media companies rely on audience engagement to generate revenue. So this kind of polarizing content is actually stimulated by the structure of the social media platforms, the team writes. “Content that expresses hostility towards outgroups can be good for generating shallow engagement while ultimately harming individuals, political parties, or society in the long term,” they conclude.
– Hostility outside the group encourages engagement on social media
Matthew Warren (@MattBWarren) is editor of BPS Biomedarticles