Outrage amplified

Social media are designed to spread indignation.

 Geralt/Wikimedia Commons

Geralt/Wikimedia Commons

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“Likes” and “shares” are the coin of the social-network realm—communal expressions of agreement or a sense of connection. But a recent Yale study shows a less savory aspect of those “likes” and “shares”: their capacity to amplify expressions of moral outrage.

Moral outrage is an emotion triggered by the perception that someone has violated a community’s ethical norms. While moral outrage can bring people together to create positive change, it can also engender harassment of those perceived as “other,” propagate misinformation, and increase polarization.

To examine whether social media outlets incentivize outrage by their design, researchers used machine learning software to track expressions of moral outrage. They analyzed 12.7 million tweets by 7,331 Twitter users, focusing on “hot” issues such as the nomination of Brett Kavanaugh ’87, ’90JD, to the Supreme Court and the Trump administration’s ban on transgender individuals in the military. They also conducted controlled behavioral experiments in simulated Twitter environments. In both sets of studies, the team found that users who received more “likes” and “retweets” when they expressed outrage were more likely to express outrage in subsequent tweets. The study was published in Science Advances.

The researchers also found that in ideologically extreme networks, where outrage expression is more common, users are less sensitive to social feedback when deciding whether to express outrage. Members of more-moderate networks were more likely to be influenced by the “likes” and “shares,” prompting some to become more extreme and express more outrage. Associate professor of psychology Molly Crockett, the study’s coauthor, says that this finding “suggests how moderate groups can become radicalized. The rewards of social media create positive-feedback loops that exacerbate outrage.”

And no, Crockett adds, the social media outlets are not operating from a position of neutrality. “Amplification of moral outrage is a consequence of their business model, which optimizes for user engagement,” she says. “They are in business to make money. We must demand greater transparency.”

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