TORONTO — Expressions of outrage posted on social media get amplified by the number of likes, shares and retweets they receive. But researchers at Yale University found that likes and shares also serve as “rewards” that makes users more likely to express outrage again.
The researchers conducted four studies, combining machine learning and behavioural analysis. They discussed their findings in a paper published on Friday in the journal Science Advances.
“Social media’s incentives are changing the tone of our political conversations online,” said first author William Brady in a news release. “This is the first evidence that some people learn to express more outrage over time because they are rewarded by the basic design of social media.”
In the first two studies, the researchers conducted machine learning analysis on 12.7 million tweets from 7,331 users. All of these users had tweeted angrily at least once about a United Airlines incident in 2017 (where a passenger was forcibly dragged from a fully-booked flight) or Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation hearings to the U.S. Supreme Court in 2018 (which took place after he had been accused of committing sexual assault decades earlier).
“We found that daily outrage expression was significantly and positively associated with the amount of social feedback received for the previous day’s outrage expression,” the authors write in the paper.
This means that if a user receives 100 per cent more likes and retweets after expressing outrage compared to the previous day, they would be expected to increase their outrage by two or three per cent. While two to three per cent may appear small, the authors say this effect can scale up over time for users who have large followings.
People in politically moderate networks, in particular, were more likely to be influenced by likes and retweets compared to people in more ideologically extreme networks.
“This suggests a mechanism for how moderate groups can become politically radicalized over time” said co-lead author Molly Crockett in the news release. “The rewards of social media create positive feedback loops that exacerbate outrage.”
For the third and fourth studies, the researchers asked 240 people to scroll through a feed of 12 tweets. One group of participants would be shown mostly outrage tweets while the other group would be shown tweets that contained neutral expressions.
After that, the participants were asked to pick between two tweets to “post,” where the goal was to pick the one that they believe would get the most likes and shares. The researchers found that participants who were shown outrage tweets were far more likely to pick the tweet that expressed the most outrage.
These results highlight the troubling role that social media platforms play in adding to political polarization, researchers say.
“Our data show that social media platforms do not merely reflect what is happening in society. Platforms create incentives that change how users react to political events over time,” said Crockett.