All the rage: People get angrier on social media over time to ‘get the most likes’

·3 min read
Piers Morgan has been known for courting controversy on Twitter - and having plenty of followers - Paul Drinkwater/NBCU Photo Bank/NBCUniversal via Getty Images
Piers Morgan has been known for courting controversy on Twitter - and having plenty of followers - Paul Drinkwater/NBCU Photo Bank/NBCUniversal via Getty Images

Social media’s currency of likes, shares and comments has led to users becoming increasingly angry because expressing outrage elicits more interactions, according to a new study.

Often called an echo chamber in which “he who shouts the loudest gets heard”, social media’s most opinionated and regularly enraged personalities tend to be the most popular.

Commentators such as Piers Morgan and Candace Owens are known for regularly courting controversy and have more than 10 million combined followers on Twitter.

Katie Hopkins and Donald Trump accrued millions of followers for their forthright opinions before they were both permanently suspended by the site.

Research from Yale University academics assessed how the behaviour of social media users changed over time.

They developed an algorithm that assessed the level of moral outrage among 3,669 Twitter users who posted about Brett Kavanaugh being confirmed to the US Supreme Court in 2019, despite testimony that he sexually assaulted several women.

“We choose this population because we expected these users’ tweet histories to contain a sufficient amount of outrage to examine reinforcement learning effects,” the researchers wrote in their study, published in the journal Science Advances.

Personalities such as Katie Hopkins accrued millions of followers for their controversial opinions - Andrew Crowley for The Telegraph
Personalities such as Katie Hopkins accrued millions of followers for their controversial opinions - Andrew Crowley for The Telegraph

Scientists also studied the tweet history of a further 3,669 users who posted about a video which went viral in 2018 showing a passenger being kicked off an United Airlines flight and being physically assaulted.

The researchers found that when a person expressed outrage at either of these two events online, they received positive feedback from others commending them for their views.

This led to those same users being more likely to publicly express outrage in the future about other events.

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

“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,” Dr Brady said.

The researchers then took their study one step further to see what impact exposure to outraged tweets had on people’s posting behaviours in a controlled environment.

A total of 120 people were recruited for a separate study and they scrolled through a custom-curated Twitter feed. Half of these people were shown tweets with only “neutral” views about contentious topics. The other half viewed a timeline with 75 per cent “outraged” tweets and one quarter “neutral”.

‘Neutral’ opinions considered less popular

The tweets they saw were real posts from actual people, and the outraged posts had a higher number of likes and retweets in line with reality.

When these people were tasked with maximising likes on their own posts, the people who were exposed to outrage were five times more likely to express outrage.

The longer the study went on the more people realised that engagement was greater for outraged posts compared to neutral opinions and the more likely they were to proclaim outrage themselves.

The findings help explain the increasingly polarised online debate, with people increasingly, and vociferously, advocating for one side of an argument and refusing to entertain the mere notion of a different, or more moderate, viewpoint.

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

“This suggests a mechanism for how moderate groups can become politically radicalised over time – the rewards of social media create positive feedback loops that exacerbate outrage.”

“Given that moral outrage plays a crucial role in social and political change, 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.”

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