If you feel like you're met with a lot of anger and vitriol every time you open up your social media apps,
you're not imagining it: A new study shows how these online networks
are encouraging us to express more moral outrage over time.
seems to be happening is that the likes, shares and interactions we get
for our outpourings of indignation are reinforcing those expressions.
That in turn encourages us to carry on being morally outraged more often
and more visibly in the future.
What this study shows is that reinforcement learning is
evident in the extremes of online political discussion, according to
computational social psychologist William Brady from Yale University,
who is one of the researchers behind the work.
"Social media's incentives are changing the tone of our political conversations online," says Brady.
"This is the first evidence that some people learn to express more
outrage over time because they are rewarded by the basic design of
team used computer software to analyze 12.7 million tweets from 7,331
Twitter users, collected during several controversial events, including
debates over hate crimes, the Brett Kavanaugh hearing, and an altercation on an aircraft.
a tweet to qualify as showing moral outrage, it had to meet three
criteria: it had to be a response to a perceived violation of personal
morals; it had to show feelings such as anger, disgust, or contempt; and
it had to include some kind of blame or call for accountability.
researchers found that getting more likes and retweets made people more
likely to post more moral outrage in their later posts. Two further
controlled experiments with 240 participants backed up these findings,
and also showed that users tend to follow the 'norms' of the networks
they're part of in terms of what is expressed.
amplifying outrage influence was biggest on politically moderate users,
the researchers found – those already at the more extreme end of the
spectrum tended to be less concerned with social feedback when it came
to deciding how outraged to be.
studies find that people with politically moderate friends and
followers are more sensitive to social feedback that reinforces their
outrage expressions," says psychologist Molly Crockett from Yale University.
suggests a mechanism for how moderate groups can become politically
radicalized over time – the rewards of social media create positive
feedback loops that exacerbate outrage."
For several years now, questions have been asked about
the broad effects platforms like Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram are
having on society. They can have negative impacts on mental health, in
part due to the pressure to constantly compare our lives with others.
study stops short of ruling on whether this amplification of moral
outrage is good or bad – noting that these expressions can be a positive
force for society, highlighting wrongdoing and bringing people to
account – but if you've spent much time on Twitter or Facebook you'll
know how fast these conversations can degenerate.
the researchers do want to see is more awareness of how social networks
can train behavior, like any other kind of social interaction, whether
online or offline. Our character is, to a greater or lesser extent,
formed by the feedback that we get from the people around us.
"Amplification of moral outrage is a clear consequence of social media's business model, which optimizes for user engagement," says Crockett.
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
The research has been published in Science Advances.