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The study was published in the journal “Science Advances”.
“Social media incitements are changing the tone of our online political conversations,” said Yale’s William Brady, postdoctoral researcher in Yale’s Department of Psychology and first author of the study. He led the research with Molly Crockett, associate professor of psychology at Yale.
The Yale team measured the expression of moral outrage on Twitter during real-life controversial events and studied subjects’ behaviors in controlled experiments designed to test whether social media algorithms, which reward users for publication of popular content, encourage expressions of outrage.
“This is the first evidence that some people learn to express more outrage over time because they are rewarded with basic social media design,” Brady said.
Moral outrage can be a powerful force for the good of society, motivating the punishment of moral transgressions, promoting social cooperation, and stimulating social change. It also has a dark side, contributing to the harassment of minority groups, the spread of misinformation and political polarization, the researchers said.
Social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter claim they simply provide a neutral platform for conversations that would otherwise take place elsewhere. But many have speculated that social media amplifies outrage.
Hard evidence for this claim was lacking, however, because accurately measuring complex social expressions like moral outrage poses a technical challenge, the researchers said.
To compile this evidence, Brady and Crockett assembled a team that created machine learning software that could track moral outrage in Twitter posts.
In observational studies of 12.7 million tweets from 7,331 Twitter users, they used the software to test whether users expressed more outrage over time, and if so, why.
The team found that incentives from social media platforms like Twitter are really changing the way people post. Users who received more likes and retweets when expressing their outrage in a tweet were more likely to express their outrage in subsequent posts.
To support these findings, the researchers conducted controlled behavioral experiments to demonstrate that being rewarded for expressing outrage prompted users to increase their expression of outrage over time.
The findings also suggest a troubling connection to current debates about the role of social media in political polarization. Brady and colleagues found that members of politically extreme networks expressed more outrage than members of politically moderate networks.
However, members of politically moderate networks were actually more influenced by social rewards.
“Our studies reveal that people with politically moderate friends and followers are more susceptible to social reactions that reinforce their expressions of outrage,” Crockett said.
Crockett added: “This suggests a mechanism for how moderate groups can become politically radicalized over time – social media rewards create positive feedback loops that exacerbate outrage.”
The study was not intended to say whether amplifying moral outrage is good or bad for society, Crockett pointed out. But the findings have implications for executives using the platforms and policymakers considering regulating them.
“The amplification of moral outrage is a clear consequence of the social media business model, which optimizes user engagement,” Crockett said.
Crockett added: “Given that moral outrage plays a crucial role in social and political change, we must be aware that technology companies, through the design of their platforms, have the ability to influence the success or the ‘failure of collective movements’.
She added: “Our data shows that social media platforms do not simply reflect what is happening in society. Platforms create incentives that change how users react to political events over time.