How Retweets and Likes on Social Media ‘Reward’ Moral Outrage


Aug 16, 2021


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A viral tweet or Instagram post holds much sway in disseminating important information. According to a new study, social media users who receive more “likes” and “shares” on their posts are more likely to express outrage in subsequent posts.

Moral outrage, which also blends into online activism, is a critical facet of today’s democracy. It amplifies voices of marginalized groups, pushes the idea of societal good, spurs social change, and holds people accountable for moral transgressions. At the same time, outrage is fertile ground for spreading misinformation and increased polarization.

“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,” researcher William Brady from Yale University said in a press release. The researchers defined moral outrage as feelings in response to a perceived violation of personal morals; emotions such as anger, disgust, and contempt; specific reactions including blaming people and things or holding them accountable.

The study, published in the journal Science Advances last week, unpacks the reward system at play for users. Its researchers measured the extent of outrage in real-life controversial events to analyze how much social media algorithms which are designed to reward popular content, encourage outrage.

The algorithms create a positive feedback loop, a process similar to reinforcement learning where the prospect of “rewards” dangles over users. The reward of more likes and recognition increase the likelihood of future outrage expressions. For instance, the researchers found if a user receives 100% more likes and retweets after expressing outrage, they would be further expected to up the ante and be more critical by 2-3%.

There is also an aspect of “norm learning” at play, where users guide their behavior by following what others do. That is, human psychology is tempted to look at the norms of expression in a social space to decide how to express outrage.

“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,” Molly Crockett, an associate professor of psychology at Yale University, and co-author of the study, said in a press release, adding “how platform design interacts with human learning mechanisms to affect moral discourse in digital public spaces.”

The findings not only show how social media incentives impact the tone of political conversations online, but also map out the advantages and loopholes of digital public spaces.

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Arguably, outrage and activism are imperative in a socially distanced world. Even in “peace” times, social media threads or posts help to direct attention to issues ignored by the news cycle. Outrage over oxygen shortage during India’s second Covid19 wave, the Israel-Palestinian conflict, or the compromised security of women and children in Afghanistan now remains critical to help shift people’s attention to important issues.

Understanding how people’s outrage is amplified, and what motivates them to express critical opinions, can help researchers understand how social justice movements are shaped. But like every cultural commodity, the implications depend on the users. The findings lay bare the extent to which reward systems like these enable political polarization to happen online.

“Our studies find that people with politically moderate friends and followers are more sensitive to social feedback that reinforces their outrage expressions,” said Crockett. “This 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 political leaders and policymakers, along with big tech, the cyclical idea of outrage can be weaponized to spread disinformation and polarize a community. Several reports about the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party’s IT Cell hosting groups and carrying out coordinated campaigns to spread misinformation highlight the extent of manipulation.

“Amplification of moral outrage is a clear consequence of social media’s business model, which optimizes for user engagement,” Crockett said. “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.”


Written By Saumya Kalia

Saumya Kalia is an Associate Editor at The Swaddle. Her journalism and writing explore issues of social justice, digital sub-cultures, media ecosystem, literature, and memory as they cut across socio-cultural periods. You can reach her at @Saumya_Kalia.


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