A Sad Truth: Social Media Rewards Us for Acting Badly

Here’s the dismal report, from the University of Cambridge, about when we are likely to “share” information:

Social media posts about the “political outgroup” — criticizing or mocking those on the opposing side of an ideological divide — receive twice as many shares as posts that champion people or organizations from one’s own political tribe.

This is according to a study led by University of Cambridge psychologists, who analyzed over 2.7 million Tweets and Facebook posts published by either US media outlets or Members of Congress from across the political spectrum.

Researchers also found that each additional word referencing a rival politician or competing worldview (e.g. ‘Biden’ or ‘Liberal’ if coming from a Republican source) increased the odds of a social media post being shared by an average of 67% across the dataset.

University of Cambridge, “Slamming political rivals may be the most effective way to go viral — revealing social media’s ‘perverse incentives’” at Phys.org The paper, by Steve Rathe et al., “Out-group animosity drives engagement on social media,” PNAS (2021) www.pnas.org/cgi/doi/10.1073/pnas.2024292118, is closed access.

The results were the same on both platforms and political orientation did not matter.

Perhaps the most significant finding was that referencing the political outgroup was five times more effective than mere “negative emotional language” and almost seven times more effective than mere “moral emotional language.”

Specifically, the “use of terms for the political ingroup had no significant effect on the chances of shares. However, each outgroup word used in a post increased the odds of it being shared by 67%.” Of course, social media benefit from posts being shared more frequently, in terms of greater advertising opportunities.

Another study, published in April, reports:

A team of researchers from the SINAI Department of Computer Science, CEATIC and Universidad de Jaén has found that Twitter posts with negative sentiments are more likely to go viral than those that are more positive. In their paper published in the journal Royal Society Open Science, the group describes their analysis of Twitter posts during a politically emotional event in Spain—a referendum seeking to give Catalan independence back in 2017.

Bob Yirka, “Negativity found to increase chances of Twitter posts going viral” at Phys.org (April 14, 2021). The paper is open access.

One of Rathe’s co-authors, Jay van der Linden, warns,

“Unless social media companies start penalizing polarizing content and rewarding more constructive posts, these platforms will continue to be swamped by political animosity that risks spilling into real-world turmoil. It may mean a radical rethink of their models for revenue generation.”

University of Cambridge, “Slamming political rivals may be the most effective way to go viral—revealing social media’s ‘perverse incentives’” at Phys.org The paper, by Steve Rathe et al., is closed access.

Of course, the social media companies are never going to do that, unless they are attempting to suppress a group for political reasons, while allowing others to continue. And getting government involved is like hiring an elephant to superintend the fine china shop.

So what can we really do to avoid getting caught up in the negativity?

Here’s a thought from Freedom to by Rosie Macmillan (February 15, 2021): “Get used to the idea that your attention is yours — how you spend it is up to you. Think of your time as the precious commodity that it is, and protect it at all costs!”

A couple of practical suggestions from Mind Matters News follow naturally:

  • If you have a home business or use your home computer for work or volunteer work, it may be worth your while to have a computer pro go through your social media with you (a social media checkup). People are often surprised by what they signed up for, not understanding what is involved. You can probably treat the social media checkup as a business expense (security expenses).
  • Don’t just use Google. For years there have been just two English-language search indexes, Google and Bing. Using Bing as an alternative or second opinion will surface significantly different results. And now, just this week, Brave Search has introduced a third index in Beta. Experiencing the difference between these indexes might change our perspectives on some issues.
  • As with other aspects of social life, it helps to have a policy about why we share information. With whom are we sharing it and why? If the information weren’t reliable, would we be doing harm? If we never share anything, our policy may be too strict. But if we seldom pause and decide against doing so, chances are, our policy is not strict enough.

These aren’t things government or social media can do for us; we do them for ourselves and those we care about.


You may also wish to read:

U.S. Postal Service secretly monitoring social media posts. Legal experts don’t understand why the Post Office is involved in online government surveillance. (Caitlin Bassett)

Leave a Comment