Aug 16 2021

Social Media Outrage

A new study from Yale psychology researchers is the first to provide hard evidence that social media use magnifies expressions of outrage. This is likely not surprising to anyone familiar with social media, but we cannot take our anecdotal experience for granted, and so objective evidence is welcome.

The researchers used AI to analyze 12.7 million tweets from 7,331 Twitter users. The AI operationalized the assessment of how much outrage any particular tweet expressed. Of course it’s difficult to put a number on something abstract, like outrage, but as long as reasonable method was used consistently it could validly detect change over time. They found:

The team found that the incentives of social media platforms like Twitter really do change how people post. Users who received more “likes” and “retweets” when they expressed outrage in a tweet were more likely to express outrage in later posts. To back up these findings, the researchers conducted controlled behavioral experiments to demonstrate that being rewarded for expressing outrage caused users to increase their expression of outrage over time.

Again, this is not surprising. Vertebrate brains evolved to respond positively to reward (there are networks in the brain dedicated to this behavior). This is a well-researched aspect of behavior – reward positively reinforces the behavior that triggered the reward (or at least seemed to). In fact this behavior is so predictable you can base entire industries on it, with carefully calibrated precision. Casinos, for example, leverage this reward positive feedback loop to maximize engagement with gamblers, even though anyone with knowledge of the odds knows that the house will always win the long run.

Successful social media companies, similarly, have designed how they operate to maximize engagement with their users. Over the last two decades there has been a lot of adaptive radiation, trial and error, and survival of the fittest in social media. We may now think of social media giants like Twitter and Facebook as inevitable, or even obvious, but they emerged from an industry of fierce competition. As with evolution, there is also a lot of luck involved as well. Why did Facebook beat out Myspace? Wouldn’t every social media startup love to know exactly why? What we do know is that in the aggregate successful social media companies maximized user engagement, with likes and sharing being core features.

What the new Yale study shows is that likes and sharing can act like reward mechanisms for the content creator, and that this feedback is greater when they express more outrage, which tends to increase their expression of outrage over time in order to maximize their reward.

The net effect of all of this is to create increasingly radicalized social media networks. In fact, the researchers also showed that this reward effect was greater for moderate networks. This may just be an artifact of the fact that extreme networks are already maximizing their outrage, but regardless their results showed that moderate social media outlets tended to be radicalized by outrage at the fastest pace. The maximally pessimistic view is that social media giants are sitting back raking in their billions while their products slowly unwind the fabric of society and destroy democracy. I don’t take this maximal view, but I do wonder how far off from reality it is.

At the risk of getting too meta, perhaps I am writing this is order to express outrage and maximize my engagement. I actually try to be sensitive to this. In all honesty, this blog does nothing tangible for. It is owned by a non-profit and I gain nothing material from it. Also, the overall theme of this blog is thoughtful moderation, so it doesn’t quite fit with excessive outrage. But still, as I think we can all see in the comments, it’s easy to respond to one outrageous comment by upping the tone of your own.

It’s also important to point out that outrage has its place. Moral outrage evolved in order for communities to police anti-social and counterproductive behavior. When individuals break the social contract, such as by stealing, we feel moral outrage which motivates us to do something about it. Sometimes I feel like people experience too little moral outrage – why aren’t physicians more outraged by all the pseudoscience infiltrating our profession?

By like all emotions and heuristics, outrage needs to be carefully calibrated. Too little, and we may lack the motivation to right wrongs. Too much and we may act irrationally or excessively, lose objectivity and the ability to engage in constructive debate. The problem with they way social media operates is not that there are expressions of outrage online, but that the scales are being tipped massively in the excess direction. The calibration is off, and people are expressive high degrees of outrage over topics that do not warrant it, or are allowing outrage to radicalize their thinking on a topic, which further causes polarization and an inability to work toward a common goal. It makes it difficult to impossible to find common ground, which is essentially to a constructive conversation.

So what do we do? On an individual level it’s critical to be aware of all this. This is now a critical part of metacognition, monitoring your own emotional reaction to any topic and trying to maintain as much equanimity and objectivity as possible. Overall we may need to dial down our outrage, especially online. At the same time, we need to maintain our motivation to deal with true problems and injustices. There is no quick formula – calibrating optimal responses to complex situations is complex.

As a society we need to continue to closely monitor the effects that social media is having and think of creative solutions. Increasingly it seems that basic human psychology is being weaponized and exploited for some type of gain. Mitigating this will take a careful touch, with high risk of unintended consequences, but it is worth exploring.

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