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‘Likes’ & ‘shares’ on social media teach people to express more moral outrage, study says

The study by a team of researchers at Yale University says positive feedback on social media appeared far more salient than negative feedback.

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New Delhi: Positive feedback in the form of likes and shares significantly shapes users’ expression of moral outrage on social media, a new study has found.

The study, conducted by a team of researchers specialising in psychology and statistics at Yale University, also states that “platform designers” can “influence the success or failure of social and political movements”.

The study was published in ScienceAdvances magazine on 13 August.

Moral outrage vs social feedback

The researchers aimed to analyse the online relationship between moral outrage and social learning, using observational studies and behavioural experiments.

In general, moral outrage is an important part of societal behaviour and change, but any understanding of its manifestation in smaller groups is fundamentally different from understanding moral outrage on social media, a knowledge gap that needs to be addressed, the study said.

“Our findings highlight how platform design interacts with human learning mechanisms to affect moral discourse in digital public spaces,” the researchers added.

The study primarily focused on Twitter as a social media platform to measure moral outrage. The researchers observed the account history of 7,331 Twitter users, which made up a total of 12.7 million tweets.

“We tested our hypotheses across two preregistered observational studies of Twitter users and two preregistered behavioral experiments in a simulated Twitter environment,” the researchers said.

By using machine learning to examine Twitter users’ expressions of moral outrage in relation to a particular event or issue, the researchers found that these expressions were “significantly and positively associated with the amount of social feedback received for the previous day’s outrage expression”.

Social feedback, they said, on platforms like Twitter is best quantified through likes and shares, with positive and negative feedback referring to higher and lower levels of engagement respectively.

As such, positive social feedback appeared far more salient than negative feedback (i.e. lack of likes and shares) on social media platforms by design, the study said.

Three key findings on the relationship between social media and moral outrage emerged from the preregistered observational studies, the researchers stated. These are: “(i) Outrage expression on Twitter can be explained, in part, by variation in social feedback that people receive via the platform; (ii) users are more likely to express outrage in more ideologically extreme social networks; and (iii) in more ideologically extreme social networks, users’ outrage expression behavior is less sensitive to social feedback.”

Also read: No plans to block any social media platform at present, Modi govt tells Rajya Sabha

Newsfeed algorithms can influence moral behaviours

The researchers also elaborated on possible social implications of the impact of likes and shares in users’ expression of moral outrage.

“Social media newsfeed algorithms can directly affect how much social feedback a given post receives by determining how many other users are exposed to that post. [The findings suggest] that newsfeed algorithms can influence users’ moral behaviors by exploiting their natural tendencies for reinforcement learning,” the researchers said.

As such, the researchers argue, corporate interests for companies like Twitter or Facebook impacts developers’ “design choices” such that “profit maximization via user engagement can indirectly affect moral behavior because outrage-provoking content draws high engagement.”

However, the researchers added several caveats, such as the extent to which their findings can be accurately applied to the general population at large.

Also read: Where social media meets marketing — Delhi cafe owner’s appeal for support creates buzz


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