Yale study finds social media 'likes' train users to act outraged

A new study from Yale University has found that common social media features like "sharing" and "likes" are unintentionally training users to act outraged online, the reason being that other users are more likely to engage with posts that are more extreme. Users who like and share these posts have the side effect of teaching the person they "liked" to keep posting similar materials.

Many social media platforms, including the popular ones like Twitter and Facebook, features both 'like' and 'share' functions that allow users to express their positive impression of a message and/or share it with other people. When a social media user receives a like or share, it is essentially their reward for posting the content.

Over time, and especially among users who are part of "politically moderate" networks, these rewards train the users to post similar content. The new study from Yale University focused on the "expression of moral outrage" among Twitter users related to actual controversial events taking place in real life.

This analysis was joined by a study of participants in controlled experiments, ultimately finding that the "basic design of social media," including its algorithms, teaches some users to express more outrage online. The researchers point out that outrage can be both good and bad, at times seeking justice for legitimate transgressions, but at other times being used to bully, spread fake news, and increase polarization among political groups.

More than 12 million tweets from 7,331 Twitter users were tracked by a machine learning model created by the researchers. The study found that people who received more likes and shares for outraged tweets were more likely to increase the amount of outrage they posted in the future. The controlled experiments backed up these findings.

One of the study's leads, Molly Crockett, explained:

Amplification of moral outrage is a clear consequence of social media's business model, which optimizes for user engagement. 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.