Wednesday, July 07, 2021

Tribal Animosity Fuels The Insatiable Social Media Dopamine Buzz....,

pnas |  There has been growing concern about the role social media plays in political polarization. We investigated whether out-group animosity was particularly successful at generating engagement on two of the largest social media platforms: Facebook and Twitter. Analyzing posts from news media accounts and US congressional members (n = 2,730,215), we found that posts about the political out-group were shared or retweeted about twice as often as posts about the in-group. Each individual term referring to the political out-group increased the odds of a social media post being shared by 67%. Out-group language consistently emerged as the strongest predictor of shares and retweets: the average effect size of out-group language was about 4.8 times as strong as that of negative affect language and about 6.7 times as strong as that of moral-emotional language—both established predictors of social media engagement. Language about the out-group was a very strong predictor of “angry” reactions (the most popular reactions across all datasets), and language about the in-group was a strong predictor of “love” reactions, reflecting in-group favoritism and out-group derogation. This out-group effect was not moderated by political orientation or social media platform, but stronger effects were found among political leaders than among news media accounts. In sum, out-group language is the strongest predictor of social media engagement across all relevant predictors measured, suggesting that social media may be creating perverse incentives for content expressing out-group animosity.

According to a recent article in the Wall Street Journal, a Facebook research team warned the company in 2018 that their “algorithms exploit the human brain’s attraction to divisiveness.” This research was allegedly shut down by Facebook executives, and Facebook declined to implement changes proposed by the research team to make the platform less divisive (1). This article is consistent with concerns that social media might be incentivizing the spread of polarizing content. For instance, Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey has expressed concern about the popularity of “dunking” (i.e., mocking or denigrating one’s enemies) on the platform (2). These concerns have become particularly relevant as social media rhetoric appears to have incited real-world violence, such as the recent storming of the US Capital (3). We sought to investigate whether out-group animosity was associated with increased virality on two of the largest social media platforms: Facebook and Twitter.

A growing body research has examined the potential role of social media in exacerbating political polarization (4, 5). A large portion of this work has centered on the position that social media sorts us into “echo chambers” or “filter bubbles” that selectively expose people to content that aligns with their preexisting beliefs (611). However, some recent scholarship questions whether the “echo chamber” narrative has been exaggerated (12, 13). Some experiments suggest that social media can indeed increase polarization. For example, temporarily deactivating Facebook can reduce polarization on policy issues (14). However, other work suggests that polarization has grown the most among older demographic groups, who are the least likely to use social media (15), albeit the most likely to vote. As such, there is an open debate about the role of social media in political polarization and intergroup conflict.

Other research has examined the features of social media posts that predict “virality” online. Much of the literature focuses on the role of emotion in social media sharing. High-arousal emotions, whether they are positive (e.g., awe) or negative (e.g., anger or outrage), contribute to the sharing of content online (1620). Tweets expressing moral and emotional content are more likely to be retweeted within online political conversations, especially by members of one’s political in-group (21, 22). On Facebook, posts by politicians that express “indignant disagreement” receive more likes and shares (23), and negative news tends to spread farther on Twitter (24). Moreover, false rumors spread farther and faster on Twitter than true ones, especially in the domain of politics, possibly because they are more likely to express emotions such as surprise and fear (25).

Yet, to our knowledge, little research has investigated how social identity motives contribute to online virality. Group identities are hypersalient on social media, especially in the context of online political or moral discussions (26). For example, an analysis of Twitter accounts found that people are increasingly categorizing themselves by their political identities in their Twitter bios over time, providing a public signal of their social identity (27). Additionally, since sharing behavior is public, it can reflect self-conscious identity presentation (28, 29). According to social identity theory (30) and self-categorization theory (31), when group identities are highly salient, this can lead individuals to align themselves more with their fellow in-group members, facilitating in-group favoritism and out-group derogation in order to maintain a positive sense of group distinctiveness (32). Thus, messages that fulfill group-based identity motives may receive more engagement online.