New Research: More Engagement Promotes More Outrage Online

Friends don’t let friends farm outrage for attention.

Earlier this month, researchers William Brady, Killian McLoughlin, Tuan Doan, and Molly Crockett published a study in Science Advances called, “How social learning amplifies moral outrage expression in online social networks.”

The study is the first of its kind. It provides real, statistical data to support the general belief that moral outrage posted to social media yields high engagement, which means it leads to more moral outrage being posted to social media.

This is logical, isn’t it? It makes sense that if moral outrage posted to social media yields a high number of engagements—likes, shares, retweets, comments, etc.—it would encourage users to post more content that expresses moral outrage. I think this is logical because, for untold numbers of social media users, the goal of posting content online is to harvest as much attention as possible, and engagement on posted content is the surest evidence of earned attention that we have on social media

Let’s take a peek at a few highlights from the study.

Highlights From the Study

For a handful of reasons (all legitimate in my opinion), the researchers focused on Twitter for their study here. Twitter is the most relevant platform for a study like this as it is where moral conversations around the issues of the data happen on the internet as much as anywhere else. Likewise, Twitter’s data is most easily accessible through their API. Facebook is notoriously more difficult to study because of how protective they are of the data they hungrily collect.

One of the study’s hypotheses was that “positive social feedback for previous outrage expressions should predict subsequent outrage expressions.” Solid hypothesis, I think, and a most formal way to express what I suggested above: moral outrage yields engagement and encourages more moral outrage.

Here are the specific world events that the researchers studied:

And then here is a table giving a few examples of what they would consider “outrage” or “non-outrage.” Pretty clear distinction here, I think.

Unsurprisingly, the researchers’ first hypothesis was confirmed. They write, “We found that daily outrage expression was significantly and positively associated with the amount of social feedback received for the previous day’s outrage expression.” Makes sense.

Here’s a simple example of the kind of behavior they observed:

For instance, a user who averaged 5 likes/shares per tweet, and then received 10 likes/shares when they expressed outrage, would be expected to increase their outrage expression on the next day by 2 to 3%. While this effect size is small, it can easily scale on social media over time, become notable at scale at the network level, or for users who maintain a larger followership and could experience much higher than 100% increases in social feedback for tweeting outrage content (e.g., political leaders).

The other hypothesis the researchers wanted to test revolved around “norm learning,” or, simply, the belief that people will change their actions based on the social norms they observe in their social networks. They hypothesize (bolding mine):

First, we reasoned that, in the context of the political topics we study here, outrage expressions should be more prevalent in social networks populated by more ideologically extreme users. This logic is based on evidence that ideological extremity predicts outrage expression…

More specifically, we predicted that individual users who are embedded within more ideologically extreme networks should be more likely to express outrage, over and above their own political ideology. In other words, if norm learning guides outrage expression, then individual users should be more likely to express outrage when they are surrounded by others expressing outrage, even accounting for their personal ideology.

That hypothesis makes sense, but without reading this study, I wouldn’t have been as sure of this one proving out as I was of the first one. This hypothesis proved correct as well.

The three major takeaways from the study, as summarized by the researchers, are:

  1. “Outrage expression on Twitter can be explained, in part, by variation in social feedback that people receive via the platform.”

  2. “Users are more likely to express outrage in more ideologically extreme social networks.

  3. “In more ideologically extreme social networks, users’ outrage expression behavior is less sensitive to social feedback.”

This really is such an important study. William Brady, interviewed by the Yale News said, “This is the first evidence that some people learn to express more outrage over time because they are rewarded by the basic design of social media.” And it is crucial evidence, to be sure.

Molly Crockett, another of the researchers, said in that same Yale News article:

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.

An important caution to be sure. We should be aware of the incredibly powerful role of platforms to give preference to certain movements over others.

Friends Don’t Let Friends Farm Outrage for Attention

I want to be careful to not say that expressing moral outrage on social media is always wrong. I’m sure there are some instances in which it is somehow helpful to virtually express our anger at injustices or other wrongs people are committing.

I have not yet achieved the ideal, healthy relationship I hope to one day have with the social internet, but I think one aspect in which I have really grown over the last seven years or so is to not get mad online at the vast injustices of the world. It can be therapeutic, to be sure. But I found years ago that, too often, I was expressing moral outrage to accrue attention from the masses and receive affirmation from my peers. What a selfish reason to decry injustices online.

It is obviously quite difficult to discern others’ motives on social media, so I ask you to take great care with what I am about to suggest.

I want to encourage you to have relationships with your friends that allow for you to call each other out if you see one another using some worldly tragedy of injustice or immorality to possibly farm attention for yourselves. There are people in my life who have the freedom to call me out in this way (and have!), and I have called a few friends out for this, too (in love).

Friends don’t let friends farm moral outrage and injustice for attention.

In our own Christian social media ecosystem, it is so easy to observe that hundreds of fellow Christians have expressed their outrage about a topic, decide that we suddenly care about this topic when it hadn’t ever crossed our minds before, tweet our outrage about that topic, and reap the dopamine-laden rewards of likes and retweets.

Let’s genuinely pray and ask that the Holy Spirit would convict us if we engage in this sort of activity for our own gain.

To call out and attempt to reconcile the injustices of our communities is to follow Christ. To tweet about the moral atrocities of the world for our own gain is reprehensible. Because we are so easily deceived by our own sin, we may have a hard time recognizing whether our moral outrage online is Christlike and restorative, or self-serving and performative.

May God give us hearts that are less interested in expressing our moral outrage for our own gain and more interested reconciling injustices for others’ good.