Social media posts about the “
political outgroup” – criticising or mocking those on the opposing side of an ideological divide – receive twice as many shares as posts that champion people or organisations from one’s own
This is according to a study led by University of Cambridge psychologists, who analysed over 2.7 million Tweets and Facebook posts published by either US media outlets or Members of Congress from across the political spectrum.
Researchers also found that each additional word referencing a rival politician or competing worldview (e.g. ‘Biden’ or ‘Liberal’ if coming from a Republican source) increased the odds of a social media post being shared by an average of 67% across the dataset.
These effects were found to be the same on both platforms, and regardless of political orientation. The findings are published today in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
Previous research investigating online “virality” found that using highly emotive language increases the likelihood of social media shares – particularly negative emotions such as anger, or when conveying a sense of moral indignation.
However, the latest study shows that using terms related to the “political outgroup” is almost five times more effective than negative emotional language, and almost seven times more effective than moral emotional language, at increasing the number of shares.
The scientists argue that their findings highlight the “perverse incentives” now driving discourse on major social media platforms, which in turn may fuel the political polarisation threatening democratic processes in the US and elsewhere.
“Slamming the political opposition was the most powerful predictor of a post going viral out of all those we measured. This was the case for both Republican and Democrat-leaning media outlets and politicians on Facebook and Twitter,” said Steve Rathje, a Gates Cambridge Scholar and first author of the study.