Researchers from Yale University went exploring in the Twitter sewer and guess what they found?
Voracious Twitterati fed by their fans. Think of the relationship between restaurant waste and the sewer rats drawn to it, and you’ll get the picture.
Or, in the more subdued verbiage of academic researchers, “we find that positive social feedback for outrage expressions increases the likelihood of future outrage expressions.”
What you have here is a classic feedback loop.
The Twitterati – “who comprise a high proportion of journalists and public figures,” according to the study – rant; their fans (oops, followers) praise and share the rant; and this inspires more ranting.
Intelligent readers of media, social or otherwise, are to sure to have already noted this phenomenon. During the four years of former President Donald Trump’s Twittering, it was hard to miss.
But the team of researchers led William J. Brady, a “computational social psychologist,” has now documented the obvious.
Trail of views
Computational social psychologists mine data to aid the study of the “multi-dimensional nature of human experience as it unfolds in accordance with different temporal patterns on different timescales,” according to the very first edition of the Computational Social Psychology textbook.
Imagine that; conclusions can be drawn from observation of human behavior in a public square by watching what they write just like early naturalists could draw conclusions about wildlife behavior by watching what the animals did.
This new study of the behavior of the species Homo Sapien is titled “How social learning amplifies moral outrage expression in online social networks.”
To track the outrage, the researchers developed “a Digital Outrage Classifier (DOC) that can classify tweets as containing moral outrage or not. To train DOC, we collected a set of 26,000 tweets from a variety of episodes that sparked widespread public outrage.”
‘The key definition of moral outrage included the following three components,” the study said. “A person can be viewed as expressing moral outrage if (1) they have feelings in response to a perceived violation of their personal morals; (2) their feelings are composed of emotions such as anger, disgust, and contempt; and (3) the feelings are associated with specific reactions including blaming people/events/things, holding them responsible, or wanting to punish them.”
There is no shortage of feelings on Twitter, which attracts a lot more emoting than thinking. The researchers did not pass judgment on whether this outpouring of emotion was good or bad because, obviously, it can be either.
Moral outrage, the researchers wrote, “motivates punishment of moral transgressions, promotes social cooperation, and catalyzes collective action for social change.”
That’s the bright side.
“At the same time,” the researchers added, “moral outrage has recently been blamed for a host of social ills, including the rise of political polarization, the chilling of public speech, the spreading of disinformation, and the erosion of democracy.
That’s the dark side.
A force for good
During the so-called “Arab Spring” of 2011, people across the Mideast used social media to fuel a grassroots drive for democracy.
“After the Arab Spring in 2011, several commentators expressed optimism that social media could be a powerful new tool to promote democracy,” Santa Clara University School of Law professor David L. Sloss observed eight years later.
It didn’t work out that way.
Sloss was by 2019 convinced social media had gone over to the dark side and was lobbying Congress to stop “authoritarian states” from operating on U.S.-based social media platforms.
“Democracy is declining around the world; authoritarianism is gaining ground,” he wrote. “The V-Dem Annual Democracy Report confirms that the world is now ‘in a third wave of autocratization….The number of citizens affected by autocratization surged from 415 million in 2016 to 2.3 billion in 2018.’ In 2018, the number of autocratizing countries was greater than the number of ‘advancing countries for the first time since 1978.’
“Global dissemination of social media technology is contributing to the decline of democracy and the rise of authoritarianism.”
This is debatable. The problem in autocratic states seems more the control of social media than its dissemination. China, the world’s most populous nation, heavily monitors social media, and the pandemic offered a stark lesson in that government’s behavior.
“During the last week of December, 2019, doctors in Wuhan (such as the late Dr. Li Wenliang), began to notice a troubling unknown pathogen burning through the wards of their hospitals. They took to social media to issue warnings of this new disease thought to be linked to the Wuhan Seafood Market,” The Citizen Lab at the Munk School of Global Affairs & Public Policy of the University of Toronto in Canada reported in March of last year.
“As the doctors tried to raise the alarm about the rapid spread of the disease, information on the epidemic was being censored on Chinese social media. On December 31, 2019, when the Wuhan Municipal Health Commission issued its first public notice on the disease, we found that keywords like “武汉不明肺炎” (Unknown Wuhan Pneumonia) and “武汉海鲜市场” (Wuhan Seafood Market) began to be censored on YY, a Chinese live-streaming platform.”
The number of keywords red-flagged and suppressed would only increase in the months that followed, Citizen Lab reported.
Quashed by state
“On Feb 5, 2020, the Cyberspace Administration of China (CAC), the top-level Internet governance agency in China, issued a public statement stressing that it would punish ‘websites, platforms, and accounts’ for publishing ‘harmful’ content and ‘spreading fear’ related to COVID-19. The CAC singled out Sina Weibo, Tencent, and ByteDance in the statement, saying that it would carry out a ‘thematic inspection’ of their platforms.
“Chinese authorities continue to warn the public of the consequences of ‘spreading rumors.’ A non-comprehensive collection of police announcements on the punishment of ‘rumor-mongers’ shows that at least 40 people were subject to warnings, fines, and/or administrative or criminal detention around January 24 and 25, 2020. Another announcement points to a much larger number, detailing 254 cases of citizens penalized for ‘spreading rumors’ in China between January 22 and 28, 2020.”
Information control during epidemics poses problems for all governments. U.S. officials haven’t threatened to jail anyone for spreading rumors, but U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy has called on social media companies to crack down on the spread of “misinformation.”
Given the polarization of the U.S. at the time, he only managed to stir outrage on both sides of the Twitter-divide with those who favor masks and vaccinations accusing those who don’t of trying to kill their fellow citizens and those opposed to masking or questioning vaccinations warning of attempts at government censorship.
Democracy has always been a difficult business dependent on a certain amount of compromise and tolerance to survive. There is no doubt the authoritarian form of government employed in China is neater.
There could be reasons most of human history has been dominated by authoritarian governments. The potential threat to democracy in a society where people have trouble agreeing on anyting is obvious as the Yale researchers observed:
“At first blush, documenting the role of reinforcement learning in online outrage expressions may seem trivial,” they wrote. “Of course, we should expect that a fundamental principle of human behavior, extensively observed in offline settings, will similarly describe behavior in online settings.
“However, reinforcement learning of moral behaviors online, combined with the design of social media platforms, may have especially important social implications. 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.
“Because we show here that social feedback affects users’ outrage expressions over time, this suggests that newsfeed algorithms can influence users’ moral behaviors by exploiting their natural tendencies for reinforcement learning. In this way, reinforcement learning on social media differs from reinforcement learning in other environments because crucial inputs to the learning process are shaped by corporate interests.
“Even if platform designers do not intend to amplify moral outrage, design choices aimed at satisfying other goals such as profit maximization via user engagement can indirectly affect moral behavior because outrage-provoking content draws high engagement. Given that moral outrage plays a critical role in collective action and social change , our data suggest that platform designers have the ability to influence the success or failure of social and political movements, as well as informational campaigns designed to influence users’ moral and political attitudes….”
“Future research is required to understand whether users are aware of this and whether making such knowledge salient can affect their online behavior.”
Or, in simple terms, it is possible a nation warring against itself cannot survive. The problem is particularly difficult in these days when “fake news,” misinformation, disinformation, propaganda – or call it what you will – is so easily spread online.
But the biggest danger might not be in all of that, but in government efforts to control all of that. The history would indicate that first step toward the death of democracy comes with government control of information.
America’s Founding Fathers understood this well. As was once observed by Thomas Jefferson – a man roundly attacked and abused in an 18th century media world that looked more like today’s online world than the “journalism” most Americans grew up with – “were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.”
But that was long ago, and Jefferson is today reviled by some outraged that he was in his day, as many whites and a tiny number of blacks were, a slave owner. And thus why should anyone pay attention to anything he said?