Commentary

Rage fuel

Twitter’s sweet little Tweety Bird

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.

“…Most Twitter users are unaware that their public data can be used for scientific study,” the researchers noted in the peer-reviewed study published by Science Advances on Friday, but it can. 

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.

“Unfortunately, we have since learned that authoritarian rulers are using social media to suppress democratic dissent at home and to interfere with democratic elections abroad,” Sloss added

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.”

“Limiting the spread of health misinformation is a moral and civic imperative that will require a whole-of-society effort,” he proclaimed in July. 

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?

 

 

20 replies »

  1. 1) The Civic Forum (Czech: Občanské fórum, OF) was a political movement in the Czech part of Czechoslovakia, established during the Velvet Revolution in 1989. … The Civic Forum’s purpose was to unify the dissident forces in Czechoslovakia and to overthrow the Communist regime.

    2) Citizens the world over want to improve their wellbeing and are often willing to take peaceful political action, when they believe that they can make a difference. Instead of bypassing government, parliaments, parties, and politics altogether, NDI helps citizen groups take actions that engage these institutions. Whether advocating for specific policies, providing information on economic challenges, monitoring the implementation of a policy, or raising awareness about public needs, citizens can contribute to policy making and change the way politics is practiced.

    • Imo , a heavily educated, moral minded well parented society is the only long term solution. By educated i don’t mean indoctrinated. An open minded yet grounded society . Perhaps a greater emphasis on historical knowledge. Just not force fed . It be a tough balance.

  2. Anonymous posters on boards such as these are also more prone to letting the rage fly. I have suggested that posters that give their real names should have their own comment section. Not so much a problem here as other civic forums. Anybody remember civic forums?

    • They are also more prone to saying the truth in vindictive times. Think of Benjamin Franklin and his silence dogood pseudonym. He pushed women’s rights under a woman’s persona in an era it would not have been publicly well received. Some of the founders also believed pseudonyms reduced delivery bias . As in it came from so and so that means its good or bad . It made the information stand on its own legs. A real concern in fractious times. Who cares if someone is raging away. They are only hurting themselves. Just don’t fall into the foolish trap of reciprocal acts. Eventually they just go away with a little nudge. Spice of life . Besides certain other pseudonyms will probably police them 😉

    • Chris: I once agreed with you. Now, I’m not so sure that’s true. Some of the worst rage drivers I see on Twitter are people identifying themselves. Sometimes, in fact, using their influence as former journos to lend more credibility to their flaming Tweets.

      • I don’t twitter or facebook. Primarily because my participation would contribute to their hegemony of digital communication and a resource of data about me that can be used against me now or in the future. So I accept what you are saying. BUT I think identifying yourself while taking a stand on an issue is more credible than anonymous spouting off. Taken to an extreme, anonymous posters could easily be disinformation propagandists or bots.

      • Chris ,
        You seem like a thoughtful person. Do you hold government office? If not then perhaps you should. We need thoughtful incorruptible people like you to start making a difference.

      • Thanks DPR. I am a fairly private person. I don’t have the typical politician’s need for public approval or a megalomaniacal view of my own intelligence, or thirst for power. I am way over being a partisan although I lean to the right as a libertarian and conservative. But you won’t find me taking potshots at people with differing views. My father was one of the most ethical and kind persons I have ever known. He was an arbitrator, along with being an engineer trained to solve problems – and I seem to be in that mold. It is extremely frustrating to see what the political system has become – attracting only people that see politics as a career choice with little life experiences but expert skill at pandering to voters (and wearing a power suit) to sustain their career.
        Cheers!

      • Chris,
        Nicely said though we cant all keep our heads in the sand . It creates a leadership vacuum. As far as ive read ,George Washington didn’t want to be a president and tended towards a private life. There are times to step beyond that . Those that can should. You sound like a lucky man with a great father. Sometimes doing nothing is an action of its own as biden has prooven . Im not trying to talk you towards anything but anyone who reads this that has inner strength to stay incorruptible a solid moral compass and an ability to listen and think things through should consider political leadership. Imo .
        Apparently People like me shouldn’t though. I have so many innumerable faults and apparently only excell at being an asshat . My father always said- stick with what you are good at . So I shall 😉

  3. Yes , i agree that government control of information or really any government associated control of dissemination of information is the death of thought and a Republican democracy. Jefferson,Franklin and especially Madison wrote some interesting reasoning behind complete freedom of speech and how it boltsters personal rights, thought and liberty but they also heavily promoted a republic form of democracy while outlining it with why past democracy had failed from speech suppression with greek and Roman examples as well as tge benefits of a representative republic versus a direct democracy once government extends beyond the size of a town . Our founders education and ability to think things through were truly sensational. Every time i read what they wrote im impressed with their complex yet succinct thought. Will future generations be grounded enough and developed emotionally and mentally to improve the situation? Madison thought it would vary and that was one of his justifications in making a slow moving representative government and warning heavily against executive type quick decisions that bypass government inefficiency. The slowness was intentionally built in . To cool off effect of direct democracy which is what you see in social media- citizens democratic heat !

  4. Just as China controls its internet and platforms, our very own government is quickly and dangerously going in that direction, and what’s even scarier is that more than some fellow American citizens are quite good with this direction.

    • Zip, right on the money.. Just look to China to see the direction we are going in. Granted we are financed by them from top to bottom. We also need to consider half the country is fine with the government taking care of them. What they don’t realize is the day will come when even that has limits. We are living in dangerous times and the last 8 months has made it much more so. Lord help us after 3 more years..

    • Kevin, I agree. Section 230 is illegal because congress made a law that allows tech companies to infringe on speech and discriminate against individuals. Clearly unconstitutional. Congress may not make laws that infringe or enable infringement of speech as in effect its the same thing. It needs struck down yesterday.

  5. I joined Twitter several years ago to follow a couple people and see how it worked.
    I quickly determined that attempting to converse in emotional sentence fragments accomplishes nothing of value. Closed that account. Stayed off Facebook for the similar reasons.
    Useful conversation and debate requires a longer form. A form that requires time be taken to compose ones thoughts and time to read or listen and digest the thoughts of others.
    An excellent example being the article above.
    I want to live in a civilized society. Communication in social media, as currently designed makes society less civil and adds little in the way of positive discourse.
    This study appears to reinforce what I had already concluded.
    I fear for the future when I see all the children glued to their phones. As the human brain develops, it organizes its patterns and logic based on the input it is receiving from it’s environment. It is helpful if our thinking patterns and logic match the environment we deal with each day.
    If a large component of a child’s inputs is social media, the brain will organize around that. How powerful will social media be when all these young brains develop in ways that sync up with social media logic?

    • Ken s
      I completely agree. Ive never experienced their use though i see what you speak of . A very detached medium. We can just hope we are wrong. Im always impressed with how kind and thoughtful the majority of people I meet are . Though when i grew up every one always waved or made eye contact when they passed by be it in a car, boat , horse or on foot. It doesn’t happen as often now .
      Every one seemed very connected. Of nearly so .

    • Ken,

      In the same way that money doesn’t corrupt character but reveals it, the internet and wealth of possibilities to share thoughts and expressions does the same. People can either be themselves or be something completely different, some change depending upon the site or even from post to post, others show their true character in all of their social media posts…both good or bad. This comment section is an extension of social media make no doubt about it, it’s just a forum that typically lends itself to the useful conversation and debate seen in civilized societies that you and others here strive for.

      • Agree,
        What I like about this forum and others like it is most of the comments are thoughtful and add information and different perspectives to the conversation. Most here want to add information and insight in a clarifying way. I like seeing different perspectives on the issues discussed here.
        The longer form most commenters use makes for good, civilized communication.

        Personal attacks and going way off topic are rare here.

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