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A Yale study has figured out why we all hate social media so much: liking and sharing spurs outrage. I fact, social media encourages outrage by its very design.

From the study:

The Yale team measured the expression of moral outrage on Twitter during real life controversial events and studied the behaviors of subjects in controlled experiments designed to test whether social media’s algorithms, which reward users for posting popular content, encourage outrage expressions.

“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,” Brady said.

Basically, we rarely like and share things that, well, we actually like. In fact, we like and share things that could encourage outrage and interaction on our news feeds, much as a news gatherer would focus on “man bites dog” vs. “dog licks man.”

To compile that evidence, Brady and Crockett assembled a team which built machine learning software capable of tracking moral outrage in Twitter posts. In observational studies of 12.7 million tweets from 7,331 Twitter users, they used the software to test whether users expressed more outrage over time, and if so, why.

The team found that the incentives of social media platforms like Twitter really do change how people post. Users who received more “likes” and “retweets” when they expressed outrage in a tweet were more likely to express outrage in later posts. To back up these findings, the researchers conducted controlled behavioral experiments to demonstrate that being rewarded for expressing outrage caused users to increase their expression of outrage over time.

In general, liking and sharing are a flywheel that leads to more invective. Once you get some of that sweet social media interaction, you don’t want it to stop and it leaves you wanting more. I’ve experienced this directly over the years — me being outraged over something gets more interaction on any of the sites I wrote for — and “nice” stories like reviews and news were widely ignored. In general, social media is designed to frustrate and anger us and it’s doing a hell of a job.

“Amplification of moral outrage is a clear consequence of social media’s business model, which optimizes for user engagement,” said Molly Crockett, an associate professor of psychology at Yale. “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.”

Photo by camilo jimenez on Unsplash

By John Biggs

John Biggs is an entrepreneur, consultant, writer, and maker. He spent fifteen years as an editor for Gizmodo, CrunchGear, and TechCrunch and has a deep background in hardware startups, 3D printing, and blockchain. His work has appeared in Men’s Health, Wired, and the New York Times.