Trial by social media
In the legal system, the accused is innocent until proven guilty. When someone is swept up in social media outrage, they are afforded no such luxury.
A study revealed that the most shared posts on social media are those expressing emotive and moral words. A tweet or Facebook post that contains a moral sentiment is 20% more likely to be shared than one without. This means that politicians, advertisers and general users frequently play on moral outrage to maximise their social media engagement. Politicians pander to the public by using morally emotive and highly charged language. Advertisers incite anger to sell products. This language, when employed in political debate, evokes a highly negative response from the other side of the political divide, deepening divisions and further entrenching polarization in modern society.
In 2018, a study published in PNAS perfectly illustrated how social media outrage fuels political divisions. In the study, the researchers had Democrats agree to follow very conservative bots on social media. They also got Republicans to do the same with very liberal bots. In the social media landscape, bots are known to share content and publish material deliberately designed to inflame and prompt outrage. Researchers measured how liberal and conservative the participants were before following the bots. They then measured them again after they had been exposed to the bot for a period of time. Their findings concluded that once Democrats were exposed to highly inflammatory conservative bots, they became even more liberal than they had been before. Republicans responded in a similar way, becoming more conservative after being exposed to very liberal material. When we publish posts designed to get likes and shares, we are appealing to users’ sense of outrage. In doing so we further drive people out of the political centre and into the political extremes, fueling polarization and reducing the possibility for collaboration and political reconciliation.
A 2017 study refutes the notion that social media outrage is playing a central role in the polarization of politics in the US and UK. It revealed that the demographic groups most likely to experience polarization are the ones least likely to be exposed to social media outrage. The age group most likely to undergo polarization between 1996 and 2012 were the over 75s, the group least likely to experience or participate in social media outrage. Social media outrage is not the culprit or menace it is made out to be.
[P1] When users are outraged on social media, they tend to become more entrenched in their political beliefs. [P2] This increases political polarization and animosity between the two sides of the political spectrum. [P3] Therefore, social media outrage has a negative impact on society.
[Rejecting P1] Social media outrage is not to blame. The most polarized age group are the over 75s, the least likely to see social media outrage. [Rejectng P3] Therefore, social media outrage is not to blame and does not make people more polarized.