Going Viral may Require the Use of Moral-Emotional Words, Study Finds

Fagjun | Published 2017-06-27 19:17

What kinds of political tweets tend to go viral on Twitter?

Political social media posts have a better chance of going viral when they contain moral and emotional language.

If you emphasize morality and emotion in your tweets, your ideologies are more likely to spread throughout your network, among people with similar beliefs. Take, for example, President Donald Trump's tweets. Say what you want about the man, but he has mastered the art of using Twitter to his advantage. His tweets often gain a lo tof attention, for better or for worse. This is because he often uses emotional language in is tweets, thus making them more appealing to those who hold the same beliefs.

Other politicians, leaders, public figures, and even private individuals can widen their influence by using moral-emotional words. If they emphasize morality and emotion in their social media posts, they have a higher chance of reaching out to more people.

The Hows of Going Viral

What is it about moral and emotional language that makes tweets go viral?
[Photo Christian Widell]

However, the problem with this technique is that it can't really proliferate as well among people who hold very different views. Thus, posts of this nature are great for consolidating an existing group of people with similar beliefs. However, moral-emotional words won't be converting people on the opposite side of the debate any time soon.

Researchers were curious about what makes certain political tweets and posts go viral. The researchers thus studied 563,312 tweets that cover three controversial topics: climate change, same-sex marriage, and gun control.

The findings were interesting. It was clear that tweets containing moral-emotional words had a higher chance of achieving “moral contagion”, which is basically fancy-talk for “going viral”. Tweets that didn't have this sort of language had less of a chance to go viral and were thus less likely to spread to several people.

Of course, we can't just express any kind of sentiment to make tweets go viral. The researchers also found that tweets expressing love or anger were more likely to spread. Tweets expressing disgust or sadness, meanwhile, received less attention. This may explain the popularity of President Trump's tweets. While he likes punctuating his tweets with “Sad!”, what he's actually expressing is anger.

Echo Chambers and Confirmation Bias

Viral social media posts about controversial topics can be polarizing.
[Photo by Gilles Lambert]

In all the three controversial topics, tweets that had moral-emotional language were 20% more likely to get retweets per emotional word. However, tweets about each controversial topic showed some differences. For example, tweets expressing positive emotions about same-sex marriage were more likely to garner more attention. Meanwhile, tweets that were about the negative effects of climate change were more likely to spread.

This may provide more insight into how social media and the ideologies therein can influence voting behavior. However, the study is limited to Twitter. The researchers have yet to study behavior on Facebook, which has a larger user base.

One thing that the researchers have also observed is that tweets of a moral-emotional nature are a lot like an echo chamber. After all, people are more likely to share content that they agree with and confirm their own biases. Thus, these tweets may have a higher chance of going viral, but they can further polarize an already divided society.

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