Social Media Success Is Driven by Hate

Expressing animosity towards outgroups drives engagement, new research finds.

“Facebook's mission is to give people the power to build community and bring the world closer together,” Facebook says in its current mission statement. “People use Facebook to stay connected with friends and family, to discover what's going on in the world, and to share and express what matters to them.”

This conclusion is idealistic, although not always unjustified. A recent study of Facebook users in Bosnia and Herzegovina, written up by Reason’s Robby Soave, suggests that users who remained offline during a week of remembrance of the atrocities committed towards Bosnian Muslims were more ethnically polarized than those who stayed on Facebook during that time.

The researchers suggested that the reason for this is because that many of the people who remained off Facebook during that week were in homogenous communities where they don’t have the interaction with different sorts of people they were getting from Facebook. "Vulnerability to echo chambers may be greatest in offline social networks," they wrote.

But it’s not clear why this is just a benefit of Facebook, versus the Internet at large. The Internet has always had the potential to connect us and broaden our horizons. Facebook is a very specific application of the Internet, one that is designed to addict us to infinite scrolling and feed our data to advertisers. Along with Twitter, it tends to breed conflict. A new study shows just how good breeding conflict can be for you.

Three researchers looked at Facebook and Twitter posts from both conservative and liberal media accounts and Members of Congress. What they found was that out of all of the factors studied, the biggest predictor of whether a post would go viral was whether it was about an outgroup (meaning, in this case, a conservative talking about a liberal or vice versa).

People liked hearing about the outgroup — which often involves some form of dunk or trash talk — much more than they liked hearing about their ingroup:

For years, these social media companies have come under fire for promoting content that is particularly controversial or incendiary. What you’re presented with by these services’ algorithms isn’t random. They’ve responded by making alterations to these systems. Interestingly, in their conclusion, the researchers note that any alterations made may have actually made things worse:

Understanding the factors that make social media posts go “viral” online can help to create better social media environments. While social media platforms are not fully transparent about how their algorithmic ranking system works, Facebook announced in a post titled “Bringing People Closer Together” that it was changing its algorithm ranking system to value “deeper” forms of engagement, such as reactions and comments (68). Ironically, posts about the political out-group were particularly effective at generating comments and reactions (particularly the “angry” reaction, the most popular reaction across our studies). In other words, these algorithmic changes made under the guise of bringing people closer together may have helped prioritize posts including out-group animosity.

There’s always the question of whether these companies are promoting this kind of behavior or whether they are simply a reflection of human behavior. If it’s the latter, there isn’t a whole lot they can do without extraordinary amounts of censorship to curtail polarization. Maybe people just have too much fun insulting each other and feeling superior to someone else. But social media companies as currently constructed are not simply a public square.

Do you witness people screaming at each other and dehumanizing one another over political differences every time you walk through your local public square or market?

Our social media companies are a slot machine. They are designed to keep you using them, by any means necessary, including addiction. And right now, they’re addicting us to hating our outgroups.

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