Tweets using moral-emotional messaging are more likely to go viral

February 27, 2018

Do you want your tweets to go viral? A team of researchers at New York University’s Department of Psychology has found that posts on Twitter are most likely to “trend” if they discuss political topics in the context of morality, using language that resonates emotionally with the reader.

The recent study, Emotion shapes the diffusion of moralized content in social networks—which examined Twitter messages related to gun control, climate change and same-sex marriage—examines both the potential and limits of communicating on social media.

“The content that spreads the most may have the biggest impact on social media, so individuals, community leaders, and even political elites could see their influence enhanced by emphasizing morality and emotion in their online messaging,” explains William Brady, the lead author of the study and a doctoral candidate in NYU’s of Psychology. “However, while using this type of language may help content proliferate within your own social or ideological group, it may find little currency among those who have a different world view.”

The findings appear in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The study involved the analysis of more than 560,000 tweets pertaining to an array of contentious political issues.  In reviewing each tweet, the research team separated posts containing words that were:

  • Both moral and emotional (e.g., “greed”),
  • Emotional only (e.g., “fear”), and
  • Moral only (e.g., “duty”).

They relied on previously established language dictionaries to identify them.

The researchers then examined how many times each category of messages was retweeted—as well as the political ideology of both the sender of the original messages and of the retweeted ones. Ideology was calculated using an algorithm—based on previous research that shows users tend to follow those with a similar ideology—that analyzed the follower network of each user.

They found that—across the topics of gun control, climate change and same-sex marriage— the presence of language defined as being both moral and emotional increased retweets by 20% per moral-emotional word.

By contrast, the impact of exclusively moral or exclusively emotional language was not as consistently associated with an increase in retweets. In addition, the uptick in retweets was limited to like-minded networks—a much smaller effect was established among accounts with an ideology conflicting with the sender’s.

There were also some differences among the three issues in the types of moral-emotional messages that were retweeted. For example, in contrast to same-sex marriage, in which people were more likely to retweet positive messages (e.g., tweets using the hashtag “#lovewins”), when discussing climate change people were more likely to retweet negative messages, such as those referring to environmental harms caused by climate change.

“In the context of moral and political discourse in online social networks, subtle features of the content of your posts are associated with how much your content spreads socially,” observes Jay Van Bavel, an associate professor in NYU’s Department of Psychology and one of the study’s co-authors. “However, these results also highlight one process that may partly explain increased differences between liberals and conservatives—communications fusing morality and emotion are more likely to resemble echo chambers and may exacerbate ideological polarization.”

The study’s other authors were: Julian Wills, a doctoral candidate in NYU’s Department of Psychology, Joshua Tucker, a professor in NYU’s Department of Politics, and John Jost, a professor in NYU’s Department of Psychology.

The research was supported, in part, by grants from the National Science Foundation (1349089, SES-1248077, SES-1248077-001).

Research contact: williambrady@nyu.edu

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