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Illustration: Annelise Capossela/Axios

The likes and shares earned by expressions of online outrage teach users to post more angry sentiments, a Yale University study out Friday shows.

Why it matters: Social media amplification of moral outrage can play a crucial role in spreading misinformation or political polarization.

What they did: Yale researchers measured expressions of moral outrage on Twitter studying real-life controversial events, such as the nomination of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court, using machine learning to develop a classifier that could label some 12 million tweets.

  • They also studied subjects in a simulated Twitter experiment designed to test whether algorithms, which reward users for posting popular content, encourage expressions of outrage.

What they're saying: "The kinds of discussions we are increasingly having in digital public spaces are life and death kind of questions," Molly Crockett, a Yale associate professor of psychology and author of the study, told Axios.

  • "A lot of it is driven by outrage, and I think we as citizens need to know how the design of the spaces that we are interacting in can impact the way we choose to express ourselves."

What they found: Users who got likes and retweets when they posted moral outrage on Twitter were more likely to express outrage in later posts.

  • Reinforcement learning — if you reward a behavior, you encourage it — is a "biological fact," Crockett noted.
  • "Now we show, for the first time, outrage expressions get disproportionate amounts of reward online," Crockett said. "It's not surprising that if you get rewarded for expressing outrage, you express more outrage in the future."

The researchers also found that while people in politically extreme networks express more outrage than those in moderate networks, members of the more moderate groups were more influenced by receiving likes and retweets for expressing outrage.

  • "There might be something special about outrage in this online social network environment where you have these very salient rewards, likes, shares and so on," Crockett said. "It essentially sets up a competitive market for outrage expressions."
  • The study was published Friday in the journal Science Advances.

Between the lines: The researchers focused on Twitter because it has the most openly available data for such research, Crockett said.

  • But Crockett said she speculates that the results would be similar for any platform that has the same kind of social reward design feature.

The big picture: If design can promote outrage, it can probably turn down the volume as well.

  • Twitter said earlier this year it will prompt users to rethink whether they want to send a mean or offensive tweet as a way to encourage more healthy conversations.
  • "I think a lot of people recognize that these tools have tremendous potential for good, but also carry a lot of risk," Crockett told Axios. "A lot of us are worried about the potential for harm, and so I hope that we can just keep learning more and stumble forward as best we can."

Go deeper

45 million Americans under winter storm watches near New England

Computer model projection showing the winds moving around the powerful East Coast storm on Saturday Jan. 29, 2022. Image: https://earth.nullschool.net

Nearly 45 million Americans are under winter weather alerts and warnings from North Carolina to northeastern Maine Thursday night, as a major winter storm threatens the region.

Why it matters: It is predicted to be the biggest blizzard since 2018 to strike the Northeast with more than 2 feet of snow possible in parts of eastern Massachusetts, according to the National Weather Service.

Judge nixes Gulf of Mexico oil leases in climate-focused ruling

Tug boats prepare to tow the semi-submersible drilling platform Noble Danny Adkins through the Port Aransas Channel into the Gulf of Mexico on December 12, 2020 in Port Aransas, Texas. Photo: Tom Pennington/Getty Images

A federal judge on Thursday canceled the Biden administration's late 2021 sale of new oil-and-gas drilling leases in the Gulf of Mexico.

Why it matters: The ruling that the greenhouse gas emissions analysis by the Interior's Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) was insufficient is a win for green groups that challenged the decision, as they seek to curb fossil fuel production.

5 hours ago - World

Zelensky questions U.S. warnings of "imminent" invasion in Biden call

Biden and Zelensky at the White House last October. Photo: Brendan Smialowski/AFP via Getty

President Biden and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky had a back-and-forth in their call this evening about just how "imminent" the threat of a Russian invasion might be, according to three sources briefed on the call.

Why it matters: Biden has said previously that he believes Russian President Vladimir Putin will probably "move in" to Ukraine, and White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Thursday afternoon that "an invasion could come at any time."