A new report out from the University of Cambridge confirmed what many of us have known for years: being a contrarian asshole on social media is a great way to get people clicking on your posts.
The study was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science (PNAS) this week with the title “Out-group animosity drives engagement on social media.” In a nutshell, researchers pulled close to 2.7 million tweets and Facebook posts from US congressional accounts, along with a bevy of left- and right-leaning journalists on both platforms. Across both sites, posts from Liberal accounts about Republican politics—or vice versa—were shared about twice as often (67% more, in fact) compared to posts about their own political party.
“The average effect size of out-group language was about 4.8 times as strong as that of negative affect language and about 6.7 times as strong as that of moral-emotional language—both established predictors of social media engagement,” the researchers wrote. In other words, posts dunking on folks with opposing political viewpoints did numbers that posts centered around certain emotional, negative topics—like “murder” or “protest” or “revenge”—didn’t.
While this is the first study to look into dunks specifically, we’ve known for years that this kind of divisive, rage-inducing content is good for clicks. Platforms have known this too—one recent Wall Street Journal article cited internal Facebook research from 2018 that found Facebook’s tendency to feed users an endless flow of this content made them spend more time on the platform, sure. But it also reinforced filter bubbles, encouraged political polarization, and, well, turned the site into the seething cesspool we know and loathe. Per the Journal’s report, Facebook’s top execs shelved the research, in part because any changes made to these systems would hit “conservative users and publishers” harder than anyone else. And of course, we all know how good conservatives are for Facebook’s numbers.
Twitter, too, has had a fair share of research bubble up about its tendency to spread tweets harboring divisive, misinfo-laden dunks even farther than plain old accurate, unspicy tweets. In 2017, Slate put out a piece calling tweet-dunks “a delicious sport,” noting that as fun as it is, owning someone over a dumb tweet “only further fuels Twitter’s aggressive, dunk-or-be-dunked culture.” A year later, Twitter’s shiny CEO would announce plans to research and revamp Twitter’s overall design in order to minimize the sort of angry, bile-filled interactions his site became known for. As for whether that plan’s been working, well... just from looking at the academic studies that have come out in the aftermath, or even from using Twitter just a bit yourself, you can see that the site’s just as angry as it’s ever been.
Granted, there were some factoids from the study that we didn’t know before. From the whopping 2,730,215 posts that the researchers studied, the overwhelming majority of retweets and reposts came from users posting about politics that are different from their own preferences. The researchers note that these posts didn’t even need to mention “particularly divisive politicians” like Donald Trump, for example—all it took to go viral was a left-leaning account putting words like “fascist” in their tweet, or a right-leaning account using phrases like “social justice warrior.”
In short, it turns out if you want to do numbers on social media, you can just do what these platforms have always encouraged: be angry, be snarky, and dunk to your heart’s content.