Messages that work for your own side don’t work for reaching others: new research evidence

Welcome to the latest in my occasional series highlighting interesting findings from academic research. Today – the way using emotionally charged messages is great for reaching your own side but ineffective at reaching those with other views.

This conclusion comes from an analysis of how messages are shared on Twitter:

Political debate concerning moralized issues is increasingly common in online social networks…

We show that the expression of moral emotion is key for the spread of moral and political ideas in online social networks, a process we call “moral contagion.” Using a large sample of social media communications about three polarizing moral/political issues (n = 563,312), we observed that the presence of moral-emotional words in messages increased their diffusion by a factor of 20% for each additional word.

Furthermore, we found that moral contagion was bounded by group membership; moral-emotional language increased diffusion more strongly within liberal and conservative networks, and less between them.

Network graph of moral contagion

Much of the commentary on this research has focused on what the polarisation means for political debate. It also has pointers for digital political campaigning, particularly the need to segment messages. Those which work at mobilising supporters (e.g. securing donations) are likely to be very different from those which work at winning over floating voters.

Taken from Emotion shapes the diffusion of moralized content in social networks by William J. Brady, Julian A. Wills, John T. Jost, Joshua A. Tucker and Jay J. Van Bavel.

You can read the other posts in the Evidence-based campaigning: what the academic research says series here.

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