Outrage online: Controversial social media posts reach larger audiences faster

ROME, Italy — There’s an old saying that “controversy creates cash,” but new research out of Italy suggests controversy also creates social media clicks. Scientists at the Sapienza Università di Roma analyzed nearly 60 million Facebook posts in an effort to gauge how users’ interest in posts tend to evolve over time. Along the way they discovered that the amount of controversy generated by a particular post appears to be strongly associated with the speed with which it reaches larger audiences.

This held true regardless of the specific subject matter being discussed in the post. This study was conducted by Gabriele Etta of Sapienza Università di Roma, Italy, and colleagues. The project adds further weight to mounting research examining the influence of social media on how people consume daily information and news and form opinions.

Earlier studies indicated that neither the topic of a social media post nor the quality of its information had a connection to the processes by which users formed their opinions. Alternatively, those studies suggested that posts that are more “viral,” meaning very popular with tons of engagement, may be more likely to cause polarized engagement, possibly including hate speech.

Person using Facebook on their phone
(© wachiwit – stock.adobe.com)

Next, in an attempt to form a clearer understanding of how interest evolves over time in social media debates, the research team assessed roughly 57 million posts published by two million Facebook pages and groups between 2018 and 2022. Those posts covered a wide variety of topics, including scandals, tragedies, and social or political issues.

A subsequent statistical analysis of user engagement showed that the evolution of people’s interest in a given post tends to adhere to similar patterns regardless of the specific topic being discussed. In most cases, interest didn’t increase exponentially over time, instead increasing steadily until ultimately reaching a saturation point.

Interestingly, posts that did reach a very wide audience in a fast manner were more likely to be linked with either negative or controversial reactions among users – again, regardless of the topic. Also, posts with audiences that grew at a slower rate were associated with more positive reactions.

All in all, study authors believe their work may help inform future predictions regarding how a given post’s engagement timeline may unfold, as well as how much controversy it could garner. These predictions would help shape approaches for moderating social media communities, in addition to other strategies for news outlets and content creators aimed at shaping user engagement.

“Exploring the dynamism of social media, we’ve discovered the predictive power of initial reactions to controversial topics. This could fundamentally shift how we understand and navigate the realm of online discussions and polarization,” researchers write in a media release.

The study is published in PLoS ONE.

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John Anderer

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