Want to go viral on Twitter? Emotional political tweets get more retweets, study finds

NEW YORK — If you want your political tweet to be retweeted by thousands across the Twitterverse, put your heart into your message. A recent study finds that social media posts are more likely to go viral when they include more emotional and moral language.

Researchers at New York University found that every word used in a political tweet that’s considered to be both moral and emotional (as established by dictionaries) increased the odds of a retweet by 20 percent — per word!

Want to go viral on Twitter? A recent study finds that political tweets with moral and emotional messages are at least 20% more likely to be retweeted.

The study, led by William Brady, a doctoral candidate in New York University’s Department of Psychology, examined more than 560,000 tweets about three hot-button political issues: gun control, same-sex marriage, and climate change.

“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 Brady in a university release. “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.”

Brady and his team sought to determine why some moral and political beliefs spread faster on social media than others.

Using algorithms, the researchers analyzed the ideology behind the sender of politically-tinged tweets along with those who retweet them. They focused on words that are both moral and emotional, such as “greed”; moral-only, like “duty”; and emotional-only, like “fear.”

Moral-only and emotional-only words didn’t have as much of an effect on retweets. The messages that were retweeted more frequently were usually only retweeted within the user’s like-minded network. So if a Twitter user with a decidedly liberal ideology and a mostly-liberal follower network tweets something about climate change that includes both moral and emotional language, that tweet is more likely to be retweeted — but only in that user’s mostly-liberal follower network.

Jay Van Bavel, an associate psychology professor and one of the study’s co-authors, believes such an effect may only worsen the “echo chambers” that many social media users often see driving the left and right further apart.

“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,” he says.

The study’s findings were published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

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