TORONTO, Ontario — Social media has a reputation for being quite a toxic place. Surprisingly, though, a new study reports people usually post on platforms like Facebook in support of various topics or people instead of in opposition. To be clear, the support can fall on either side of a particular debate. For example, University of Toronto researchers conclude an individual in support of stricter U.S. gun control is much more likely to post “I support banning guns” as opposed to “I oppose allowing guns.”
“There are a lot of controversial issues where both sides talk about what they support – pro-life and pro-choice on abortion, for example,” says head researcher Rhia Catapano, an assistant professor of marketing at the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management, in a university release. “It’s very rare that we see positions that primarily frame themselves in terms of what they oppose.”
Prof. Catapano and her team researched this topic by conducting 10 experiments. The study authors held some of those assessments online while others took place in a lab setting or “out in the field.”
Twitter is full of positivity?
One initiative showed that over the course of one month roughly 50,000 tweets used supportive language. In comparison, only 1,100 of included tweets were more opposition-centric. Similarly, Twitter users re-tweeted posts using supportive language an average of 624 times. Users only shared tweets focusing on what the authors opposed 24 times on average.
This trend held up across a diverse array of topics including gun control, COVID-19 safety measures, same-sex marriage, and opinions on specific politicians or brands.
In order to understand this tendency, study authors explain one must look to what psychologically drives most human behavior. Voicing support for a particular cause, they say, feels like a clearer way of showing others our own personal values and who we are as a person. It’s human nature to care what others think of us, and expressing an opinion via a supportive statement, even if only subconsciously, helps us feel like we’re part of a larger group and making a positive social impression.
Beyond just social media, study authors theorize these findings can help across a variety of industries in which people find it difficult to talk about uncomfortable topics, such as pollsters and public health workers.
“If we’re looking to encourage positive changes in people’s behavior or attitudes, we can change how we talk about those ideas,” Prof. Catapano concludes.
The study is published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.