Avoid the Twitter tirade: Negative social media rants often backfire on senders

DAVIS, Calif. — Social media is a popular place for people to vent their anger, but a new study finds that doing so can hurt the venter far more than it does the target of the tirade.

It probably comes as no surprise that positive online posts produce upbeat results and negative rants create the opposite. What may be shocking is how long the effects of negative rants extend, and how the negativity ultimately comes home to roost with the sender.

Researchers at the University of California-Davis looked at hundreds of millions of chat room messages where youth were playing online social games. They found that positive chats bloom for just a few seconds, but negative chats spew out a stream of negativity that goes on for many minutes.

“It’s not just that this negative chat has a long life,” says the study’s lead author Seth Frey, an assistant professor of communication at the university, in a statement. “But it has a longer effect on the original speaker. Negative people are really hurting themselves.”

Researchers followed 600,000 conversations and hundreds of millions of chat room messages posted in a popular online social game site over several months. Most of the approximately one million participants were children from all over the world between the ages of 8 and 12. A sentiment analysis toolkit that is normally used for short Twitter posts measured the positive or negative weight of the chat content.

The results indicate that there is such a thing as online karma. That is, when someone sends out a positive message, it creates a circuit of positivity that returns to the sender. The ripple effect of a sender’s positive message begins returning dividends in just two seconds that continue for 60 seconds.

But when chats are negative or strongly or emotionally charged, the returns continue for an average of eight minutes. One instance of negativity results in a “feedback loop” that fuels and grows itself. This is why negative rants last so much longer than positive messages.

Frey points out that the research was conducted in chat rooms where messages are exchanged rapidly among youth. Results would most likely be even longer-lasting on platforms like Facebook or Twitter, where participants are older and have more complex emotions and political opinions.

The findings are an indication of the differences between emotional ripples online verses the emotions expressed in face-to-face conversations. Frey says, “It’s really about isolating the effects that your angry and distasteful actions have on you in the future.”

He believes the study “can expand the scope of social-influence-based public health policies and ultimately help young people respond maturely to social influences, whether positive or negative, online or offline.”

When we consider the ramifications of what we express, both positive and negative, we may begin to understand when and how online messages need to be monitored and when a helpful administrator might need to step in and intervene.

Findings were published October 10, 2018 in Behavior Research Methods.