Psych prof discusses social media and politics

By MAHASHWETA GAYEN | September 26, 2019

Molly Crockett, an assistant professor of psychology at Yale University, spoke about her ongoing research surrounding the role social media plays in people’s experiences with moral outrage. The event was hosted on Monday by the Stavros Niarchos Foundation (SNF) Agora Institute, an academic and public forum that seeks to strengthen democracy through informed discourse and civic engagement.

Crockett defined moral outrage as anger and disgust at the violation of moral standards. She explained that moral outrage is triggered by external stimuli and can be expressed through various types of responses, such as physical confrontation or angry online comments. 

These responses can lead to validation, such as retweets and likes, that activates the brain’s reward circuitry, thereby reinforcing responses and increasing their likelihood to occur in the future. 

“Our hypothesis is built around a really simple framework: a theory of how we learn from rewards,” Crockett said.

Crockett explained that social media has changed the nature of external stimuli because the platforms’ algorithms tend to draw emotion-inducing content to the top of people’s feeds. 

Through a survey that her lab disseminated, Crockett found that people are more likely to learn about immoral events online rather than in person or through traditional media.

“People experience more intense outrage in response to online content versus offline,“ Crockett said. “If you spend any time on social media, you might have a sense that we are locked in a state of perpetual outrage.”

The Crockett Lab is currently working to determine whether the expression of outrage has increased over time. The lab has built a tool called the Digital Outrage Classifier that measures outrage from collected tweets. These tweets were responses to certain outrage-inducing events such as the Kavanaugh hearings and Trump’s transgender military ban. 

Crockett hypothesizes that in online platforms, validation in the form of likes and retweets makes it more likely for people to express their outrage later on as well. 

This expression of outrage can occasionally be good, Crockett argued. It allows movements like #MeToo and Black Lives Matter to expand, and it allows members to express outrage without getting physically hurt. 

However, Crockett said that potential consequences could include increased polarization, disinformation and reduced coordination of punishment due to ambiguous signals of what is considered immoral or outrageous. 

For example, if politically extreme users express outrage more often than moderate users do, then moderate users may feel social pressure to respond as well. If their response is rewarded, moderate users may be incentivized to continue expressing outrage, thus pushing them to the political extremes.

“If you lower the threshold of expressing outrage, this muddies the line of punishment; if everything is worthy of outrage, then nothing is,” Crockett said.

This past January, a video surfaced on Twitter that seemed to portray a group of teenagers wearing Make America Great Again hats provoking a Native American protester in Washington, D.C. 

The video quickly became viral as users condemned the teenagers and journalists shamed them. Later on a longer video of the interaction was released. It portrayed a different view of the encounter, and those that were shaming the teenagers apologized. 

Ultimately one of the teenagers in the video sued The Washington Post for defamation. This is just one of several events that caught Crockett’s attention in the way that it sparked misinformed moral outrage. 

Despite these potential consequences, Crockett remains optimistic for the future of moral outrage. She has talked to people who work in tech companies like Google and Facebook and found that they have been open to hearing about her research and discussing how to mitigate the harmful consequences of their platforms. 

“People want to engage in an open dialogue and to see how our discoveries in the social sciences can be used to improve the design of platforms, and I think we should be cautiously optimistic about that,” she said.

Recent Hopkins alum AJ Tsang was impressed with Crockett’s stance. 

“I was inspired that Dr. Crockett still took the optimistic opinion at the end of all this to say that in the long run there is hope... to change the culture around social media and to... move towards collaboration,” Tsang said.

Hahrie Han, moderator of the event and director of the SNF Agora Institute, expressed appreciation of Crockett’s work and discussed its role in the institute’s overall goals. 

“My hope is that by having faculty like [Dr. Crockett] on campus, we can spark not only a dialogue on campus but be able to inform a broader kind of public dialogue that might exist elsewhere,” Han said. 

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