People think that social media platforms do (but should not) amplify divisive content


Recent studies have documented the type of content that is most likely to spread widely, or go “viral” on social media, yet little is known about people’s perceptions of what goes viral or what should go viral. This is critical to understand because there is widespread debate about how to improve or regulate social media algorithms. We recruited a sample of participants that is nationally representative of the US population (according to age, gender, and race/ethnicity) and surveyed them about their perceptions of social media virality (n = 511). In line with prior research, people believe that divisive content, moral outrage, negative content, high-arousal content, and misinformation are all likely to go viral online. However, they reported that this type of content should not go viral on social media. Instead, people reported that many forms of positive content – such as accurate content, nuanced content, and educational content – are not likely to go viral, even though they think this content should go viral. Importantly, these perceptions were shared among most participants, and were only weakly related to political orientation, social media usage, and demographic variables. In sum, there is broad consensus around the type of content people think social media platforms should and should not amplify, which can help inform solutions for improving social media.

Perspectives on Psychological Science
Steve Rathje
Steve Rathje
Psychology Postdoctoral Researcher