Those Twitter Tantrums? People Aren't So Angry After All

Bud Light haters may not be as mad as they seem.

It's a tale as old as Facebook: Moral outrage about the objectionable person, brand or event du jour seems to divide the world into us versus them battlegrounds.

But new research from Northwestern University's Kellogg School of Management reveals that people -- including brand marketers -- are pretty bad at reading how angry social media posters are.

The study finds that people perceive greater moral outrage in political posts than the authors felt when writing those posts. And that seems especially true for those turning to social media to learn about a political issue.

Using machine language, the researchers first identified people tweeting about American politics with either high or low levels of outrage. And within 15 minutes of the post, they contacted the authors of the tweet to ask them how they felt about what they wrote.



They then showed 650 of these tweets to other people and asked them to rate the level of moral outrage they detected.

These observers were more likely to infer outrage than was actually present. (They did a better job estimating happiness.) In other words, they paid more attention to negative information -- which leads them to see social media as more polarized than it is, according to William J. Brady, the study's lead author and assistant professor of management and organizations at the Kellogg School.

Brady tells Marketing Daily that studying outrage has some interesting implications for brands. "'Moralized consumption,' where people choose brands based on their moral values, is rising, so outrage from one group could reduce sales temporarily while simultaneously boosting sales in another group."

He says some big brands likely make very conscious tradeoffs with certain campaigns. He uses Nike's 2019 campaign starring Colin Kaepernick as an example. "It might get some loud right-wing voices outraged on social media, but on average, it is increasing preferences toward the brand," he tells Marketing Daily via email.

Marketers need to resist the very human tendency to overreact to online vitriol. Rather than jumping to conclusions and ending a campaign, "you need to do market research before interpreting the social media outrage. The combination of algorithmic amplification and perception biases people have can make it seem that outrage is more intense than it really is," he says.

Of course, there are exceptions when it seems outrage might hurt market share. "These cases are exceedingly rare, however," Brady says. "In general, research shows that "canceling" is not nearly as prevalent as most people think it is."

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