Countering the Incentive to Hate and Divide on Social Media


Venture onto Facebook, Twitter, or any online forum, and you are littered with people taking firm stances on the latest controversial topic. They espouse their views—for this, against that—all the while condemning the other side. Such rants are increasingly filled with verbiage bordering on hate and contempt, an utter disbelief that anyone could hold such a view that counters their own. From the aunt you only see at holidays to the kid who sat across from you decades ago in high school English class, perusing Facebook is an open window into the firm beliefs of your so-called “friends.” Venture into the comment sections and it gets even worse.

The impersonal online world makes it easier to be brash, to say mean or hurtful things, to take sides. The impersonality, talking to an avatar instead of a person, pushes us towards our dark side. It’s not so easy to tell someone their role in an allegedly evil cabal to their face. But lack of empathy arousing face-to-face interaction isn’t the only answer to the pressing question, why are people assholes on the internet?

A new study published in the Proceedings of the National Academies of Sciences provides the other key piece: we are rewarded for hating others. The researchers analyzed the language in nearly 3 million Facebook and Twitter posts to see why people liked and shared the content. The results are succinctly summarized in the title of the paper, “Out-group animosity drives engagement on social media.” In other words, using words or phrases that focus on the ‘out-group’ (e.g., in politics, liberals would be the out-group if you are conservative) increased how many likes and shares the post got. As the researchers stated, “Each individual term referring to the political out-group increased the odds of a social media post being shared by 67 percent. Out-group language consistently emerged as the strongest predictor of shares and retweets.”

Social media incentivizes hate, to make the world collapse into us versus them. You get more likes and shares if you talk about the despised rival team, political party, or country. You get more retweets if you take a firm stand, ignoring all nuance. Unfortunately, messages of unity and positivity don’t sell as well as messages of division and hate.

Humans have always had in-groups and out-groups, us versus them leanings. But we’ve never had the major source of information and communication incentivizing such division. We had counterbalances of real-world interactions with people of all flavors to pull us back from the abyss. But as our world morphs into a social media distorted one, what are we to do when the main platform for communication and interaction incentivizes and rewards hate and division?

Social media isn’t all bad. Without it, there would be no Growth Equation, as Brad and I began collaborating thanks to Twitter. But the inherent nudge towards division that the online world creates isn not a problem that is just magically going to disappear. It will take some societal-level interventions, but also, on the individual level, a reframing of how we utilize social media and interact in an online world. Here are my constantly evolving rules for using social media and living in an increasingly online world:

  • Be deliberate and intentional. What are you trying to get out of your Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, etc., use? Define it. Hold yourself accountable to that purpose.
  • Keep the focus on information sharing, not mindless consuming.
  • Information should be idea-focused, not me-focused.
  • Treat those you interact with like you would an annoying brother growing up. Give them a chance and the benefit of the doubt, but if they poke and prod with the sole purpose to annoy, ignore them. Don’t feed the trolls.
  • Set up guardrails. Schedule your idea-focused sharing tweets. Have a friend or family member you can run controversial takes by.
  • Be positive. Go high, not low. It can feel good to be a jerk, to ‘dunk’ on someone online. That feeling is fleeting. Chasing it takes you further and further down the route towards online troll and the hate and division that comes with it.
  • Move the interactions offline. If you have a particularly fruitful discussion on Twitter or Facebook, take it offline. Start with email, move to a phone call. Online platforms should be introductions, not ending points.
  • Take time off. Step away. Be in the real world and interact with real people.


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