Viral Facebook posts increase polarization, study confirms

The faster a Facebook post goes viral, the more controversial it’s likely to be, regardless of the subject matter, a new study says.

The speed at which Facebook posts reach broader audiences is directly linked to the amount of controversy they generate, according to research that analyzed tens of millions of posts on the Meta-owned social platform.

A team led by researchers from Sapienza Università di Roma in Italy investigated how user interest in posts evolved over time. It found that the virality of a post – not the content or quality of information – is what influences user opinions.

Such user engagement was more likely to lead to polarization and potentially foster hate speech, the paper said, confirming the findings of earlier research into the subject.

The researchers analyzed approximately 57 million posts published on about 2 million Facebook pages and groups from 2018 to 2022. The topics of these posts spanned from scandals and tragedies to social and political issues.

The data showed that user interest in a post typically does not rise exponentially but instead increases steadily until a saturation point is reached. If the post went viral quickly, it caused more negative or controversial reactions among users, the study found.

In contrast, posts that were slower to reach wider audiences elicited more positive reactions. This correlation could help predict a post's engagement timeline and the potential controversy it may generate, researchers said.

"Exploring the dynamism of social media, we've discovered the predictive power of initial reactions to controversial topics. This could fundamentally shift how we understand and navigate the realm of online discussions and polarization,” the paper read.

According to the authors, predicting user engagement with certain posts could help shape social media moderation approaches, as well as strategies for news organizations and content creators.

The findings of the study were published in the open-access journal PLOS One.

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