Tuning the tension: Negative feedback could moderate extreme views on social media, per U-M research

August 24, 2023
Upvote and downvote icons from Reddit.com.

“Downvotes” and “dislikes” from peers could moderate extreme rhetoric and mitigate echo chambers among social media users, according to new research from the University of Michigan.

The study finds such “feedback can serve as the whip that regulates the polarization of opinions by encouraging users to moderate their tone.” Conversely, the research doesn’t find evidence of equivalent moderation effects from positive feedback.

Researchers used data from Reddit, which they said is ideal because users’ posts garner feedback in the form of both upvotes and downvotes as well as “karma,” a function of the scores of their combined posts. They serve as objective and straightforward measures of feedback.

The marketing research team from U-M’s Ross School of Business—S Sriram, professor and associate dean of graduate programs; Jessica Fong, assistant professor; and Varad Deolankar, a doctoral student—collected data on the posting behavior, the score of each post and their karma daily for a sample of users. They used Google’s Natural Language API to quantify the intensity of the text.

“We observe that if a user receives negative feedback on a comment expressing intense sentiment toward a particular topic, they tend to moderate the intensity of their tone in future posts about that topic, provided they post about it again,” the researchers wrote. “More precisely, subsequent mentions of the topic are less intense if the original comment’s score decreases and changes sign, compared to the user’s other comments that decrease in score but do not change signs.”

The findings run counter to assumptions that negative feedback deters users from creating content or it might raise the proverbial temperature of that content. In fact, the researchers say, the moderating effect of subsequent content is seen especially when the original comment that received the negative feedback is intense.

One potential explanation for the findings is reputation management—users respond to feedback in ways they believe will enhance their standing on the platform. On a related note, users learn what types of content to post in order to generate positive feedback.

Among the limitations noted by the researchers: They have only considered quantitative feedback (upvotes and downvotes), so future research could explore comments and complex interactions. They also note it’s an empirical question whether the findings about negative feedback fostering more—and more moderate—content would generalize to more emotionally charged topics, such as politics, religion and even sports.

The study also raises a philosophical question: Is reducing polarization—all users moving toward a more moderate opinion—itself an echo chamber? That, they say, is beyond the scope of their work but would be worth further exploration.

Overall, they say the findings are encouraging for social media platforms considering whether to introduce tools enabling users to provide negative feedback.

“Popular social media such as Facebook, X (formerly Twitter), YouTube and TikTok all have recently experimented with downvotes/dislikes,” the authors said in a joint comment.

“While eliciting negative feedback can help improve their recommendation algorithm by better detecting what users like and dislike, receiving negative feedback can potentially deter users from posting unpopular opinions. We think that this is a particularly important question given the growing concerns that social media platforms are fertile grounds for polarization and echo chamber formation.”

The study has been submitted for publication in the journal Marketing Science.