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It isn’t really unexpected news to hear that a recent study by the National Academy of Sciences of The United States of America exposed the simple fact that going hostile and negative gets more engagement.

The study reveals:

…. posts about the political out-group were shared or retweeted about twice as often as posts about the in-group. Each individual term referring to the political out-group increased the odds of a social media post being shared by 67%. Out-group language consistently emerged as the strongest predictor of shares and retweets: the average effect size of out-group language was about 4.8 times as strong as that of negative affect language and about 6.7 times as strong as that of moral-emotional languageā€”both established predictors of social media engagement. 

Click-bait that is negative about the out-group gets more clicks, therefore, to get more clicks, people use hostile out-group click-bait, and in doing so perpetuate the disintegration of society. We don’t just disagree, we condemn. We revile. Or so the theory runs.

But is this a chicken or the egg scenario? Does the penchant of the masses for more engagement about the out-group, a tendency for angry reactions to get more engagement, reflect sentiment or is the phenomenon of online flame wars actually the source of the division?

Considering the source of the study, one wonders if the conclusion being sought isn’t a new call to somehow further tighten the reins on speech while focusing only on the “angry out-group language” of the “right” while pretending it doesn’t come from the left.

However, to credit this study, conducted in November of 2020 and released in late January 2021, this phenomenon was documented across the board for left and right. Both groups tended to give more engagement, and therefor more clicks, to out-group hostility than to saying good things about their in-group.

Click-bait, which is content that is sensationalized to get clicks even though the truth is far from that sensational, tends toward out-group hostility. And, moreover, hostile out-group click-bait tends to get more engagement when the source is a leading political figure than if it is a news site.

But what if the “other side” really are being awful? What if the myth “it takes two to tangle” isn’t true, what of one group is in fact pushing all the wrong buttons and doing all the wrong things? If, for instance, our condemnation of woke neocomm totalitarianism, with outright demands to censor and cancel the right and sic the entire “anti-terrorism” apparatus on them, contributing to the division or is it actually just honest reporting?

We are certainly not guilty of only zinging the left for bad behavior, our true north is pro-freedom and anti-authoritarianism. When we see “the right” being authoritarian we are just as ready to decry that. For instance, the “war on terror”, the “Patriot Act”, and NSA spying, all favorites of the right in their inception, were always viewed by us as totalitarian responses.

But because our audience, and generally our content, tends to overlap more to the right than the left, albeit not entirely, content about authorian offenses by those considered on the right gets less engagement and fewer views.

The tendency of both sides to resort to ham-fisted reactionary and authoritarian policies in response to their political opponents is becoming worrying. Decrying this may get more clicks, but if the substance is truth, then the problem is with the trend toward authoritarianism.

On the other hand, many of the more outrageous content peddled by left and right to get clicks isn’t substantively true and only serves to falsely demonize the out-group.

The bottom line is that, while actual trends toward authoritarian reactions to things one’s political opponents do is growing, the use of hostile out-group click-bait is exasperating the problem and actually leading to more and more authoritarianism.