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The researchers, led by psychologist William Brady at New York University, started by analyzing the language used in 563,312 tweets about three controversial topics: Gun control, same-sex marriage, and climate change. They sorted the tweets according to their use of moral language (e.g. the word “duty”), emotional language (e.g. “fear”) and language that’s both moral and emotional (e.g. “hate”). Tweets that were strictly moral or purely emotional didn’t have higher numbers of retweets, but the researchers found a 20% increase in retweets per moral-emotional word added.
Next, the researchers looked at how much of this sharing happened within ideological networks. They estimated the ideological bent of each tweeter using an algorithm that measures political persuasion based on follower networks. For each tweet, they computed the number of retweets from those with the same ideology as the author, versus those with a different ideology. Overall, they found far more in-group than out-group retweets for messages about gun control and climate change. (Findings for same-sex marriage tweets were tending in the same direction, but not statistically significant.)