Political anger seems to override inhibitions online, study finds

LAWRENCE — A new study gives clues as to why anger is so pervasive in political discussions on social media.

The desire to express political anger seems so strong that it overrides the instinct, found in older research, to control one’s anger in public, according to a new paper co-written by a University of Kansas associate professor of communication studies.

In “Emotion Work on Social Media: Differences in Public and Private Emotions about Politics and COVID-19 on Facebook” published in late 2023 in the journal Social Media + Society, KU’s Ashley Muddiman and Emily Van Duyn of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign ran an experiment with 518 people, comparing how they expressed emotion online about the topic of COVID-19 versus politics in general. They also compared the participants’ expression of emotion about the two topics compared with their actual feelings. For example, did they outwardly express what they were feeling inside, or did they hide their feelings? The latter condition, Muddiman said, is known as performing “emotional work.”

The experiment took place in early 2021, when COVID-19 vaccines were still rolling out across the country. Participants were asked to craft, but not to actually post, a social media post about one of the two topics.

Then, per the paper, “Participants were asked ... to indicate how much anger and anxiety they felt when crafting their specific message from never to often ...” Human coders then compared the emotions expressed in their posts to their inner feelings.

The authors write that theories of emotion work in communication suggest that people repress expressions of anger in public, fearing a loss of control over who receives the message. However, the experiment showed that was not the case with political posts. People asked to write political posts felt more angry than people asked to write posts about COVID-19,  and were the most likely to express anger in public social media posts, Muddiman said.

“Just because people felt an emotion didn't mean they always expressed that emotion,” the KU researcher said. 

That was particularly true with regard to online expressions about the pandemic.

“There were a lot of reasons to be mad about the situation surrounding COVID,” Muddiman said. “And people were not necessarily expressing that in public settings in our study.

“It seemed like people were ... not just saying, ‘I feel angry. I'm going to express that anger online,’ but they were being a little more strategic with expressing their emotions.

“The other big takeaway is that there's something about politics online that overrides that. If somebody felt angry, and they were expressing themselves about politics in a public setting, they were very willing to express that anger, which was against what we expected. We thought that people would tamp down their expression of anger, that even if they were very angry, they wouldn't want to share their political anger in public. And that was actually the opposite of what we found. So there's something about politics that made people want to express their anger publicly. That was very interesting to me.”

“We didn't test this directly,” Muddiman said, “but we can speculate at least that in our current political landscape, anger can actually show that you care about your political identity. And so there's something about being a partisan in public that gives people leverage in a political situation.

“I think our findings show that people might actually see expressing anger as a good thing in public, even though, theoretically, we thought it was going to be different than that. We thought that people would kind of rein in their anger because they were not in control of the people they were talking to. So we think there's something about anger that just overrides a lot of this and that invites or encourages people to share their political identities ... in public with everyone. And that might be one of the reasons why we see so much anger online, even when it's not always what people are feeling. There's a cachet to expressing anger in online political settings.”

Tue, 03/26/2024


Rick Hellman

Media Contacts

Rick Hellman

KU News Service