A study of Chinese social network Weibo — a platform that resembles Twitter and boasts twice as many users — concludes anger is the most influential emotion in online interactions. What does this tell us about social media, and why is it so much easier to rage at a screen than at a person?

What’s the Deal?

Beihang University researchers studied 70 million Weibo “tweets” over a six-month period, sorting them into the emotional categories of anger, joy, sadness, and disgust. While sadness and disgust didn’t appear to cause sympathetic emotion, happy tweets were likely to cause joy among those who follow and retweet them. Unfortunately, rage was the emotion most likely to spread across social media, possessing a ripple effect that could spark irate posts up to three degrees of separation from the original message (so one angry post could negatively influence a follower of a follower of a follower — phew).

This could be seen as more of a study of China’s social media mindset than the mindset of the predominantly Western Twitter community. And the team behind the study seem to be viewing it as a way to explain how societal unrest spreads in China. However, some pretty compelling parallels can be drawn between the two cultures’ behavior.

Why It Matters

It isn’t news that one person’s emotions can influence another’s feelings. Psychologists have known for some time that moods spread from person to person, and the correlation is so strong in social media that some studies have likened online emotions to infectious diseasesEmotions as infectious diseases in a large social network: the SISa model. Hill AL, Rand DG, et al. Berkman Center for Internet and Society, Department of Mathematics, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA, USA. Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 2010 Dec 22;277(1701):3827-35.Dynamic spread of happiness in a large social network: longitudinal analysis over 20 years in the Framingham Heart Study. Fowler JH, Christakis NA. Department of Political Science, University of California, San Diego, CA, USA. British Medical Journal. 2008 Dec 4;337:a2338..

The implications of this phenomenon can be staggering: While it’s always been true that one person snapping at another can wreck the mood of people in the surrounding area, social media rage can spread discontent across the planet. And the greater someone’s social media presence, the more powerful the effect can potentially be; if Justin Bieber makes an angry comment to his 44 million followers, waves of empathic fury cross the world in seconds. Think of how many days 140 characters would ruin!

The Internet’s ability to magnify negative emotions has long been of interest to researchers — and a source of concern. In 2008, scientists noted that people who blogged on then-still-cool MySpace tended to score higher than normal on measures of psychological distress, anxiety, and stressDistress, coping, and blogging: comparing new myspace users by their intention to blog. Baker JR, Moore SM, School of Life and Social Sciences, Swinburne University of Technology, Hawthorn, Victoria, Australia. Cyberpsychology and Behavior, 2008 Feb;11(1):81-5.. Even as far back as 2004, studies were showing that people act out more intensely and frequently online than they would in personThe online disinhibition effect. Department of Psychology, Rider University, Lawrenceville, NJ, USA. Suler, J. Cyberpsychology and Behavior, 2004 Jun;7(3):321-6 ..

There are many reasons why raging at a computer screen comes more naturally than raging at someone’s face: relative anonymity, a lack of authority and consequences, and “solipsistic introjection” — the theory that, subconsciously, talking on a computer can seem more like we’re talking to ourselves than to real people. Herein lies one of the most troublesome issues with social media: It’s very difficult to link words on a screen with the reality that there’s a living, breathing human on the other end of the connection. Amplify that to thousands of second and third-hand connections, and huge numbers of people can be profoundly affected by seemingly innocent keystrokes. Almost makes you angry enough to tweet, right?

The Takeaway

It’s comforting that people are also inclined to share joy and happiness, and they tend not to spread other people’s sadness or disgust. However, studies do seem to show that people feel more comfortable being angry online than they do in person, and anger is more likely to spread among users than any other emotion. The Chinese study is important for proving that this is a fact — now there’s more reason than ever to reexamine our online habits and perhaps change them for the better.