How Politicians Weaponize Greed for Likes

Erman Misirlisoy, PhD
4 min readApr 20, 2023
Photo by Khashayar Kouchpeydeh on Unsplash

You’re probably aware of the idea that social networks amplify outrage. When people see content that makes them angry, they’re more likely to engage with and share that content. This incentivizes fueling more outrage online, which ultimately perpetuates a growing bubble of back-and-forth insults, accusation, abuse, and hate. Sound familiar?

New research is showing that one particular type of content may be trumping the others in driving outrage and engagement. People seem to get particularly worked up when they notice that someone is being greedy. If you’re a politician trying to boost your profile among your base, one good strategy is to fire off a tweet highlighting an opponent’s alleged greed.

What happens when a senator tweets about greed?

In a study published in March 2023, researchers at the University of British Columbia scraped all tweets from US senators between 2013 and 2021. In order to analyze the text in those tweets, they developed a “greed descriptive dictionary”—a group of words and phrases related to greed that included “money-grub”, “exploit”, and “lavish”.

The researchers looked for an association between how often a senator tweeted about greed and how much engagement they got on their tweets.

First, they confirmed that greed was generally linked to negative emotional language, and this was consistent across Democrats and Republicans. When a senator used greed-related language in a tweet, they’d typically be referring to some kind of harmful or evil situation.

With this negative emotional context confirmed, the researchers turned their attention to engagement stats. Consistent with their hypotheses, they found that greed-related language did indeed predict more likes and retweets on Twitter.

The more surprising finding was just how strongly greed predicted engagement. The researchers compared greed to 20 other variables previously linked to tweet engagement including general negative emotions, moral outrage, family, religion, death, and sex—all of the big hitters.

The results showed that greed was the number 1 best predictor of tweet likes for a senator. Greed outperformed the other 20 variables in how strongly it predicted…

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Erman Misirlisoy, PhD

Research Leader (Ex-Instagram / Chief Scientist at multiple startups). Author of the User Insight Newsletter: https://userinsight.substack.com/