Social media posts may signal whether a protest will become violent

May 23, 2018, University of Southern California
A new study by researchers at USC, Northwestern University and Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute analyzed tweets during Baltimore's Freddie Gray protests and found the intensity of moral rhetoric indicates when the protests are about to turn violent. Credit: Nima Dehghani

A USC-led study of violent protest has found that moral rhetoric on Twitter may signal whether a protest will turn violent.

The researchers also found that people are more likely to endorse violence when they moralize the issue that they are protesting—and when they believe that others in their social network moralize that issue, too.

"Extreme movements can emerge through social networks," said the study's corresponding author, Morteza Dehghani, a researcher at the Brain and Creativity Institute at USC. "We have seen several examples in recent years, such as the protests in Baltimore and Charlottesville, where people's perceptions are influenced by the activity in their social networks. People identify others who share their beliefs and interpret this as consensus. In these studies, we show that this can have potentially dangerous consequences."

Utilizing a deep neural network—an advanced machine learning technique—to detect moralized language, the scientists analyzed 18 million tweets posted during the 2015 Baltimore protests for Gray, 25, who died as police took him to jail.

Then, they investigated the association between moral tweets and arrest rates, a proxy for violence. This analysis showed that the number of hourly arrests made during the protests was associated with the number of moralized tweets posted in previous hours.

In fact, tweets containing moral rhetoric nearly doubled on days when clashes among protesters and police became violent.

The study was published on May 23 in Nature Human Behavior.

Social media as a barometer for activism

Social media sites such as Twitter have become a significant platform for activism and a source for data on , which is why scientists utilize them for research.

Recent examples of movements tied to include the #marchforourlives effort to seek gun control, the #metoo movement against sexual assault and harassment, and #blacklivesmatter, a campaign against systematic racism which began in 2014 after the police-involved shooting death of Michael Brown, 19, in Ferguson, Mo.

A more violent example is the Arab Spring revolution, which began in Tunisia in late 2010, and set off protests in many other countries, including Egypt and Libya, that forced changes in their leadership. In Syria, clashes escalated into a war that has killed hundreds of thousands of people and displaced a multitude of refugees.

Detecting moralization online

The scientists developed a model for detecting moralized language based on a prior, deep learning framework that can reliably identify text that evokes moral concerns associated with different types of moral values and their opposites. The values, as defined by the "Moral Foundations Theory," are focused on care/harm, fairness/cheating, loyalty/betrayal, authority/subversion, and purity/degradation.

For this release, the researchers provided two examples of tweets containing moralized language and the moral foundations with which they are associated.

Sample Tweet 1: Why does the opposition speak only abt black on black crime as a rebuttal to police brutality/murder? #AllCrimeMatters, right? #FreddieGray

Moral Foundations: Fairness and Loyalty

Sample Tweet 2: regardless of how anyone feels, prayers to the police force and their family

Moral Foundations: Care and Purity

Moralization and political polarization are exacerbated by online "echo chambers—social networks where people connect with other like-minded people while distancing themselves from those who do not share their beliefs.

Why more protests are violent

"Social media data help us illuminate real-world social dynamics and test hypotheses in situ. However, as with all observational data, it can be difficult to establish the statistical and experimental control that is necessary for drawing reliable conclusions," said Joe Hoover, a lead author of the paper and Ph.D. candidate studying psychology at the USC Dornsife College.

To make up for this, the scientists conducted a series of controlled behavioral studies, each with more than 200 people, how much they agreed or disagreed with statements about the use of violence against far-right protesters after they had read a paragraph about the 2017 Charlottesville, Va., clashes over the removal of Confederate monuments.

The more certain people were that many others in their network shared their views, the more willing they were to consider the use of violence against their perceived opponents, the scientists found.

Explore further: A uniter and a divider: Purity keeps us together—and apart

More information: Marlon Mooijman et al, Moralization in social networks and the emergence of violence during protests, Nature Human Behaviour (2018). DOI: 10.1038/s41562-018-0353-0

Related Stories

Do conservatives value 'moral purity' more than liberals?

November 23, 2016

In the wake of Donald Trump's election, the overwhelming response among progressives was "how in the world did this happen?" Those of us who study the rise of political and moral polarization in the United States, however, ...

Hashtag activism can effect real-world change

March 7, 2016

American University School of Communication's Center for Media & Social Impact (CMSI) announces new research on the rise of the nationwide Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement. The study "Beyond the Hashtags: #Ferguson, #Blacklivesmatter, ...

Recommended for you

Japan to make crater on asteroid to get underground samples

March 18, 2019

Japan's space agency said Monday that its Hayabusa2 spacecraft will follow up last month's touchdown on a distant asteroid with another risky mission—dropping an explosive on the asteroid to make a crater and then collect ...

Bright X-ray galactic nuclei

March 18, 2019

All massive galaxies are believed to host supermassive black holes (SMBH) at their centers that grow by accreting mass from their environment. The current picture also imagines that the black holes grow in size as their host ...


Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

5 / 5 (2) May 23, 2018
Lol, there is a much simper method of determining whether a protest will turn violent. If it's a leftist protest, high odds. If it's a conservative protest, low odds.
3 / 5 (2) May 23, 2018
Well blake, the thing about right or left protests is that the agitators hired by the Trump/Russian campaign are usually paid actors. It's a paying gig, yah know. To dress up as a quisling stormtrooper and act out for the cameras. Most likely were themselves of leftist inclines. An amusing expose of "How to bogus an election".

Cause if you ain't getting paid? Ordered by your employer or preacher to attend? Almost nobody would show up at a Trump snoozefest.

What do you mean you not smart enough to get paid to be a corybantic fool? You do it so well, you should go professional!

What concerns me about this research project is. How do they differentiate between common violent stupidity and agents provocateur? Manipulating public opinion with goebbel's level lies has become a major force in American politics.

For that matter world-wide. The sun does not set on the Global Fascist Axis.
1 / 5 (1) May 28, 2018
And if it was a Tea Party event they will leave the place cleaner than when they found it.
3.7 / 5 (3) May 29, 2018
I don't know MR, the russian financed, koch brothers organized, cracked tea potty always managed to leave a muddled mess of fabricated rumors, fraudulent innuendos and blatant lies wherever the pigeons gathered to shit on civic virtue's statue.
1 / 5 (1) May 29, 2018
RR you are confusing the Tea Party with the Democrats. The Democrats created the Russia hoax.

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.