An analysis of tweets of U.S. senators holding office between 2013 and 2021 showed that a specific communication factor called “greed communication” predicts their approval and reach on the social media platform. Democratic senators who used more greed communication tended to have greater approval and retweets compared to Republican senators who used the same communication pattern. The study was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
Politics are generally a very competitive field of work. In countries where political power is gained and lost in free and fair elections, politicians need every vote they can obtain to win the majority. Sometimes very small differences in the number of votes determine who wins and who loses an election. In recent years, social media platforms such as Twitter have risen to the forefront of political campaigning. In an effort to win and keep supporters, politicians are motivated to post content that their supporters will appreciate and would be willing to share with their own social circles.
Research has shown that certain ways of talking make people more likely to support and share political stuff on social media. Using language that talks about groups you don’t agree with, using strong emotions, and mentioning negative feelings are all things that make content more shareable.
Study author Eric J. Mercadante and his colleagues hypothesized that communications discussing greed might also motivate social media users to share them. Greed is “the desire to acquire more and the dissatisfaction of never having enough.” While there has long been a debate among philosophers whether greed is good or bad for society, studies show that greed is associated with unethical behaviors to acquire resources and is often implicated in poor financial outcomes. Greed is also generally negatively viewed by the public. That is why the public might approve of politicians who discuss negative consequences of greed.
The researchers developed a new greed descriptive dictionary — a list of words that are usually used when talking about greed. (This dictionary can be found here.) They used the greed descriptive dictionary to identify greed language in tweets of U.S. senators published between 2013 and 2021. The study material included 861,104 posts from 140 senators.
The researchers checked how often senators used words from the greed list in their tweets, both for each tweet and on average for each senator. Then they looked at how these tweets did in terms of likes and retweets compared to tweets without these words. They also compared the effects of tweets using greed words with the average impact of tweets from each senator to make sure the differences weren’t just because some senators were more popular.
The results showed that tweets that used greed language tended to receive more likes and retweets than those that didn’t use those words. Senators who used these words more often generally got more likes and retweets. When senators used greed words, they were less likely to use positive words and more likely to use negative ones. Tweets with greed words were generally more negative in tone compared to tweets without these words. This was true for both Democratic and Republican senators.
For example, one of the most retweeted tweets in the dataset was a 2022 post from Democratic Senator Van Hollen of Maryland, which read: “Bad news. After saying they wanted to join us in helping workers, families, and small + midsized businesses that are going under, Trump and McConnell have taken a total u-turn. They just want to bail out big corporate cronies at everyone else’s expense. Unacceptable.”
The researchers found that the effect of using greed words on tweets was different for Democratic and Republican senators. While both groups’ tweets with greed words got more likes and retweets, it was much stronger for Democrats. Also, when Democrats used greed words and talked about groups they disagreed with, their tweets were even more likely to be retweeted. This connection between greed words and mentioning opposing groups didn’t show up as strongly for Republican senators.
“Our research suggests that highlighting greed in tweets is associated with an increase in amplification and approval of political messages by US senators on social media and that this association a) occurs regardless of political, moral, and emotional framings, b) emerges across party lines, and c) is especially advantageous for Democrats when used to attack political opponents,” the study authors concluded.
The study sheds light on an important aspect of political communication. However, it should be noted that it focused only on Twitter and only on U.S. senators. Results might not be the same if other social media were included and if posts by other types of political figures, or from different countries were included in the analyses.
The paper, “Greed communication predicts the approval and reach of US senators’ tweets”, was authored by Eric J. Mercadante, Jessica L. Tracy, and Friedrich M. Götz.