Graduation Year


Document Type




Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.)

Degree Granting Department


Major Professor

Joseph Vandeloo, Ph.D.

Committee Member

Jennifer Bosson, Ph.D.

Committee Member

Jamie Goldenberg, Ph.D.

Committee Member

Sandra Schneider, Ph.D.

Committee Member

Michael Coovert, Ph.D.


computer mediated communication, morality, outrage, political civility, social media


The prevailing stage for conversations about politics and morality has shifted from private and face-to-face to public and digital. Moreover, the digital landscape itself changed considerably in the past decade. The era of static webpages has been replaced by dynamic social networks where ideas and reactions to events spread rapidly. With every comment we, or a political adversary makes, numbers quantifying social approval tick up or down. Instead of holding digitized versions of one-on-one conversations, we argue in front of audiences who throw digital “points” at and accelerate the spread of the winning side’s ideas. I argue this subjectively raises the stakes of moral and political discussions online, causing us to forego civility to combat the spread of ideas we oppose. Two experiments and one study of real-world interactions on Twitter test whether outrage and negative moral emotional language are triggered not only by the outrage inducing content on social media, but by their potential to spread and gain influence—to go viral. Furthermore, I test whether people use outrage strategically when trying to coordinate others against a target. Study 1 showed participants (N = 240) several animations of Tweets going viral (or not) in their first 12 hours. As predicted, outrage inducing content triggered greater subjective outrage and the desire to act when it went viral. Study 2 replicates this relationship in real world interactions between conservatives and liberals on Twitter (N = 22,092 tweet-reply pairs). In cross-ideological replies (e.g., liberals replying to conservatives), highly viral tweets attracted replies with twice the number of anger and negative-moral emotional words than non-viral tweets on average. No such relationship was observed in homogeneous replies (e.g., liberals replying to liberals). Lastly, Study 3 explicitly instructed participants (N = 150) to either write replies to coordinate others against (i.e., downvote) another commenter or write replies they thought would cause others to reward (i.e., upvote) them personally. As predicted, explicit goals to coordinate audiences against a target triggered substantially more outrage expressions than attempts to gain personal rewards—even in the absence of changes in subjective outrage. Thus the viral spread of opposing ideas triggers outrage, which we use strategically to counter the threat of virality. In sum, talking about morality and politics with people who do not see the world as we do is already incredibly difficult. The present results suggest that “keeping score” of who is winning further impedes our chances at understanding one another.