Dunking on a political opponent is one of the most effective ways to go viral, a study of almost 3 million social-media posts suggests

Two masked congressmen sit in front of a wallpapered wall while checking their cellphones
Congressmen checking their phones in April. Jim Watson/Pool via AP Photo
  • Congress members who hurl insults at opponents online get better engagement, a study shows.
  • Cambridge and NYU studied 2.7 million tweets and Facebook posts from Congress.
  • Mentioning “Leftist’ or “Biden” increased the odds of posts being shared by 67%, for example.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

Hurling insults across the aisle on Capitol Hill may not lead to legislative results but it helps politicians stand out on social media, new research suggests.

Researchers at the University of Cambridge and New York University studied more than 2.7 million Twitter and Facebook posts from members of congress.

They found that posts mentioning political opponents – an “out-group” – led to higher engagement.

Posting about political opponents was the biggest “virality” driver, said Steve Rathje, one of the study’s authors.

“Specifically, each additional word about the opposing party (e.g., ‘Democrat,’ ‘Leftist,’ or ‘Biden’ if the post was coming from a Republican) in a social media post increased the odds of that post being shared by 67%,” said Rathje, a University of Cambridge PhD student, via Twitter.

Donald Trump phone
President Donald Trump in his Twitter days. SAUL LOEB/AFP via Getty Images

The findings were published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

In an accompanying press release, Cambridge said the research showed the same virality boost for politicians on both Twitter and Facebook “regardless of political orientation.”

Mentioning opponents helped, but mentioning them in a negative light drove engagement even higher. Negative posts about opponents performed better on social media than positive posts about users’ own parties, the study found.

“These results are troubling in an attention economy where the social media business model is based on keeping us engaged in order to sell advertising,” Rathje said. “This business model may be creating perverse incentives for polarizing content, rewarding people for ‘dunking’ on the out-group.”