Donald Trump on Twitter: There May Be a Psychological Reason the President's Tweets Go Viral

Donald Trump
Researchers at New York University have found that tweets with 'moral and emotional' language, like many from President Donald Trump, are more likely to go viral. Kevin Lamarque/Reuters

How do you make a tweet go viral? A good case study may be the president of the United States, who lights up the social network on nearly a daily basis.

He doesn't do it by plainly stating facts or detailing policiy initiatives; he does it with incendiary language. The president has called the Russia election meddling story "phony," he has called the Democrats "obstructionists" and he has (repeatedly) called the mainstream media "fake." These tweets go viral because he's the most famous person in the world, but there may also be a psychological reason. Researchers at New York University have found that political tweets using moral and emotional language are more likely to spread through networks with similar ideaologies to that of the sender.

Related: 25 of Donald Trump's Twitter spelling errors

In conducting the study, which was published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the research team studied more than 560,000 tweets about controversial political subjects like gun control, climate change and same-sex marriage. With the help of language dictionaries, they broke these tweets into three categories: those that used moral words like "duty"; those that used emotional words like "fear"; and those that used words that were both moral and emotional, like "greed."

After examinging how many times each of these were retweeted, researchers found that a political tweet with a word categorized as both moral and emotional is 20 percent more likely to be retweeted, per word. So a tweet with two such words is 40 percent more likely to be shared than a tweet with no such words.

There is a caveat, though. Researchers used an algorithm to determine the political ideaology of both the original tweeter and the retweeter, and found that the bump in retweets when moral and emotional words were present was limited to the tweeter's own ideaological network. Tweets with words that were only moral or only emotional were "not as consistently associated with an increase in retweets," the study reads.

"The content that spreads the most may have the biggest impact on social media, so individuals, community leaders, and even political elites could see their influence enhanced by emphasizing morality and emotion in their online messaging," says William Brady, the lead author of the study and a doctoral candidate in New York University's Department of Psychology. "However, while using this type of language may help content proliferate within your own social or ideological group, it may find little currency among those who have a different world view."

The study boils down to the idea that, as Jay Van Bavel, one of the study's co-authors says, "subtle features of the content" of posts go a long way in determining which posts go viral. Social media users are inundated with political posts, the explicit content of which may not differ greatly. Instead, it can be implicit pyschological cues that cause users to relate to a sentiment to the point that they retweet it. So if you're going to take to social media to riff on what you see as Trump's shady business practices, you may as well go ahead and call it like you see and drop a "greed" or two in there. One can imagine Trump certainly would if the tables were turned.