Houston voices

Rice University researchers find that tracking social media can predict violent events

It's possible to predict some violent public protests by tracking social media posts on moral outrage over a triggering event. Tracy Le Blanc/Pexels

Every grade school teacher knows that student conduct can get out of hand, fast, when a group of kids eggs on one individual. Time-outs are a testimony to the power of isolating one 10-year-old from a choir of buddies.

Social media plays a role similar to a gang of hyped-up grade schoolers, providing a community that can express collective disapproval of people or events. When this disapproval has a moral cast ⁠— for example, after a police shooting or the removal of a statue ⁠— the social network's particular characteristics are key predictors about whether that disapproval will turn violent.

There is a word for the way group support of a belief system makes it seem worth fighting for: moralization. Tracking social network activity now makes it possible to measure the chances for an individual belief to become moralized by a group ⁠— a phenomenon known as moral convergence.

In a recent study in Nature, Rice Business professor Marlon Mooijman, then at the Kellogg School of Management, joined a team that analyzed when and how violence erupts in protests. In a series of observation and behavior experiments that mixed psychology, organizational theory and computer science, they accurately predicted how violence is influenced by group discussion of moral views on social media.

The researchers started by studying the number and content of tweets linked to the Baltimore riots in 2015, after the death of Freddie Gray in police custody. The researchers then compared these tweets with the number of arrests in a given time frame, using a methodology developed by Marlon Mooijman and Joe Hoover from the Brain and Creativity Institute at the University of Southern California.

To analyze the tweets responding to Gray's death, they first separated them into two sets: Those with moral commentary and those without moral judgments.

Next, the researchers tracked whether tweets with moral content increased on days with violent protests. Violence was measured using the number of police arrests, which the researchers compared with the specific time frames of moral tweets.

There was no major difference in the overall tweet traffic discussing Freddie Gray's death on days with violent protests and on peaceful days. The number of moralizing tweets, however, clearly correlated with episodes of violent protests, rising to nearly double the moralizing tweets on days with no violence.

This raised a provocative question. Were morally ⁠— based tweets a response to the events of the day ⁠— or were they somehow driving the violence?

To find out, Mooijman and Hoover worked with computer scientists Ying Lin and Jeng Ji of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and Morteza Dehghani of the University of Southern California to develop algorithms that could establish mathematical probabilities for the results.

For every single-unit increase in moral tweets over a 4-hour period, the researchers found, there was a .25 corresponding increase in arrests.

The researchers then tried to measure the effect similar moral views ⁠— such as a social media page with self-selected members of a similar political affiliation ⁠— had on violence during protests.

To do so, they set up a second study, which measured participant reactions to the protestors of a far-right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia in 2017. Participants ranked their level of agreement over the morality of protesting the rally.

There was a direct relationship between believing a protest action was moral, the researchers found, and finding violence at that protest acceptable. This relationship held true throughout the study, regardless of political orientation.

The researchers' next goal was to identify the impact of exposure to people of like beliefs. To do this, participants rated their feelings when they were told that most people in the U.S. shared their views. While the intensity of participants' moral views created the potential for violence, the researchers found, violence resulted when only actively validated by others with similar views.

Having one's moral outrage supported by others on social media, the professors concluded, may explain the spike in violence in recent protests.

While respect for privacy remains critical, governments and law enforcement can use the social media trend to pinpoint the moments when moral outrage can turn deadly. Perhaps most importantly, however, the research also suggests practical tactics for calming violent tendencies before they get out of control. To reduce real-life protest violence, they wrote, it's critical that social media sites include a variety of voices. It's another reason, if any were needed, that a bit of judicious exposure to other views is healthy for everyone.

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This story originally ran on Rice Business Wisdom.

Marlon Mooijman is an assistant professor of Organizational Behavior. He teaches in the undergraduate business minor program and MBA full-time program.

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Building Houston

 
 

New study shows Houston has minority-owned startups than any other Texas city. Photo by Tim Leviston/Getty Images

Both Houston and the state of Texas earned high rankings on a recent study by Self Financial that looked at the percentage of minority-owned startups in regions across the U.S.

"Today there are nearly 170 thousand minority-owned startups in the U.S., employing over 700 thousand people and generating close to $100 billion in annual revenue," the report said. "Based on demographic trends, these numbers are likely to grow as the population continues to diversify on racial and ethnic lines."

According to the report, about 30 percent of startups in Greater Houston are minority-owned. This is the fifth highest percentage in the country. There are nearly 5,600 minority-owned startups in the MSA, employing more than 22,700 people and bringing in more than $3.1 billion annually, the report found.

The Bayou City outranked New York but just a tenth of a percentage. But neighboring San Antonio edged out the Bayou City for the No. 4 spot, with roughly 31 percent of startups being minority-owned.

The top three cities on the list were all in California. The San Jose-Sunnyvale-Santa Clara metro had the highest percentage of minority-owned start ups. Roughly 46 percentage of startups there are minority-owned. The Los Angeles area and San Bernardino area followed in the second and third spots, respectively.

Dallas was the only other Texas metro to make the cut. According to the study, roughly 24 percent of startups there are minority-owned, earning it a No. 9 spot on the list.

The state earned a No. 4 spot on a similar ranking. According to that report, nearly 27 percent of startups in Texas are minority-owned and are responsible for employing more than 87,000 individuals and turn out roughly $11.5 billion in sales annually.

Still, Self Financial argues that minorities are underrepresented in the startup economy in cities, states, and throughout the U.S.

"Non-Hispanic whites, who represent around 60 percent of the U.S. population, own nearly 80 percent of the nation's startup businesses," the report says.

In Houston, nearly 64 percent of the population is considered a minority. And yet, those individuals only represent about 30 percent of startup ownership. Even in top-ranked San Jose the gap is wide. The population in the metro has a 68 percent minority share, and only 46 percent of startups are minority-owned.

St. Louis had the narrowest margin among large, high-rated metros. Minorities represent about 26 percent of the population there, and 25 percent go startups in the city are minority-owned.

In Texas minorities represent about 59 percent of the population, but only 27 percent of startup ownership. Nationwide minorities represent about 40 percent of the population but own about 20 percent of startups, according to the study..

Nationally minorities are most represented in the start-up economy in the accommodation, food services, and retail sectors. And the report adds that the demographic has faced exceptional challenges in 2020—from a business perspective, the largest roadblock was (and is often) access to capital.

"Minority households have lower pre-existing levels of wealth and savings to put towards a new business, while banks and other creditors are less likely to approve loans for Black or Hispanic small-business owners than they are for white business owners," the report says. "Without upfront capital to invest in a growing business, minority entrepreneurs struggle to run and scale their operations.

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