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

 
 

Cheers Health has expanded its product line as it evolves as a wellness-focused brand. Photo courtesy of Cheers

Houston-based startup Cheers first got a wave of brand devotees after it was passed over by investors on Shark Tank in 2018. In the years since, Cheers secured an impressive investment, launched new products, and became a staple hangover cure for customers. When the COVID-19 pandemic disrupted businesses, the company rose to the occasion and experienced its first profitable year as drinking and wellness habits changed across America.

Cheers initially started its company under the name Thrive+ with a hangover-friendly pill that promised to minimize the not-so-fun side effects that come after a night out. The capsules support the liver by replacing lost vitamins, reduce GABAa rebound and lower the alcohol-induced acetaldehyde toxicity levels in the body. The company's legacy product complemented social calendars and nights on the town, providing next day relief.

With COVID-19 lockdowns and social distancing measures, the days of pub crawls and social events were numbered. Cheers founder Brooks Powell saw the massive behavior change in people consuming alcohol, and leaned into his vision of becoming more than just a hangover cure but an "alcohol-related health company," he says.

When the pandemic first hit, Powell and his team noticed an immediate dip in sales — a relatable story for businesses in the grips of COVID-19.

"There is a three day period where we went from having the best month in company history to the worst month in company history, over a 72 hour stretch," he remarks.

He soon called an emergency board meeting and rattled off worst-case "doomsday" scenarios, he says.

"Thankfully, we never had to do any of these strategies because, ultimately, the team was able to rally around the new positioning for the brand which was far more focused on alcohol-related health," he says.

"We found that a lot less people were getting hangovers during 2020, because generally when you binge drink, you tend to binge drink with other people," he explains.

He noticed that health became an important focus for people, some who began to drink less due to the lack of social gatherings. On the contrary, some consumers began to drink more to fill the idle time.

According to a JAMA Network report, there was a 54 percent increase in national sales of alcohol for the week stay-at-home orders began last March, as compared to the year prior.

"All of a sudden, you have all of these people who probably aren't binge drinking but they're just frequently consuming alcohol. Their drinks per week are shooting up, and they're worried about liver health," explains Powell.

Outside of day-after support, Cheers leaned into its long-term health products to help drinkers consume alcohol in a healthier way. Cheers Restore, a dissolvable powder consumers can mix into their water, rehydrates the body by optimizing sodium and glucose molecules.

For continued support, Cheers Protect is a daily supplement designed to increase glutathione — an antioxidant that plays a key role in liver detoxification — and support overall liver health. Cheers Protect, which was launched in 2019, became a focus for the company as they pivoted its brand strategy and marketing to accommodate consumer behavior.

"The Cheers brand is just trying to reflect the mission statement, which is bringing people together through promoting fun, responsible and health-conscious alcohol consumption," says Powell. "It fits with our vision statement, which is a world where everyone can enjoy alcohol throughout a long, healthy and happy lifetime,."

At the close of 2020, Cheers had generated $10.4 million in revenue and over $1.7m in profit — its first profitable year since launch.

During the brand's mission to stay afloat during the pandemic, the Cheers team was also laying the groundwork for its entry into the retail space. When Powell launched the company during his junior year at Princeton University, bringing Cheers to brick-and-mortar stores had always been a goal. He envisioned liquor and grocery stores where Cheers was sold next to alcohol as a complementary item. "It's like getting sunscreen before going to the beach, they kind of go hand in hand," he says.

"When we spoke with retailers, specifically bars and liquor stores, what we learned is that a lot of these places were hesitant to put pills near alcohol," he says. Wanting an attractive and accessible mode of alcohol-support, the Cheers team created the Cheers Restore beverage.

Utilizing the technology Cheers developed with Princeton University researchers, the Cheers Restore beverage incorporates the benefits of the pill in a liquid, sugar-free form. The company states that its in-vivo study found that the drink is up to 19 times more bioavailable than pure dihydromyricetin (DHM), a Japanese raisin tree extract found in Cheers products and other hangover-related cures.

"What we figured out is that if you combine DHM — our main ingredient — with something called capric acid, which is an extract from coconut oil, the bioavailability shoots way up," says Powell. He notes the unique taste profile and the "creaminess" capric acid provides. "Now you have this lightly carbonated, zero-sugar, lemon sherbert, essentially liver support, hangover beverage that tastes great in 12 ounces and can mix with alcohol," he explains.

The Cheers Restore beverage is already hitting the Houston-area, where its found a home on menus at Present Company. The company has also run promotions with Houston hangouts like Memorial Trail Ice House, Drift, and The Powder Keg.

Currently, the beverage is only available in retail capacity and cannot be ordered on the Cheers website. As Powell focuses on expanding Cheers Restore beverage presence in the region, he welcomes the idea of expanding nationally in the future to come. While eager customers await the drink's national availability, they can actively invest in Cheers through the company's recently-launched online public offering.

Though repivoting a company and launching a new product is exciting, the process did not come without its caveats and stressors. While Cheers profited as a business in 2020, the staff and its founder weren't immune to the struggles of COVID-19.

"I think 2020 was the first year that it really became real for me that Cheers is far more than just some sort of alcohol-related health brand and its products," says Powell. "Cheers is really its employees and everything that goes into being a successful, durable company that people essentially bet their careers on and their family's well-being on and so forth," he continues.

"It really does weigh on you in a different way that it's never weighed on you before," says Powell, describing the stress of the pandemic. The experience was "enlightening," he says, and he wants others to know it's not embarrassing to need help.

"There is no lack of great leaders out there that at long periods of their life they needed help in some way," he says. "For me that was 2020 and being in the grinder and feeling the stress of the unknown and all of that, but it could happen to anyone," he continues.

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