Research finds moral language on social media inspires more virtuous action

  • New report by think tank Demos, Over the Character Limit, finds a significant positive relationship between the use of moral virtue language and virtuous behaviour on Twitter.
  • The report found that sharing a link to an online fundraising campaign has a proven positive impact on the amount that campaign raises.
  • Demos is calling for the Department for Education to restate its commitment to make character building a priority.

Recent discussion has highlighted the scale of abuse and harmful content prevalent online, but new research from Demos has found that social media can be a force for positive action, if more moral virtue language is used.

The report [published on 17 December], supported by the Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues at the University of Birmingham, found that the more moral virtue language is being used on Twitter, the more likely there is to be virtuous behaviour on the platform. Researchers built two statistical models, which predict that for every ten more tweets sent by a user containing terms like ‘courage’, ‘empathy’ and ‘humility’, that account will send five more tweets expressing gratitude, and one more link to fundraising campaigns.

Research also found that the number of tweets sent linked to a charitable campaign is positively related to the overall amount of money raised by that campaign.

Further findings from the report reveal that:

  • Interaction on social media can provide the encouragement people need to persevere in developing a skill. There is a significant positive relationship between people on Twitter engaging with others committing publicly to programmes such as ‘#100daysofanimation’, and the length of time for which people continue using them.
  • During 203 days, just over one million tweets were sent from the UK using one of the terms ‘courage’, ‘empathy’, ‘honesty’ and ‘humility’, with 71 per cent of these using terms to praise or condemn the character of others.
  • Discussion of morality on Twitter differs noticeably from its use in other public environments. Twitter users in the UK tend to discuss empathy more than both parliamentarians [as recorded in Hansard] and broadcasts on the BBC.

To help individuals develop a sense of virtue, and comfort with discussing virtue online, Over the Character Limit is calling for character building to accelerate as a priority for the Department for Education. The report also calls for the Department to reinstate funding cancelled in 2017 to promote character development in schools.

The report calls for:

  • Educators to take the role of online space into account as a meaningful way of positively developing character.
  • Education programmes to encourage virtuous behaviour online, and build resilience to perceived or potential harms.
  • Social media platforms to provide access to data for further independent research to be conducted into virtuous speech and action online.
  • Policies designed to develop character to encourage the development of cyber phronesis. Developing phronesis is key to building a practical moral character.

Commenting on the report’s findings, Josh Smith, Senior Researcher at CASM, Demos and Over the Character Limit co-author said:

“We have grown accustomed to thinking of social media as a space full of danger and the potential for harm. This report shows that it can also play an important role in positive character development, encouraging people not only to talk through what it means to be moral, but also to perform virtuous actions which have a real impact on the world.”

Prof James Arthur OBE, Director, Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues, said: 

“This report is significant in that it bucks the recent trend of focussing on the negative aspects of social media by focussing on the use of positive language of character. Over the Character Limit provides large-scale data collected using innovative methodologies and seeks to better understand the ways in which virtue terms are used on Twitter. This report will make a major contribution to discussions not only about how social media impacts on cyber wisdom, but on character development as a whole.”




’Over the Character Limit’ by Josh Smith, Agnes Chauvet, Elliot Jones and Ava Berry.

The research was supported by the Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues at the University of Birmingham.

Media Contact

Josh Tapper, Communications Officer, Demos

Phone:  020 3878 3955

Email: [email protected]

About Demos

Demos is Britain’s leading cross-party think-tank: an independent, educational charity, which produces original and innovative research. 

About The Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues at the University of Birmingham

The Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues is a unique and leading centre for the examination of how character and virtues impact on individuals and society. The Centre was founded in 2012 by Professor James Arthur. Based at the University of Birmingham, it has a dedicated team of 20 academics from a range of disciplines, including: philosophy, psychology, education, theology and sociology.