Engagement Buttons


“Like.” Not only is it frequently used in casual conversations, the term also governs how we respond to everything from news articles to comments from our friends on Facebook. The term structures responses to online content. A heartwarming story about a local hero? “Like!” But “like” doesn’t always seem appropriate. An article on a tragic event? It’s hard to hit “Like” in response. A fair-minded, but counter-attitudinal, post in a comment section? It’s challenging to press “Like.” What if news stations used other buttons? What if, instead of “Like,” one could click “Respect”? In this study, we analyzed how different buttons affected citizens’ responses to comments in an online comment section. We wanted to know whether some buttons – and the concepts they convey – allow commenters to express their appreciation for counter-attitudinal postings more than others.

Key Findings

The results show that button word choices are consequential. We recommend the use of a “Respect” button, as it has both business and democratic benefits. From a business angle, respondents clicked on this button more frequently than others in a comment section, particularly for some topics. From a democratic angle, “Respect” yields more willingness to click on comments from another political perspective compared to “Recommend” or “Like” buttons. The experimental test described here provides justification for news stations to experiment with buttons, and to consider using a “Respect” button on their site.


To like: “to be suitable or agreeable to; to feel attraction toward or take pleasure in, enjoy” –Merriam Webster Dictionary

As the popularity of Facebook has skyrocketed, so has the popularity of the verb “to like.” We “like” our friends’ status updates and photos, interesting viral videos, our favorite celebrities, and the politicians we support.

But can we “like” political views that we oppose? And what about important stories that involve death and destruction, such as the 2010 earthquake in Haiti or the 2011 tsunami in Japan? Citizens who venture online for news and political information face this dilemma constantly.

Two examples demonstrate the difficulty of “liking” the news. Although “liking” a politician on Facebook requires just a simple click on an online button, the consequences can reach much further. A friend of the authors experienced the complexity of “liking” firsthand. Although a staunch partisan, our friend decided to “like” the Facebook pages of both 2012 presidential candidates. Upon seeing that he “liked” the candidate from the other side, his Facebook page lit up with questions. Had someone logged on to his account to play a prank on him? Did Facebook’s software have a glitch? Had he lost his mind? The truth was that our friend only wanted to get information from another perspective, even if he disagreed with it. Saying that he “liked” the page, however, implied to others that he supported the candidate – not that he wanted to see things from another point of view.

The second example concerns a similar difficulty that arises when citizens want to share an important story, but where “liking” the story would be in poor taste. A local news station based in Austin, Texas decided to deal with this problem directly. When there was a bomb threat on the campus of the University of Texas at Austin, the station was diligently posting breaking, important news online to spread the word about the threat. The station was concerned that viewers would be uncomfortable “liking” a news story about a bomb threat, so the on-air anchors clarified the purpose of the “Like” button. During the live bomb threat coverage, the on-air anchors instructed viewers that they could “like” the story online without feeling that they support the idea of a bomb threat on campus.

As these examples demonstrate, the use of “Like” can have important social and political consequences. In the sections that follow, we discuss social media and how buttons can affect public behavior.

The Experiment

Social Media Buttons & The News

Facebook and other social media that utilize buttons such as “Like” have become increasingly popular.1

There are early indications that the use of social networking sites relates to important democratic outcomes. Several studies show that the more people use and rely upon social networking sites, such as Facebook, the higher their rates of civic and political participation.2 Further, people can encounter diverse political views thanks to social networking sites.3 This is not to say that all social networking platforms are the same. Differences among the platforms may affect how site visitors act and how they react to what others say.4

One important difference – the topic of this report – is which social media buttons are available. Although “Like” is prevalent, alternatives exist. We look at how social media buttons are, or could be, incorporated on news sites.

Social media buttons frequently appear on news sites atop articles and next to comments left by site visitors. To gain background on how social media buttons are incorporated on news sites, we examined a random sample of just over 100 local television news station websites.5

The results revealed the ubiquity of integrating social media buttons. Ninety-five percent of the websites provided site visitors with a way to interact with articles via Facebook. Fifty-two percent included a button letting users “like” their news stories, 35 percent provided a “Recommend” button, and 73 percent had an option to “share” a page. Looking specifically at sites with comment sections, two-thirds had buttons giving users the ability to interact with comments by replying to or liking others’ posts.6

In another study, we asked people who had hit a “Like” or “Recommend” button on a news or political opinion website why they did so.[7 ] Although responses to the open-ended question varied, respondents tended to mention at least one of three distinct reasons:

  • Forty-one percent of respondents using social media buttons mentioned that they wanted to share information with others.
  • Forty-one percent mentioned that they used buttons to indicate their appreciation for high-quality information.
  • Thirty-six percent noted that they used social media buttons to express agreement with a particular point of view.

Given that people use social media buttons, what are the effects of including a “Like” button on news websites? And what about other words, such as “Respect” or “Recommend”? Do these small differences affect how citizens’ interact on news sites? In this report, we investigate these questions. We do so by analyzing how citizens interact in comment sections containing these different words. Do they “like” comments expressing political views unlike their own? What about “respect” them? Can these wording differences change citizens’ reactions to comments following an online news story? We reach the conclusion that yes, seemingly minor word choices have important consequences.

The Power of Words

The idea that word choice affects the way in which individuals think about important issues is not a new one. News research, in particular, has focused on the power of news frames – that is, specific ways in which journalists can organize and structure a message.

Much like a picture frame, a news frame can define the boundaries of an issue and focus viewers’ attention on only specific aspects of the scene. Scholar Robert Entman describes framing as “select[ing] some aspects of perceived reality to make them more salient in a communicating text, in such a way as to promote a particular problem definition, causal interpretation, moral evaluation, and/or treatment recommendation.”7 The framing choices made by a journalist affect how an audience thinks about an issue.

For instance, a news story about welfare could frame poverty as a story affecting one person or as a societal trend affecting many people.8 Environmental issues can be discussed as humans trying to find “balance-with-nature” or about the right of humans to “dominate nature.”9 Any story could be framed in multiple ways. Journalists, politicians, political interest groups, and other public actors make choices among possible frames when they write a news story, distribute a press release, or even decide what buttons to include on a news website.

Research about news framing raises two questions: Do wording choices actually influence the way people think about issues? And can small changes, such as switching one word or phrase for another word or phrase, have similar effects? Research suggests that the answer is yes to both questions. We review each question in turn.

Effects of Frames

Frames can influence the way people think about issues. For example, when people read news stories about politics that emphasize the “game,” “strategy,” or “horserace” aspects of a political campaign, later on, they tend to describe that campaign in terms of who is winning or losing. People who read news stories highlighting the “issues” in the campaign, however, later describe the campaign using more issue-related language.10 Over and over, studies have found that individuals can be influenced to think differently about issues based on the way in which the issues are framed in the media.11

Frames also can change individuals’ attitudes toward politics and about various policies. Emphasizing political strategy in news stories can increase citizens’ cynicism about politics.12 Telling stories about individuals, rather than emphasizing broad trends, can encourage people to attribute responsibility to individual people rather than to societal causes.13 That is, people may begin to believe that an inner- city mother is poor because she is lazy, not because there are insufficient job opportunities in her city. If the story were framed as a broad trend about poverty, readers may then start to place blame on social policies in that city. As another example, emphasizing a loss (e.g. 50% of people may die) rather than a gain (e.g. 50% of people may live) can lead people to make riskier decisions when deciding on potential programs to stop the spread of a disease.14

The evidence, overall, suggests that frames, the words we choose to describe a situation, can – and do – change individuals’ attitudes and decisions. Perhaps the “Like” button has a similar effect and encourages individuals to think about political issues in terms of agreement or disagreement, rather than quality, for example.

Big Impact of Small Cues

Even more closely related to the topic of social media buttons, is the question of whether frames cre- ated by simple word changes have any effect on public attitudes. Once again, research suggests that the answer to this question is yes: minor wording changes can have a major impact.

An experiment conducted by Cornell University psychologist Thomas Gilovich points to the power- ful effects of changing only a few words.15 Participants in Gilovich’s study read a brief, hypothetical description of tensions between two nations and then determined whether the United States should take action. Some of the participants read descriptions that used terms such as “Winston Churchill Hall,” “Blitzkrieg,” and “FDR” – that is, terms that encouraged participants to compare the situation to World War II. Other participants read descriptions using words like “Dean Rusk Hall,” “Chinook Helicopters,” and “LBJ” – that is, words meant to prompt thinking about the Vietnam War. None of the substantive information between the two descriptions changed; only a few words differed. The minor changes, however, led the groups of participants to reach different conclusions. People in the WWII group were more likely to believe that the U.S. should intervene in the situation than people in the Vietnam group.

University of Wisconsin at Madison Communication Professor Dhavan Shah and his colleagues call these minor wording changes small cues.16 Small cues are still frames in that they structure a topic in a particular way; however, they highlight the power of individual word changes. For example, people are more supportive of abortion access when they are exposed to messages that use the term “fetus” rather than “baby.”17 Individuals are more threatened by a new development when it is called “urban sprawl” rather than “suburban development.”18 News readers put more effort into reading articles when a news organization is committed to “thinking about issues” than when it is committed to “democracy and citizenship.”19 In each of these examples, only a few word changes influenced those exposed to the language.

Given the evidence that single words can influence citizens’ thoughts, it is possible that the words used on news sites can frame the news experience for citizens. “Liking” may encourage a different mindset than other possible buttons. This is precisely what we set out to examine. Perhaps we can change the experience citizens have on news sites simply by changing a few words.

What We “Like”

Anyone interested in citizen engagement and the news may be nervous about the prevalence of “liking” for at least two reasons. First, the number of “likes” garnered may affect how many people see news content. Second, and the focus of our study, “Like” may evoke partisan responses to newscontent.

Pleasant Issues

In his book The Filter Bubble, board president of Eli Pariser argues that encouraging people to “like” news stories may discourage them from engaging with important, but negative, news stories.20 It would be bad form for someone to “like” a story about a tragic school shooting, a missing child, or a natural disaster. But that doesn’t mean people shouldn’t be reading and distributing such stories via their social networks.

To date, there has been little empirical research examining which stories users are likely to “like.” There is evidence, however, suggesting that news users are less likely to email or click on public af- fairs news stories than non-public affairs stories, at least during normal political times.21 Furthermore, when citizens have more entertainment and news programming choices available, many prefer to watch entertainment shows over public affairs or news programming.22 Although these examples do not involve online buttons, they do support the argument that citizens may need little prompting to avoid political news. It may be that the “Like” button further adds to this trend by encouraging people to only “like” stories that are agreeable, as opposed to stories about heavy, but important, news topics.

Likeminded Content

“Like” buttons also may push people away from politically disagreeable content. It seems difficult to “like” an op-ed written by conservative syndicated columnist George Will when you are a card- carrying Democrat, or to “like” MSNBC on Facebook when you are a die-hard Republican. Are “Like” buttons encouraging partisan engagement with news stories?

Simple cues can remind people to think of their partisanship even when they normally would not do so in a given situation. For instance, reminding people of their partisanship at the beginning of a survey can increase the chances that they answer the rest of the survey questions in ways that toe the party line.23 That is, merely reminding people that they identify as a Democrat or as a Republicans can push them to act more like members of that party.

The “Like” button does not directly mention partisanship. It may, however, serve a similar function by encouraging site visitors to think in terms of agreeing or disagreeing with an issue, or accepting or rejecting arguments based on their political views.

Even without prompting, people often are drawn toward information with which they agree.24 Conservative Republicans, for instance, tend to read conservative news stories while liberal Democrats tend to choose liberal ones.25 There is also some evidence that Facebook users cluster based on their political beliefs.26 Liberals tend to have more liberal friends and conservatives, more conservative friends. Further, the Pew Research Center found that 18 percent of those using social networking sites had blocked, unfriended, or hidden a contact based on political disagreement.27

Not only do individuals gravitate toward likeminded information, they also are likely to mentally argue against counter-attitudinal information.28 This pattern of behavior, called a confirmation bias, may be amplified with exposure to a “Like” button. Encouraging news users to “like” comments and the news may signal to citizens that they should seek out and interact with likeminded information – even when they may not have used their partisanship to evaluate a comment otherwise.

Although some theories mentioned here suggest that the “Like” button will encourage people to en- gage with likeminded information, there is little research examining this claim. In this study, we test the effects of the “Like” button and compare it to other word choices that could be used instead.

Alternatives to the “Like” Button

As troubling as the consequences of putting a “Like” button alongside news comments may be, we offer an easy solution to the problem: find other words to use as online buttons that have more beneficial consequences.

Some news sites already use different buttons, such as “Recommend,” “Share,” and “Follow,” rather than (or in addition to) “Like.” Others have introduced creative button labels. The Huffington Post has included buttons, such as “Amazing” and “Inspiring,” that allow readers to react to a story. Several Nexstar local television news websites had a feature allowing readers to express whether they felt “bored,” “furious,” or “happy” about a news story, among other word choices. The Tampa Bay Timesallows readers to click “Important,” “Inspiring,” and “Sad” in response to articles. Civic Commons, although not a news station, encourages substantive discussion among community members by allowing them to click on posts they find “persuasive,” “informative,” or “inspiring.” Pariser suggests that news sites could add an “Important” button to ensure that people don’t hesitate to interact with stories they feel are too serious to “like.”29 As these examples show, innovations in labeling buttons are widespread.

What we add is twofold. First, we examine a new button: “Respect.” We suggest that the “Respect” button can allow people to signal that an argument is a strong one, even if they disagree with the conclusion. Second, we test its effects. Specifically, our study tests how the buttons “Like,” “Recommend,” and “Respect” affect how citizens engage with the news.

By analyzing button use, we have both business and democratic outcomes in mind.

  1. Business: Which button – “Like,” “Recommend,” or “Respect” – garners the most clicks?
  2. Democratic: Do these buttons affect how much people interact with political information that runs counter to their beliefs?


Ashley Muddiman

Faculty Research Associate

Josh Scacco headshot
Joshua Scacco

Faculty Research Associate