Research in Progress: What made #MeToo go viral on social media?

July 15, 2019

Yen-I Lee,Xuerong Lu, Yan Jin, University of Georgia

By Yen-I Lee, Washington State University; Xuerong Lu, University of Georgia doctoral student; Yan Jin, University of Georgia

#MeToo, the most impactful social movement campaign in recent memory, has spread around the world through social media. One of the key questions is what makes social movement messages, like #MeToo, go viral in the increasingly complex and competitive social media environment.

Previous studies say narrative framing and visual framing can facilitate a public’s message selection and sharing behaviors on social media. However, little is known about the effects of narrative-based visual and text on social media users’ behaviors.

Narratives, the format of storytelling, can impact the level of involvement and the psychological reactance among publics, as stories and characters can be more engaging than other messaging forms. Emotional expression and reception, as a key factor to connect a story and its readers, might also influence individuals’ information selectivity and message engagement affectively, cognitively and behaviorally.

For example, when social media users see #MeToo messages, they might feel differently depending on how they perceive a story teller’s emotional expression. Later, such feelings might further motivate them to read more about the story, share the post, like the post and/or comment about the story.

The challenge for public relations researchers and practitioners is to know which specific features of narrative-based visual and text might have the strongest impact on emotional engagement. Which features can better facilitate publics’ cognitive engagement and be more persuasive about the cause of a social movement?

With a focus on how narrative-based text and visual might impact the virality of social movement messages, our study aims to first identify effective narrative features and recommend how to use these features strategically to attract online publics’ attention and motivate them to be engaged in social movement discussion and mobilization.

In addition, the #MeToo movement has widely spread from the United States to the rest of the world. Culture values might play another crucial role in message virality and online public engagement in the context of social media movement campaigns.

Publics with different cultural backgrounds—such as individualism versus collectivism or independent self-construal culture versus interdependent self-construal culture—might also influence how they respond to the narratives of different social movements differently. However, little evidence is available regarding the impact of cultural values on social movement campaign effectiveness. Our study aims to fill this void.

Using the #MeToo movement in the United States and China as a focal case, we will conduct a multi-phase examination of narrative features and cultural influences on emotional engagement and persuasion communication of social movement in the digital space. We will first conduct a content analysis to identify narrative features when #MeToo movement went viral on social media in both countries.

Based on the identified narrative features and their prominence, we will then conduct an online experiment, among adult social media users in the United States and China, to examine how narrative features and cultural influences might individually and/or jointly influence online publics’ tendency to spread the social movement campaign messages and help increase the message virality. Our findings will provide scholarly and practical implications for narrative-based public communication on social media, across countries, in the context of social movements.  

For further information on this study, please email Yen-I Lee at, Xuerong Lu at, or Yan Jin at Results from the study will be available next year. This project is supported by a Page/Johnson Legacy Scholar Grant from the Arthur W. Page Center