If you’ve ever had the feeling that there are a lot of terrible things happening in the world, and that they’re all related to things you’re directly interested in and involved in, then you’re probably reading too much news on social media. Recent research has established that bad news is much more likely to be spread than good news, and is more likely to be shared and sent to your social media by your digital news providers. The questions are: why does this happen?; Is it only social networks that make the world seem worse?; and what can you do about it?
Research titled: “Negative tweets from left and right news organizations are more likely to get shared”1 examined more than 140,000 tweets from 24 left-wing and 20 right-wing news organizations. This study found that these tweets expressed negative sentiments and positions much more often than positive ones. This was equally true for organizations of the left and of the right, that is, they are all equal to each other. Despite what you might think, negative content predicted people’s engagement with their organization’s Twitter feed, while the degree of positivity in tweets did not affect the likelihood that people would re-engage with the feed.
Very little work has been done on these kinds of effects in the digital world, but from this research and from our own everyday experiences, we can see that news on social media is often bad news, both in the sense of that it is bad news and in the sense of its impact on readers. People are anxious about the world, and social media makes it even more so.two
One thing to get out of the way very quickly is that people don’t want to be anxious and they don’t take pleasure in sharing negative content. It turns out that, outside of the bubble of digital news organizations, social media content is generally more positive than negative when the general public posts and shares this content.1
Of course, a potentially toxic level of false positivity can bring its own problems, especially if we think everyone is doing better than we are, drawing unhealthy comparisons.3 However, the findings regarding news on social media1 implies that social media companies may want us to read bad news and be anxioustwo.
The reasons why it is in the interest of digital news organizations, and probably social media hosting companies, to keep their users eager have already been discussed above.two Anxiety is associated with hypervigilance.4 That means when you’re afraid of something, you keep an eye on it: you scan your world a lot more for signs of impending danger.5 In social media terms, this means that you keep using the same thing that makes you anxious.two The result is that social media companies and/or news organizations get more reads and are able to sell more advertising. However, the question remains why bad news captures attention more easily. What is the psychology behind this potential manipulation of digital users?
There are two reasons why we can be drawn to the negative, and to understand them, we need to understand some basic work done away from social media, usually in learning or neuroscience labs. Many learning theorists interested in what drives behavior suggest that any stimulus, in this case a news item on social media, has two broad sets of attributes.6. A stimulus (news) has an “affective” property and a set of “sensory” properties.
The latter are more numerous and define the stimulus in terms of its size, shape, color, etc., they give the detail of what the stimulus comprises. There are many of these sensory properties, and they can all compete with each other for our attention. We tend to consciously focus on anything that is new or unexpected, and unconsciously process what is expected very quickly. Therefore, our attention, although directed to several aspects, still extends across several of these sensory properties.6
Instead, the affective property is very simple: it is good or bad, without shades of gray. This has been accepted as a view of motivation since Freud, and behaviorists also accept it as more or less true.6 This characteristic gives the processing of affective properties two distinct advantages over the processing of sensory properties. First, because of its simplicity, we don’t need to spend a lot of time processing its precise elements, which means that we quickly learn about the affective property or aspect.7
Second, because it is often directly relevant to our survival, we look at this aspect of the situation before the sensory properties, especially if it threatens us.8 We are willing to look for the negative and process this information faster, more immediately, and more easily than the positive.9 The result is that social media companies, news companies, and political organizations can take advantage of this basic set of psychological strategies to keep people reading their sites and material.
Now that we know this, and that our basic learning mechanisms are working against us in an unreal digital world, what can we do about it? Part of the answer is to be aware of it in the first place: once you know that this type of manipulation can happen, you are prepared to face it for what it is. In fact, there’s an argument that you’re better off without the news from social media. However, you can also reduce the effect of aversive cues by tapping into your need for the positive; just as you need to avoid the dangerous, you must approach the beneficial.
Exposure to greater shared levels of good news about the world (though probably not too stupid and toxic about an individual’s achievements) can insulate you from the effects of the aversive. Fear-based political campaigns tend to fail because people, en masse, want hope.10, and sharing good world news, in collaboration can protect us. Remember, what we really want and need, and what we are almost automatically drawn to, are two very different things.
In short, news could be considered a commodity in the digital world, a product that is used to sell other, more lucrative products. This brings his analysis into the realm of analyzing the way in which any other stimulus is used to alter our behavior. Fortunately, a great deal of work has been done on the ways aversive cues affect behavior, and by knowing this, we can recognize it, be aware of it, and do something about it.