Here at Cracked we have a whole series devoted to the fake stories that get shared on your Facebook feed without anyone checking whether they're true. But for today let's shove aside the question of why everyone keeps getting fooled by that bullshit and instead ask what causes us to smear stuff across our social-media walls in the first place. Why do we share one story with our friends and family and ignore another? A good general answer is "because it has kittens in it." But there are other reasons we hit the share or reblog button, like ...
#4. It Causes Positive Emotions
For years we've been told that negative news stories are the ones that get attention. "If it bleeds, it leads" is the battle-rhyme of the news media, and it's supposedly why our cable news channels are packed with stories of freak accidents and gruesome murders instead of clips of ducks safely crossing the road. But when it comes to sharing stuff on social media, those non-bleeding ducks actually come out on top. A 2008 study of shared online newspaper articles, replicated in 2011 with Facebook shares, found that stories and videos associated with positive emotions are shared far more than negative ones. A puppy getting fitted with a prosthetic limb goes viral; the guy in your town who got crushed by a garbage truck gets three shares and maybe a sad-face Facebook sticker.
"You might say his story got buried under garbage."
"Just shut up and finish the eulogy, Frank."
And mankind's bias for uplifting content goes further than that. Stories depicting purely negative events ("Young Father Tries to Pay Off Student Loans in Pennies, Trips, Is Literally Crushed by Debt") are shared less than stories about negative events that have been given a positive spin ("Man Being Literally Crushed By Debt Leaves Video Message To His Unborn Son"). On the other hand, other research has found that both positive and negative-themed content is shared more than content deemed to be emotionally neutral, although I'm not 100 percent sure what they mean by that. Maybe a video titled: "This mom stared at a wall for 10 minutes. You won't believe what happened next!"
Mike Watson Images/moodboard
"Whoa. People have GOT to see this."
We also share stuff because ...
#3. It's Arousing
Not that kind of arousing, obviously: most of us are aware that our friends are happy for us not to share the piece of erotic Supernatural fan art we just found on Tumblr. But according to science's recent sharing-research, content that evokes "low arousal" emotions (like contentment or sadness) rarely causes people's "share" fingers to twitch. In other words, that blog post you just wrote about the James Patterson book you're quietly enjoying this weekend is unlikely to make it big.
"'This novel was quite up to standards.' There we go. Internet immortality, baby."
Add an angle to the story that injects a "high arousal" emotion like anger, though, and things change: an angry take on a particular event is more likely to be shared than a more moderate one on the same event. Think of a negative-themed article as like a pizza base: when it's by itself, nobody is interested, but cram on some toppings (speculations and angles that make readers either extremely anxious or very angry) and all of a sudden people are hanging around your kitchen eyeing your oven and acting as if they like you. In fact, we love our bad-news pizza so much that it trumps our bias against negative content: negative stories that have been topped with fear- or anger-causing content will be shared as much as positive stuff about unexpected rainbows and baby geese learning to swim.
You don't want to know which part of the pizza represents Ebola.