What People Share Online and Why

The New York Times recently reported the results of a research study conducted by the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania to determine what people are most likely to share with others online, and why. 

The researchers compiled the New York Times’ list of most-emailed articles over six months and analyzed them.  They discovered that a significant percentage of the articles people e-mailed were about science, and a lot of them had a “surprise factor.”  Many of the “surprising” articles had what the Wharton team called “an awe-inspiring quality,” according to The Times. The researchers concluded that, after reading something that touches them emotionally (whether it inspired awe, fear or other emotions), readers want to share and talk about their thoughts and feelings.

Communications professionals have always understood that emotion is what makes people remember what they see and read.  Sometimes what matters most, unfortunately, are not the facts (the truth), but the “emotional truth.” If a story sounds plausible and appeals strongly to people’s emotions, many people accept it at face value and share it with others. There are numerous incidents of a company losing millions of dollars –brought to the brink of bankruptcy, even – because the “emotional truth” in a news story made the company look terrible even though it ignored the facts. 

Here’s an example: 20 years ago, actress Meryl Streep launched an all-out attack on the apple growing industry for using the chemical Alar. Studies had shown a correlation between cancer and exposure to very high levels of Alar in lab animals.  An environmental group, National Resources Defense Council (NRDC), claimed there were traces of Alar in bottled apple juice and wanted the Environmental Protection Agency to ban Alar. They hired a PR firm to develop an anti-Alar campaign, using Streep as a spokesperson. 

In media interviews, Streep warned emotionally, from one mother to another, that Alar in apple juice could be harming children. One result was a story on “60 Minutes” that was devastating to the apple growers.  Mothers poured apple juice down the drain, and sales plummeted.

The apple growers deployed legions of scientists to lay out detailed facts to prove that Alar was safe. But their complex scientific explanations fell on deaf ears. Mothers across America were very receptive to what they perceived to be the truth, the highly emotional anti-Alar accusations.  Here was Streep, a mother herself, with no apparent ulterior motive, warning them about a product grown by “Big Agribusiness.” 

It turns out that Alar actually does pose a small cancer risk, and children are more at risk from toxins in food than adults. One consumer group concluded that Alar should be banned if it posed even a very small risk.  However, the group also pointed out that drinking juice made from apples grown with Alar was much less of a health risk to children than feeding them candy bars. Simple, dramatic and emotional, with a famous actress as the star, the anti-Alar crusade had all the elements of a story the media would love.  But the arguments on the other side were not black and white and their complexity didn’t resonate well with the media. Finally the apple growers hired their own PR company, which also used a spokeswoman. She claimed that the anti-Alar hysteria was unscientific and had cost America’s farmers, many of them small family farmers, $100 million. This humanized the apple growers’ side of the story, and gave an emotional argument to bolster scientists’ facts and figures, but in the end, Alar was voluntarily taken off the market.

We live in a much more complex communications environment now than when Meryl Streep attacked apple juice in the ‘80s.  Companies need to understand what makes news and what doesn’t, and how to respond when their own organizations or products are maligned online. This will not only help them to protect themselves from the plentiful mis- (and dis-) information that can be found online, but also help them take advantage of the incredible opportunities to be heard that the Internet offers to those who know how to use them.

Lucy Siegel

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One Response to “What People Share Online and Why”

  1. Theresa Says:

    This is very insightful about how media misinformation happens.

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