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Scares Equal Shares: Narrative Intelligence and the Fear Factor

June 18, 2023Gregg Newby

The Power and Peril of Online Fear

Narrative intelligence has taught us a great deal about online behaviors. Most notably, it has demonstrated that emotions - not logic - determine the kinds of narratives people craft and share. Perhaps no emotion, however, is as galvanizing to online communities as that of fear.

Fear, like any other emotion, isn't simply psychological. It is also felt in the body, meaning it has a biological basis as well. This is important to note. Someone wrestling with fear experiences physical sensations compelling them to seek relief. Oftentimes, social media proves an easy - though mostly ineffective - outlet for their anxiety.

Social media is such a poor outlet because it typically amplifies emotions, rather than diluting them. This effect, known as the digital emotional contagion, is essentially a complicated trap. Instead of finding relief, users who exchange in fearful narratives become part of a closed system in which anxieties only compound themselves.

It makes sense when you stop and think about it. After all, there's plenty to be nervous about. War. The national debt. Crime. Mass shootings. The economy. The list goes on. There's even the fear of missing out, FOMO, as it's called.

When people segment themselves into groups and begin discussing topics like these, the results are hardly beneficial. Instead of finding comfort, they merely reinforce each other's sense of alarm. What is worse, this back and forth panic can have real world consequences.

COVID-19 and the Fear Factor: Some Examples

We saw the fear factor at work during the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, in the spring of 2020. Remember all those rolls of toilet paper that suddenly went missing from supermarket shelves? That was a direct result of online panic. While the nation's toilet paper needs didn't change, the perception of its availability certainly did. Frightful posts about half-stocked shelves generated a firestorm of panicked shoppers, leading ultimately to a self-fulfilling prophecy in which toilet paper really was out of stock across the nation. See how that works?

The fear factor also raised its head when news of a vaccine release was announced. A variety of vicious rumors raced back and forth and across the Internet. The vaccine was poisonous. It contained cancer-causing metals. It altered the human gene structure. Alternatively, it was a snake-oil concoction that offered no real protection against COVID. Those who called it harmful often believed governments were using it as a form of population control. Others, however, thought governments were withholding it, and for the very same reason. Why aren't there more supplies? they asked aloud on their various online platforms.

How Fear Leads to Disinformation

As these examples show, frightening content generates buzz when it's injected with a heavy dose of sensationalism. A 2019 study, for instance, measured engagement levels for Zika virus narratives on social media. The researchers found that "user engagement increased significantly as the level of fear-arousing sensationalism increased." In other words, it isn't the facts themselves that matter. It's the way they are presented.

But the truth is that fear typically creates more problems than it solves. This is just as true in the online world as it is the physical one. Another study from 2019 found that people who bring their fear to social media largely find themselves isolated in "echo-chambers" with everyone else disengaging to avoid the negativity.

And this is precisely how (and why) disinformation gets propagated online. As more people fall under the sway of a frightening narrative, they naturally amplify it, scaring others in turn. Gradually, the cycle reaches a frenzied pitch. Collective groupthink becomes a Chicken Little scenario, with a growing number of users fretting about the sky imploding. There's just no denying it. Scares equal shares.

The intent here is not to ridicule anyone for being afraid of something. Fear is certainly understandable in a variety of situations. There's a reason nature equipped us with, and it is vital to our survival as a species.

Finding a Solution

That being said, narratives couched in fear are detrimental to the psychological well-being of the online community. It generates disinformation, prompting users to exaggerate their claims and make pronouncements they haven't bothered to research. As this content gets distributed through shares and re-postings, it becomes a public narrative, cemented in the minds of online audiences.

But there's an antidote to unfounded fear. It's called narrative intelligence. Narrative intelligence is what we learn when we conduct even-handed, logical assessments of online narratives. It can inform us of the origins of a narrative, how rapidly it has spread, and which platforms are amplifying it. It can even help us determine the extent to which a narrative might be true. With a tool like narrative intelligence, we can lay unreasonably fearful narratives to rest and calmly remind ourselves that the sky has actually never fallen.

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