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Images & Voices of Hope | December 2, 2020

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The drawbacks of some upbeat stories that get shared, go viral

The drawbacks of some upbeat stories that get shared, go viral

With the emergence of sites like BuzzFeed and Upworthy, there’s been an interesting shift in the type of content people want to share. Recent research shows that people now gravitate toward — and share — upbeat stories. Much of this has to do with social media.

Time Magazine’s Eliana Dockterman wrote in August:

Researchers are discovering that people want to create positive images of themselves online by sharing upbeat stories. And with more people turning to Facebook and Twitter to find out what’s happening in the world, news stories may need to cheer up in order to court an audience. If social is the future of media, then optimistic stories might be media’s future.

Upbeat stories are important; they can make people feel inspired and better about the world. But they can also pose a risk by downplaying the seriousness of a situation and distorting reality. BuzzFeed Editor-in-Chief Ben Smith elaborated on this point a couple of weeks ago in a piece for Playboy, of all places:

The new distribution model is based on psychology, not on ink or radio waves. Its flaws are human flaws, and they have to do with what people share and don’t share. People are not sharing the worst of the old journalism. “If it bleeds, it leads” was the rule of thumb for tabloids, and it motivated the New York Post and your local TV news.

But the social web has its own vices, one of which is that it favors inspiration, warmth and a kind of happy talk that doesn’t always match reality. At its best, this means sharing something like “I gave $100 to help the victims of Hurricane Sandy—I hope you will too.” At its worst, it spreads a false impression that problems can be easily solved if only you’ll share more. The best example of this kind of bad viral news is the “Stop Kony” video, which rocketed around the internet in 2012 with an inspiring narrative calling on Americans of all ages to press our representatives to go after a Ugandan warlord—and, of course, to share the video.

After 100 million views, the U.S. government responded. It sent a military task force to the Central African jungle, and to sharpen the point of the mission its commander kept a STOP KONY poster on his door. The problem: The Ugandan government believed it had the warlord contained and had been working on a nonmilitary solution to his rampages. Many policy experts think Americans’ hunger for inspiration drove terrible policy in Uganda. And Kony is still at large.

If social media habits do give upbeat stories a boost, then we in the media need to make sure these stories are infused with good journalism practice. It may also be worth rethinking the way we define “upbeat.”

Upbeat stories don’t have to be fully positive or happy-go-lucky. They can reflect the nuances of life and reveal hard truths while also highlighting uplifting themes like recovery, resilience and renewal. They can be restorative. These are the stories, it seems, that are likely to have a greater impact on people — and create meaningful change.


Have story ideas you want to share with us? Email them to ivoh managing director Mallary Tenore or share them with us on Twitter (@ivohMedia).