Taking the Bait on Social Media

The Internet is packed with content aimed at grabbing your attention, because attention is the internet’s currency. You may have noticed that posts that provoke negative reactions often generate a lot of engagement on social media. I try to figure out why.

This post is also available in Dutch.

Rage-bait provokes

If you use social media, you’ve probably seen things clicked and shared millions of times despite being overloaded with negative comments. It’s no secret that our attention is the revenue model of social media and content creators. The more engagement, the more sponsors and advertisers. The same goes for negative attention. Some content creators make clever use of this by creating material that provokes many adverse reactions, also known as rage-bait.

Dismay versus cat videos

Studies suggest that negative things, such as angry faces and symbols for negative concepts such as “kill,” grab your attention faster than their positive counterparts. The theory states that it is evolutionarily advantageous to pay close attention to negative information to be alert when it poses a threat. This may explain why negative content gets so much attention.

However, other studies do not support this anger superiority effect. Some even show that happy faces are more likely to attract your attention. Despite these contradictions, the converging evidence suggests that content with an emotional charge attracts more attention than neutral subjects. Perhaps content with strong positive connotations is just as successful as rage bait. After all, countless successful social media channels are devoted to cute (pet) animals.

Tastes differ

Whether you pay more attention to videos of cute puppies or images of neighbor quarrels depends on several factors, such as your own state of mind or your age. Adults seem less likely to focus on positive information than children, although the cause of this difference is unclear. In any case, there are many contextual and personal differences.

Common enemy

In addition to focusing on negative content, we also differ in what we perceive as negative content. It depends on our cultural, religious, or political background. Watching videos you morally disapprove of thus fills a social role. It highlights what and with whom you identify. When someone gets angry about the same things as you, it creates a bond: the effect of the common enemy.

The downside is that provocative social media content creates divisions between disagreeing people. Part of the success of rage-bait may lie precisely in this: many people react angrily. In turn, this provokes outraged reactions from others. This benefits the content creator, they get attention from all sides.

Feelings like envy and indignation can still be useful in the analog world when discovering shared norms and values. However, getting wound up with strangers on the Internet over a video of a swearing waiter is perhaps less productive.

Author: Maartje Koot

Buddy: Lucas Geelen

Editor: Eline de Boer

Translation: Helena Olraun

Editor translation: Elena Markantonakis

Featured image by Clay Banks via Unsplash

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