The Use of Emotions to Capture Attention on Social Media

While waiting for a bus to arrive or just to fill time, we often scroll through our social media to check what is happening in the world. Among posts of friends, acquaintances and other interesting accounts, our social media time line often shows us the news. More than 50 percent of Internet users receive their news via social media, and the average reader spends approximately 15 seconds to scan such an article.

In this short period of time, while also confronted with external stimuli from the environment (for instance at a bus stop), we impressively manage to not only make sense of what we are reading but also make up our minds about it. It is both remarkable and questionable how we are able to perform such complex processes so quickly.

Imagine reading an article about record-breaking temperatures in Europe: What can you learn from it in 15 seconds? You are probably able to read the teaser on Facebook and understand what it says, but can you make sense of the overarching meaning or complex context of the article? Does a heat wave in Europe means that climate change is real or just that the Europeans are enjoying a nice tropical summer? To decide what to think of something in such a short time, we need information that is easy to understand.

Readers can often find information that is easy to understand in user comments. A commenter can argue that the heat wave is terrible because all the flowers are dying on his or her balcony, suggesting that this is proof of climate change. Commenters frequently stuff opinions and arguments with emotions, which are very salient for readers. While quickly scanning an article, we almost automatically prefer to select emotional over rational information (e.g., scientific facts about climate change). This so-called heuristic processing style helps us to save scarce cognitive capacities in a digital environment with an overwhelming amount of information. By relying on information that is easy to process instead of systematically trying to understand details, we can absorb much more information in a short time. It is super-efficient!

But there are also downsides to the preference of emotional comments: When the bus you were waiting for finally arrives, there is no time and not enough cognitive capacity left to also process the remaining non-emotional information. Emotional information displaces other information. It can happen that a reader of the climate change article remembers the information that there was a heat wave in Europe because the flowers died on the balconies, but not the scientific elaborations in the article stating that temperature can tell almost nothing about climate change. In the end, the reader simply did not have enough time and cognitive capacity to pay attention to this.

Since attention is so limited, it becomes one of the highest goods on the Internet. News providers and other authors online are competing for it. Emotions might turn out to be a good strategy and become important for news messages on social media. Researchers already showed that comments can influence how people perceive and engage with online news content, and how people judge the news item.

About Susann Kohout

Susann Kohout is PhD candidate and guest researcher at ASCoR. She regularly writes about her PhD project on emotional user comments on her Blog PhDLog.net.

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