Hardly anyone can get past social media. No matter what age, no matter what origin, who has an internet-enabled smartphone, is usually registered with a social media service.
Terrorist attacks, kidnapping attempts, epidemics or rampages: these are topics that many people are afraid of. At the same time, these are topics that feed on social media. These topics generate interactions, but ultimately also fear and panic.
In this article, let’s take a look at the connection between social media and fears. What role does WhatsApp, Facebook, Twitter or Instagram play here?
What are social media?
In summary: Social media means all platforms on which people exchange information digitally. Be it texts, images, video or audio content; the focus is on digital communication in all directions. Correspondingly, social media is not a one-way communication street, but rather a fairground. You can imagine the classic Greek agora, just digital: people come together and talk, yes argue, they act, exchange things
The function of the participants is just as important because social media means that everyone is an author. So it is a medium in which everyone can participate. The technical and financial hurdle is also essential for this participation: Social media must be accessible quickly and inexpensively (usually free of charge).
Social media and user behaviour
Not all people are on all social media platforms; not all people use the same platforms. Nevertheless, you can make sharp divisions: Young people, in particular, are on more visual platforms such as Instagram or TikTok. Snapchat may also be mentioned in this context, but the messenger has lost importance.
Facebook and Twitter play less of a role in this age group but are quite popular among people between the ages of 30 and 55. However, if you go one age level higher, i.e. people between 50 and 69 years, WhatsApp is a prevalent means of communication.
Anyone who has reached the age of majority in the last century should have grown up with quite a few channels. It was not until the 1980s that private channels were added to the public service channels, both on TV and on the radio.
At that time, journalists were usually gatekeepers. Roughly speaking, this means that it has been checked whether the content is relevant to be sent and whether the content is correct.
At the same time, there was hardly any public reaction to content and information on the part of recipients. Sure, they talked in small groups, but there was rarely general feedback in the form of letters to the editor or reactions to an intendant.
Social media has changed these relationships. All of a sudden, all of the participants have become transmitters. Due to the standard technical equipment and the low hurdles, it is possible to send content at any time. You can write, send pictures or even stream live.
This naturally means that the classic gatekeeper function on social media is no longer available. The participants now decide for themselves what they think is relevant. It can, therefore, happen that information without relevance or even incorrect information appears in the news stream or the news. So on social media, not only the sender and receiver merge, but everyone has to interpret or even learn the gatekeeper function for themselves.
The changed resonance behaviour should also be noted: You can now react directly and (depending on your privacy) publicly to social media. That brings an incredible dynamic.
Messenger & trust
The messengers, in particular, stand out here, where it is difficult to ascertain how many false reports are spread. As described at the beginning, a lot of people use a messenger. Of course, one can argue about whether messengers can be added to social media (gladly also open-ended). At this point, however, they are added because you can operate digital communication via messenger, exchange content, communicate in groups and ultimately also stream. However, they are not as open as Instagram, Facebook or Twitter.
Messages via a messenger like WhatsApp always have a more personal touch than more open networks. The senders are known, mostly relatives or friends. So there is already a basis of trust.
This often shows that one tends to believe and to forward content faster since one tends to find the trusted sender.
As just explained, there is nothing charitable about social media. Almost the opposite: The goal of the platform owners is to bind the users to the platform as long as possible and to get them to interact.
This binding only works if the content does not appear boring to the users—the result: fear, hatred, boobs and the weather forecast.
Ok, the boobs are diligently banished, but everything else is difficult for the operators. Nevertheless, it is no secret that scandals, outrage, even false reports and of course, clickbait out of the boulevard generate interactions and act like a magnet on social media.
The missing gatekeeper function is noticeable here, at the same time the level of attractiveness (in whatever form) is further increased.
Whether provocative postings, border crossings in terms of expression, weak clickbait journalism, or stirring up fears, all of these are widespread phenomena on social media. Messenger included, of course.
False reports, fear, hate
The lack of gatekeepers, high levels of interaction and the longing for entertainment naturally promote topics that also include problems.
The high number of false reports is one thing. The others are fear issues. Alleged kidnappings, illnesses, conspiracy myths, these topics make optimal use of the participative culture on social media.
One should not misunderstand this: These topics also have their place in the offline world. But social media offers functions that an offline world does not provide. Share, forward and re-upload are essential tools in the distribution of highly interactive content.
This means that topics relevant to social media are becoming more widespread. It is often not differentiated whether the content is true or false. For fear of damage, false reports or irrelevant content are distributed accordingly.
The role of the media
The media have long recognized their reach potential on social media. But the ranges do not come by themselves; they have to be optimized. This optimization takes place via headlines and teasers.
This means that if a website publishes online content, it should also be optimized for preview display on social media. We are talking about the so-called snippet or teaser. That means:
Whenever someone inserts a link on WhatsApp, Twitter or Facebook, a bit is created which, in a nutshell, represents the content of the linked website. As the owner of a page, you can design this snippet. So you consciously choose a suitable image and shape the heading so that it appears attractive to readers on social media. So that online content is perceived, media optimize it via the snippet. This inevitably leads to the so-called clickbait.
A clickbait does not have to be negative; it is even necessary for online content to be noticed. However, a clickbait should not be misleading or exaggerated, which is more common, especially in the case of tabloid journalism.
With the help of click baits snippets and misleading headlines, false impressions can be created in the case of superficial user behaviour. The net culture speaks here of “headline readers” who obtain their information only from headlines, which under certain circumstances may give false representations due to the clickbait shortening. If you only consume headlines, you will not correctly record complex images, since explanations are usually more detailed than the snippet function on social media allows.
Parties and political actors have also recognized social media as a platform and are aware of the mechanisms by which they can disseminate their content as virally as possible. One has to differentiate between official postings by parties or politicians and unofficial campaigns, or propaganda.
The latter, in particular works with fear and hatred, to carry out disinformation or manipulation. The build-up of anxiety deliberately disrupts political systems. Enemy images are created, which are represented as scapegoats. Furthermore, with the help of consciously contradictory information, irritations are designed for users of social media.
We are familiar with these phenomena: after assassinations or rampages, various pieces of information that are deliberately wrong are scattered very quickly. It is not necessarily that this false information is believed, but that it competes with serious reporting, which in the end is also questioned. The results are sentences such as “You no longer know who to believe” or “Everyone is somehow lying”. At precisely these moments, misleading, false reports have reached their destination. People are insecure, afraid and think they are in a helpless situation.
Panic in times of social media
Social media is not the reason for this fear or dread. Of course, there were also fears about social media. However, social media, as an interactive communication platform, massively promotes the exchange of information. As already mentioned, the information does not always mean correctness, relevance or detail.
In the past, we have repeatedly observed that fear is an engine for passing on content. One would like to warn other people, to know them safely. So it’s not just fear for yourself, but also others. And here, the tools are now using social media, but also the possibilities on the smartphone to share content beyond the individual platforms directly on other platforms.
The term “virality” gets its very appropriate meaning here. Like a virus, information can be passed on, reproduced and transmitted. And that is precisely what happens with content rich in interaction, which is often based on fear.
This content now reaches much more people in a much shorter time than when offline communication is used, or linear media is consumed. Social media is always at hand and accessible.
Of course, this means that there are no longer wrong messages, but they are merely more present and are shown more often. You simply get the impression that specific topics occur much more often because they are ubiquitous on social media.
Fears appear to be ubiquitous due to their frequent presentation, but at the same time, because of their interactions, they have a greater reach than matter-of-fact content. This clearly shows that emotions are an essential factor. And social media accordingly offers a large participation area for emotions, so fear as a strong emotion plays a significant role.
And let’s take a look at framing at this point: With the help of stimulus words, fears are created, topics are deliberately misinterpreted or presented tendentially. Admittedly, you cannot mount, but you can influence the degree of framing and thus the level of manipulation.
In the end, we must not forget that social media is not a homogeneous mixture, but a mash of many different channels. Individuals who publish information themselves. Media that want to generate high-reach content with optimized snippets, political actors who want to use the mechanisms of social media for manipulation.
Social media users can be found in all these impressions. Faced with content that they have to rate as “new gatekeepers”. At the same time, because of their own emotions, they become part of the game. Anyone who is gripped by fear spreads the reasoning content. Thanks to simple mechanisms (just one click) this is not a problem.
The fear multiplication on social media is, therefore, usually just a click. Still, the threshold between justified fears and hysteria is often quickly exceeded due to excessive reporting, manipulative postings or ubiquitous information.
Get a grip on fear
Fear is not wrong if it is appropriate. But that also means that you have to be able to assess whether fear is relevant to the situation. Social media postings from anonymous sources, improper reporting or incorrect observations can give rise to a doubt that in the end was not necessary.
But how do you get factual, sober information? Here the circle closes again because social media wants to bind people and offers “exciting topics” more space than calm content. At this point, users are asked yet. They are encouraged to slow down their information consumption and also to evaluate which content (whether private, from media or unknown sources) is relevant. The goal should be not to be dominated by social media, but to dominate social media.