Toxic Virality: Why Negative Content Is Dangerous, Overplayed And Bad For Business

  • by , Op-Ed Contributor, September 8, 2015

Negative content on the Internet is provocative, powerful and pervasive. One could even call it toxic. What’s most alarming is that news achieves this toxic virality when it preys on our most primal emotions.

Human beings are psychologically programmed to share bad news, such as celebrity scandals, public shaming campaigns and political controversies.

And therein lies the pernicious appeal of negative content: This impulse to respond to negativity is in our nature — and unfortunately, it can be easily exploited.

With the current battle raging over audience attention, some media outlets continue to churn out outrageous or salacious content because it’s a proven way to rack up views, shares and advertising dollars.

But this quest for clicks comes with a steep price.

A Lesson Learned: Our Experiment With Controversial Content

Last year, we decided to get our hands dirty with OpinionSoup, a deliberate departure from the heartwarming, feelgood content we were offering on LittleThings. We thought if we could ignite spirited political debate around controversial topics, our engagement numbers would spike high enough to trigger Facebook's positive signals, pushing us further up the newsfeed.



Politics has always been a minefield of controversy, but OpinionSoup turned ugly with a pace and intensity we never imagined. By covering immigration, race, gender issues, religion and politics, we didn't light a spark of engagement, we unleashed a firestorm. As our audiences proceeded to rabidly attack one another, advertisers began pulling out, driving down our CPMs.

Faced with this barrage of negativity, our employees became depressed. When the audience’s vitriol turned on us, we had to call in the NYPD for protection while the FBI investigated a bomb threat. Our morale hit rock-bottom.

The fallout from this failed experiment cost us in many ways. But as jarring as this experience was, it proved a valuable lesson: Stick to what you know and love. In our case, that meant focusing on positive and uplifting content. It’s a decision that saved both our business and our sanity.

Negativity Isn’t Just Depressing — It’s Bad for Business

The long-held principle that bad news sells is swiftly eroding. On the surface, it’s a straightforward and effective business model: Sensationalist clickbait attracts views and shares, and the prospect of going viral entices the advertisers. In practice, people are increasingly fed up with the daily deluge of outrage content.

Plus, negativity isn’t as profitable as it once was.

As much as we enjoy having something to get mad about, consistent exposure to negative messages infects us with “learned helplessness” — a belief that the world is a dangerous place and that we have no power to make a positive difference.

After watching only three minutes of negative news, people are 27% more likely to report having a bad day. Negative content tends to go viral, but what good is it if it puts your audience in a bad mood? Readers are the lifeblood of a publisher or a media company. It makes no sense to upset them.

Advertisers are pulling away from negative content, partly because brand safety is a major concern. They can’t risk having their ads appear next to questionable content, lest consumers start to conflate their products with negativity.

On the other hand, people who watch transformative stories reported having a good day 88% of the time. By that same token, consumers who read positive content tend to associate good feelings with the surrounding brands and marketing messages.

Another key factor that diminishes the value of negative content is the changing nature of digital advertising. We’ve entered an age in which marketing can be camouflaged as editorial, and controversial content doesn’t mesh with this new model.

As Slate pointed out, the problem with outrage content is that “it doesn’t integrate well. Whether an article inveighs the war on Christmas, Scott Walker or Barbie, outrage can be viral, but that’s about all it has going for it … there are far happier things to integrate with promotional content.”

As much as it may seem that negativity and controversy dominate the news cycle, positive stories — stories that evoke joy and awe, that are heartwarming and hopeful — achieve higher virality than negative ones, reports the AMA Journal.

Most people prefer spreading happiness. Don’t be tempted to go the negative route just because you think it sells. It’s a path that has become not only less profitable, but dark and dangerous, too.

Next story loading loading..