Thanks to Sari Setiogi for tweeting the link to this New York Times article: Ebola May Pose Little Threat to U.S., but It Looms Large on Twitter. Excerpt:
As the shadow of the deadly Ebola virus looms over Africa, its danger clear and present, a lesser kind of contagion, diffuse but persistent, has infected social media feeds in the United States.
Ebola is trending on Twitter. Even a cursory hashtag search turns up, among the news articles and official announcements, expressions of fear, gallows humor and bad information. The virus can spread through the air? OMG! (It cannot.) A possible Ebola case in New York City? Time to pack for Mars! (It was not Ebola.)
Why do people feel compelled to post and rebroadcast jokes, rumors and dread of a distant disease that public health officials say is extremely unlikely to pose serious risk on this side of the Atlantic Ocean?
The science behind how and why ideas spread on social media is a growing area of research. At the most basic level, marketing experts say, people tend to share stories that stir their deepest feelings, whether positive or negative. To wit, frightful shark attacks routinely top the trending charts alongside cheerful cat videos and inspirational quotes.
“We are not just information-processing machines; we’re very driven by emotion,” said Jonah Berger, a marketing professor at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania and author of the book “Contagious: Why Things Catch On.” Stronger emotions, Dr. Berger has found, increase sharing.
In 2011, he investigated the emotions that compel users to share articles via email. Dr. Berger asked 40 students to jog in place, and then presented each of them with a neutral news article that they could email to whomever they wanted.
After the physical arousal of jogging, Dr. Berger found that students were more likely to share the article, compared with when sitting still.
He concluded that people share content when they are stimulated, regardless of the source.
“It’s whatever generates arousal,” he said. “If you read a scary article about Ebola, and then you read another article, you’re more likely to share that second article because you’re anxious.”