Reasoning Behind Viral News Using Brain Imaging Study

In today's society, it's not uncommon to wake up and see millions of likes or retweets on a news post. But what is the reasoning behind those likes? What determines the virality of such posts? In short, what makes viral news go viral?

In 2022, a total of 4.62 billion users used social media across the world, and more than 12 trillion hours were spent online. With so much time invested in social media, it is questionable what makes something go viral.

Social media users are more inclined to share posts that they believe to be pertinent to themselves or the people they know, according to research from the Communication Neuroscience Lab at the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania, directed by senior author Emily Falk and the team.

People only share content that they think will benefit them personally or their interpersonal ties. According to a recent lab study, encouraging participants to think about the worth of enhanced brain activity in regions related to sharing decisions boosted enthusiasm to share content.

"A lot of prior research on what makes posts go viral has focused on identifying the characteristics of messages that are shared often or not shared often," says Christin Scholz, the lead author.

"We're looking at the neural mechanisms of sharing decisions. Targeting those mechanisms could be a way to encourage the spread of high-quality health information."

Researchers used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to track participants' brain activity while they were asked to think about sharing articles about healthy living from The New York Times.

Participants were asked to imagine sharing an article with one of two objectives in mind while in the fMRI scanner: either to help someone or "describe yourself" (use the report to present oneself favorably to others). Participants were given the objective of spreading information as a control.

"In all areas of life, people want to present themselves in a positive light or to relate positively to others," continues Scholz.

"Our method encourages people to identify ways in which they can fulfill these motives through the sharing of health articles. If they are successful, they should be more likely to decide to share the article."

The team then asked participants to think about what they may say or write to another study participant if they were to share the article with them after reading the headline and summary of a health-related article while keeping in mind their assigned purpose. Participants were asked to rate how likely they were to share the content.

Brain activity in self-related thinking, values-related thinking, and social-related thinking, specifically mentalizing, the act of imagining what others are thinking, increased along with a person's self-reported willingness to share an article when considering how it might benefit someone else.

"I think we're only scratching the surface in terms of how you could encourage people to share high quality health information," Scholz says. "A health communicator might want to focus on being accurate and clear and not have to worry about whether their content is emotional to get clicks. We're trying to find ways to focus on the would-be sharer, to help them find personal meaning in sharing content that can benefit others and society."

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