Social media marketing has become an essential part of any successful online strategy. The dominant narrative is that creating viral content is the key to reaching a massive audience quickly. Who doesn’t want their content to go viral and be seen by millions? However, some viral content can actually be quite harmful.
Recent years have seen numerous examples of misleading or false information spreading uncontrollably through social platforms. From political propaganda to financial misinformation, viral content hasn’t always been used for good. Even well-meaning viral posts can accidentally spread inaccurate facts if proper research isn’t done ahead of time.
While the reach of viral content is certainly enticing, marketers must consider the impact as well. Sharing compelling and engaging content is important, but it shouldn’t come at the expense of truth or ethics. As social media continues to evolve, we must think critically about how to create responsible and thoughtful online engagement.
In this post, we’ll explore the negative consequences of virality, talk about how businesses can create content that’s engaging and responsible, as well as provide some tips for creating content that is likely to go viral without being harmful or misleading.
The Negative Consequences of Virality
While viral content may seem exciting and reach a massive audience quickly, it can also have many unintended and harmful effects. The uncontrolled spread of misleading or false information through social networks carries significant risks that are often overlooked in the quest for engagement and clicks. Before creating and promoting viral content, it’s important to consider the potential downsides and damage that could be done if that content is taken at face value and spreads rapidly. Virality amplifies everything – good and bad – to a huge scale. In the wrong hands, it can erode trust, enable harassment, ruin reputations, and negatively impact mental health. Going viral may get attention, but it does not come without costs.
Spread of misinformation. Viral content can often be false or misleading. This is because people are more likely to share content that confirms their existing beliefs, even if it is not true. For example, a study by the Pew Research Center found that 64% of Americans have shared news stories on social media that they later learned were false. The rapid spread of misinformation erodes public trust and harms society.
Erosion of trust in institutions
When false or misleading content frequently goes viral, it can lead people to become more skeptical and lose trust in societal institutions. For example, if someone sees viral posts making unsubstantiated claims about vaccine safety, they may become distrustful of health organizations like the CDC that urge vaccination. Or if viral political content promotes conspiracy theories about election fraud, it can erode public trust in electoral processes and government as a whole.
This distrust has ripple effects across society. It fragments groups into more extreme positions, as people stop believing mainstream institutions and turn to more partisan sources that confirm their own biases. A lack of common understanding and authority makes compromise and progress more difficult. It becomes easier to dismiss expert opinions and facts that contradict one’s own views.
Without some baseline of mutually accepted facts and trust in institutions that represent society’s collective best interests, we become more fractured and polarized. Viral misinformation fans the flames of distrust and chaos. Rebuilding public trust requires countering viral falsehoods with transparent, accountable information sources focused on facts and ethical persuasion over manipulation. Trust is difficult to regain once eroded, which is why preventing the viral spread of misinformation is critical.
Cyberbullying and harassment
Social media has enabled a new form of viral bullying and harassment that can destroy lives. A video or post that goes viral and depicts someone being shamed or attacked can lead to an avalanche of abuse toward that person. The scale and speed enabled by virality makes the harm exponential.
Once content goes viral, the victim has effectively lost control over their own story and reputation. They become subject to the whims of the viral mob. Threats, doxxing, hacked accounts, and other harassment pour in as the content spreads across the internet. What may have begun as a localized dispute becomes a massive campaign of abuse.
In addition to the stress and trauma inflicted directly, widespread reputation damage can have lasting impacts. Victims may be unable to get a job or sustain relationships. Viral shame sticks with Google searches forever. And the harassment rarely stops, as images continue to recirculate.
Laws and policies have struggled to keep up with these emergent virtual mob dynamics enabled by virality. Platforms are slowly improving anti-harassment features, but protection remains limited. The only true solution is to promote empathy and empower targets of abuse. Virality amplifies our best and worst instincts as humans. We must consciously choose compassion over vitriol.
Damage to reputations
The damage that viral content can do to someone’s reputation can be devastating and long-lasting. In the age of social media, where information spreads rapidly, a single misleading photo, video, or post can ruin careers and tarnish reputations for years.
For individuals, a piece of negative viral content can hurt job prospects, relationships, and mental health. Even if it’s eventually proven false, the initial virality creates lasting first impressions and Google search results tying them to the content. For example, a job applicant could be passed over because of old social media posts taken out of context. Or a celebrity could lose fans and endorsements if private photos are leaked and go viral.
For organizations, false information in a viral post can significantly erode public trust and hurt revenue. If a company is tied to a viral scandal, whether real or fabricated, their brand reputation sustains damage. Or if misinformation about a product goes viral, sales may plummet based on false claims alone. Lawsuits and PR crises often follow.
Once content goes viral, it becomes exponentially more difficult to control the narrative and repair reputation damage. The only option is to get ahead of false claims with transparency and address emerging viral narratives quickly before they become cemented online. In the digital age, brand and personal reputations are precariously tied to the whims of virality. A single post can change lives when it goes viral, underscoring the need for care and verification when creating and sharing online content.
Increased anxiety and stress
The rapid spread of disturbing or upsetting viral content can negatively impact mental health and wellbeing. The constant stream of stressful information creates a feeling of perpetual unrest.
For young people especially, frequent exposure to negative viral content can lead to heightened anxiety, depression, and stress. Content that goes viral is often shocking or emotionally charged, as that elicits more shares. But when bombarded with a 24/7 feed of worrying viral news, divisive political arguments, or traumatic images, it takes a psychological toll.
Beyond distressing news and events, the culture of viral shaming and harassment also inflicts harm. When reputation-damaging content goes viral, it can lead to severe anxiety about how rapidly rumors spread. Seeing loved ones bullied or embarrassed online can also cause secondary trauma.
While social media does allow for positive viral phenomena like fundraising campaigns, those moments are outnumbered by divisive and disturbing content designed for engagement. Regulating our media diets is crucial, but challenging when platforms are built to maximize sharing of the most viral content. We must remain mindful of how viral information – whether factual or not – shapes our mental state.
The unchecked spread of misinformation for the sake of virality creates a toxic online environment with real-world consequences. We must be more responsible with the content we create and share.
How Businesses Can Create Content That’s Engaging And Responsible
While viral content may seem like an easy way for businesses to attract attention, it comes with significant risks if not done thoughtfully. Brands have an opportunity to lead by example and craft engaging stories that connect with audiences without relying on misinformation or negativity. There are ways for companies to capture interest and start meaningful conversations without resorting to clickbait or exploitation. With care and intention, businesses can produce content that responsibly goes viral for all the right reasons.
- Focus on positive and uplifting stories. Share content that makes people feel good and promotes your values. Avoid capitalizing on shock value or outrage.
- Be thoughtful about what groups or topics your content features. Avoid perpetuating harmful stereotypes or tropes, even unintentionally.
- Vet information thoroughly before sharing. Don’t spread claims without credible sources, even if provocative. Inaccurate content undermines trust.
- Get consent before featuring identifiable people in campaigns. Be transparent on how their audience data is used. Protect their dignity.
- Promote engagement through thoughtful discussion topics, not divisive clickbait. Sometimes less viral reach is worth more authentic community connection.
- Interact with both positive and critical reactions. Don’t just ignore or delete negative ones. Listen and have dialogue.
- Collaborate with creators that align with your brand values. Don’t just chase influencers with the most followers.
- Track results beyond vanity metrics like views or shares. Measure meaningful metrics like audience sentiment and real-world impact.
The key is balancing meaningful engagement with ethical marketing. Reduce harm, foster community, spark joy and inspiration. Thoughtful viral content connects with audiences without exploiting or misleading them.
How to Create Content That Will Go Viral Without Being Harmful or Misleading
While virality may seem unpredictable, there are certainly strategies brands can use to ethically create content that resonates and spreads. With care and intention, marketers can develop engaging stories and campaigns that capture attention naturally without resorting to controversy or misinformation. By focusing on positivity, human connection, and high quality messaging, content has the potential to organically go viral for all the right reasons. It takes work to hit the viral sweet spot that marries engagement and responsibility, but it is within reach.
Here are some tips for creating viral content that is responsible:
- Make it positive and uplifting. Content that makes people feel good has high viral potential. Inspire or amuse people without being mean-spirited.
- Tell compelling human stories. Share real people’s experiences in an authentic way. This connects emotionally with audiences. Get consent and don’t exploit.
- Use humor thoughtfully. Funny videos and memes spread quickly but avoid punching down at others’ expense.
- Leverage popular trends and holidays but give them a fresh spin. Put your unique take on viral phenomena.
- Create shareable visuals and videos. Images and short clips tend to get high engagement on social media. Make sure they look polished.
- Experiment with new engaging formats like Stories. But adapt them to genuinely suit your brand, don’t just chase trends.
- Collaborate with reputable influencers who align with your message and values. Vet partners carefully.
- Encourage sharing with catchy hooks but don’t mislead. Allure with authenticity.
- Check facts extensively and provide sources. Don’t spread claims you can’t back up.
- Monitor engagement and sentiment closely as content spreads. Respond appropriately to feedback.
With thoughtful strategy, brands can tap into virality’s potential while avoiding its pitfalls. Focus on quality over clickbait and you can make a positive impact.
Virality may seem like the holy grail of social media marketing, but it comes with significant risks if pursued irresponsibly. As we have seen, viral content can easily spread misinformation, erode trust in institutions, enable harassment, damage reputations, and negatively impact mental health. However, with care and strategy, it is possible to create content that captures attention and drives engagement without these downsides.
As content creators and sharers, we must be mindful of how our online actions ripple outwards. Think critically about each piece of viral content – assess the source, factualness, intent, and potential for harm before sharing. Seek out authoritative and uplifting stories to spread instead. Platforms also have a responsibility to better curb misinformation and hate even if it affects their engagement metrics.
While virality provides an alluring opportunity to grow audiences exponentially, we cannot let that overshadow ethics and truth. It is possible to bring people together through inspired and thoughtful content, not just divide them with shocking or misleading clickbait. Tapping into human stories and imagination thoughtfully can better leverage virality’s power to capture attention. Our online ecosystems thrive through positive viral moments that constructively shape culture.
Moving forward, we must keep these lessons in mind. Virality reflects humanity’s best and worst traits amplified. But with care, empathy and responsibility, we can create better viral content that brings out our highest human instincts, not our lowest.