In January the editor-in-chief of Huffington Post, Arianna Huffington, introduced a new editorial initiative. Featuring only positive pieces, What's Working aims to uplift, inspire and, in Huffington's words, "start a positive contagion". Her reason? Positive news performs better on Facebook.
This won't come as a surprise to anyone with an internet connection: positivity sells. People tend to "Like" or "Share" things that make them happy, and Facebook's algorithm rewards web pages that are liked or shared the most. People "rarely share articles that make them sad, confused or angry," writes Caitlin Dewey for the Washington Post.
Research proves that the more positive the article, the more likely it is that it will be shared. No one wants to be the bearer of bad news, so perhaps that's why, on social media, not many of us are. Researcher Jonah Berger summarises, "When you share a story with your friends and peers, you care a lot more how they react. You don't want them to think of you as a Debbie Downer."
But just because individuals behave this way, doesn't mean news organisations should, too. However, positivity equals page views, so we get what the New York Times calls the Nice Internet. What's Working is just one in a myriad of examples that have mushroomed across the web. Upworthy, Buzzfeed and ViralNova are all helping HuffPo to create what Sheila Marikar calls "an Internet that aims to lift up, not take down", by dispersing "heartwarming, advice-heavy" content. "The current system penalises any subject that doesn't make the poster 'feel good'," says Dewey. "That includes any story that fails to vindicate your personal view of the world, challenges your assumptions or politics or confronts you with the uncomfortable fact."
But we need to know things that don't make us a smile. Knowledge is power, and it's damaging to retreat from reality by indulging in unending positivity. It used to be harder to avoid real news; newspapers were structured to relay the most important information first. Now What's Working and other sites are helping people procrastinate with positivity, by substituting political updates for pug videos.
Profiting from positivity is a publication's easy way out in the same way that reading a trashy magazine is a reader's easy way out. But the feeling of being informed is a fleeting illusion, and it won't always be what works for the media. It also won't help journalists hone their craft, and it certainly won't help the rest of us get any smarter.
If people or publishers wanted true positivity, they'd read and publish real news and engage with issues that matter. Ignorance is bliss, but only for so long. We all need balanced news in order to be balanced people. Because otherwise, instead of a "positive contagion", we may find ourselves with an infectious ignorance.
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