But the fear appeals that Albarracin studied came with recommended actions. “If the message is not actionable, then you’re not going to get effects overall,” she says.
While people do put out concrete calls to action on social media all the time, there is also the “stay outraged” genre of posts, which are more calls to emotion than calls to action. Surely when people rile each other up and freak each other out online, the general intent is to move toward a solution to the problem they’re concerned about. But “you’re not going to get behavior if you don’t tell people what to do,” Albarracin says.
“People try to frighten others because they’re frightened themselves. It’s about panic,” says Randall, who has studied the psychology of climate change. “It’s shouting ‘Fire,’ and what we know about shouting ‘Fire’ is it’s not a great idea. It’s much more sensible to say ‘Ladies and gentlemen, we have a small problem in the theater. I’d like row one to get up and leave, I’d like row two to get up and leave,’ etc.”
If logging into Facebook feels like opening the door on a theater full of people shouting ‘Fire,’ the overwhelming number of messages could dull their effectiveness. “In the end, there may be compassion fatigue among the public,” Chen says, which is a phenomenon where, after being exposed to a lot of suffering or calls for help, people experience reduced empathy for and interest in that suffering.
“I don’t think [fear-based messaging] is responsible or respectable,” Cater says. “We’re just at a moment in history where we haven’t mastered what technology has done to the way we communicate yet, so we’re being whipped around by it.”
“I actually think there are better strategies than fear,” Albarracin says. “But that doesn’t mean that fear does not work.”
In Albarracin’s meta-analysis, fear appeals worked best for one-time behaviors, like going to get screened for a particular disease. She would expect them to work less well for longer-term commitments. It might be easier to scare people into a one-time donation to a cause than to get them to join an organization and attend regular meetings, for example.
As for what would be a better way to communicate: “We need to see much less messaging and much more conversation,” Lertzman says. “Instead of sending a message that says, ‘Urgent: Donate or sign this petition now or we will lose the sequoias,’ another tactic could be, ‘We get that it must feel like everything is under assault, and you’re probably feeling powerless and sad. And that’s why it’s more important than ever that we work together.’ It’s a more relationship-oriented approach.”
For people looking to protect their own mental health and not get so overwhelmed that they disengage from the issues they care about, Woodruff advises “differentiating worry and anxiety from positive action, and separating productive worry from unproductive worry.”
Ultimately, your personal anxiety has no effect on the world around you. Worry is not action, and knowledge, while important, is not action either. Randall cautions against getting caught up in following every minute detail of an issue.
“Whatever the issue is, once you’ve found out about it, stop,” she says. “That’s enough. You know about it. Then you need to decide what you’re going to do.” As an activist she interviewed once told her, she said, “‘Action is the antidote to despair.’”