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Doom-Scrolling and the Manipulation of Anxiety

Why social media makes you anxious.

Key points

  • Fake news is often bad news. For that reason, it tends to make people anxious.
  • Social media companies and users' failure to fact-check news they share both contribute to the spread of fake news.
  • The fear created by fake (often bad) news can be manipulated by companies to sell products or help tyrannical leaders acquire power.

Have you noticed the level of bad news—the constant harping, negative stories on your social media newsfeed? If you have, then you are probably not alone. Recent research on the effects of bad digital news illustrates new concepts, such as the "news finds me" attitude and "doom-scrolling," that are important for understanding our well-being in the face of negative digital news.

Yet, it is also important to understand not just our reactions, but why there is so much bad digital news. We need to consider the uses of anxiety manipulation for political power and control as examined by Freud, and as revealed by recent studies of companies' marketing ploys.

Fake news is often bad news

A major focus of concern over the last 10 years or so has been "fake news": the deliberate fabrication of falsehoods to a usually political end. This is not a new phenomenon, and it played a major role in anti-British sentiment in the 1770s American colonies1. However, the amount of fake news is now at a high, and dissemination is dramatic a situation that can only be likened to the Dark Ages2.

Yet, there is a confound that is rarely discussed: Fake news tends to be bad news (not always, but often), and this adds other psycho-social dimensions to consider: Why is it critical that fake news is bad or disconcerting, and what is the role of social media companies in this?

Social media companies and their users enable the spread of fake news

A recent study3 suggests “… the enabling environment for the spreading of FN [fake news] is attributed to the structure and strategies of SM [social media] companies.” This work analysed fake news as if it were an infectious pathogen. In this model, social media companies act as hosts to the virus, and social media users who share the news are the herd who get infected. The degree to which pathogens spread depends on how much contact there is between herd members (how much they share). The conclusions were that people need to fact-check to stop the spread. This is an interesting analysis, showing a role for social media companies, but it may place too much emphasis on the user, and not enough on the host, to halt the spread. Think about saying to a victim of Typhoid Mary: "It"s your fault."

Another recent study4 suggests why relying on the user to sort out the credibility of the news is likely to have limited effectiveness. It was found that people tend to have a rather passive consumption of news or, at least, a rather passive attitude to the acquisition of news stories. This is termed the "news finds me" perception4.

To the extent that people have this attitude, they are likely to accept the contents of the news they read without actively checking and questioning those contents. Perhaps this is because they are too busy and can't fact-check—that is what journalists used to get paid for. Whatever the reason, the study suggests that many people will accept what they are told.

Consumption of negative news can lead to anxiety and fear

The effect of the consumption of bad (often fake) news on well-being is always negative. Disturbingly, the amount of consumption does not have to be large for negative affect to occur. It was shown in two experimental studies5 that consumption of about three minutes of negative news (in the case of this study, news related to COVID) leads to: “immediate and significant reductions in positive affect … and optimism …” When we couple this finding with the notion that people tend to be vigilant for negative news6,7, we can see that the tendency towards “doom-scrolling”5 can lead to rapid and large increases in anxiety and fear.

Anxiety is manipulated in the pursuit of power

It appears that people want to see bad news. A series of experiments demonstrated that people prefer receiving bad news before good news in advertising7. The study found giving bad news first allowed marketers to offer solutions that became very salient. In fact, consumers felt in greater control of the situation after being presented with a solution to some bad news even though it was a solution not of their own making.

Although these studies were conducted in the context of advertising, they offer insight into the role of bad news on social media. Moreover, these findings take the focus away from fake news. Bad news does not have to be fake to achieve this end—the end, of course, being to create anxiety, which can then be used to acquire power.

Anxiety can lead to tyranny

In his analysis of society and politics, Civilization and Its Discontents8, written presciently in 1929, Freud outlines why tyrants come to power so often. The central claim is that freedom requires responsibility and decisions. In turn, this reduces certainty and security and provokes anxiety. Anxiety is taken as a threat by the unconscious, and people try to escape the threat by relinquishing their own control in favour of somebody who claims to have the answers to the problems. The tyrant, thus, gains power. In many ways, the study of advertising outlined above7 is an experimental demonstration of this phenomenon, and there are others9.

In analysing the rise of totalitarian regimes, many have noted that they tend to arise in times of perceived crises. However, a constant misapprehension is that tyrants merely emerge from chaos, failing to recognise the active role played by tyrants in generating fear of chaos. Whenever somebody proposes a tyrannical or restrictive solution, they invariably start by pointing out how bad things are now and how they offer the solution; it only requires us to do what they say, in order to be "safe."

Recent science allows a clearer picture of the reasons why we see an unremittingly bleak view of the world through the lens of social media newsfeeds. It is in the interests of companies to promote bad news as fake; otherwise, it generates anxiety. This relies on two psychological characteristics in the digital world: Firstly, as people are busy, they let the news come to them, without checking. Secondly, because they are anxious, they look out for the bad as they doom-scroll. This promotes fear and anxiety in the manners outlined by Freud, allowing the presentation of the "company as saviour." Think about the claims that social media promotes freedom almost: "social media (rather than the truth) will set you free."

So, what is the best strategy to combat this onslaught of negativity? Recognition of the issue is one thing, and developing a critical and analytic stance will help; but, even so, this will still expose you to a lot of negativity. Think about what you would do with a "friend" who constantly brought you down. Perhaps just turning off the social media newsfeed and sampling the news when you want is the best option.


1. Miller, J.C. (1960). Sam Adams; pioneer in propaganda. Stanford University Press.

2. Reed, P. (2020). Rumour, gossip, and misinformation: fourteenth century communication in the digital age. Psychology Today. Rumour, Gossip, and Misinformation | Psychology Today United Kingdom

3. Olan, F., Jayawickrama, U., Arakpogun, E. O., Suklan, J., & Liu, S. (2022). Fake news on social media: the Impact on Society. Information Systems Frontiers, 1-16.

4. Diehl, T., & Lee, S. (2022). Testing the cognitive involvement hypothesis on social media: 'News finds me' perceptions, partisanship, and fake news credibility. Computers in Human Behavior, 128, 107121.

5. Buchanan, K., Aknin, L.B., Lotun, S., & Sandstrom, G.M. (2021). Brief exposure to social media during the COVID-19 pandemic: Doom-scrolling has negative emotional consequences, but kindness-scrolling does not. PloS ONE, 16(10), e0257728.

6. Reed, P. (2022). Why bad news has such an impact. Psychology Today. Why Bad News Has Such an Impact | Psychology Today United Kingdom

7. Wakefield, K.L., Raghubir, P., & Inman, J.J. (2022). Have we got a deal for you: Do you want the good news or bad news first?. Journal of Service Research, 10946705221120147.

8. Freud, S. (1929/ 2002). Civilization and its discontents. Penguin.

9. Catania, A.C. (1975). Freedom and knowledge: An experimental analysis of preference in pigeons. Journal of the Experimental Analysis of Behavior, 24(1), 89-106.

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