It’s not news that social media, clickbait headlines, and others often exploit human emotions to generate interest. One major way human emotions are exploited is via “cute” photos, videos, and memes. Scientists are exploring how cuteness encourages people to share information, good or bad, shaping perceptions that could influence public opinion.
The Office of Naval Research is studying how emotions prompt people to share information on the internet, particularly how the perception of “cuteness” increases the likelihood of sharing. The goal is to be able to anticipate the spread and reach of cute content—from cat memes to anime—especially if that content is paired with a dark message.
Clickbait manipulates headlines to get reader attention, and as much as we despise them we often can’t resist clicking, even when we KNOW it’s clickbait. Getting people to share negative content is easy. What makes people share positive content, including “cute” content, is another story. The ONR is partnering with academic experts studying how people perceive cute and how cuteness affects sharing on the internet.
Even ISIS, the Naval Science and Technology Future Force reports, used images of its fighters with cats, “probably a reference to a companion of the Prophet, Abu Huraira, who was fond of cats.” Bad actors, as NST calls them, use cats and other cute critters to make a negative or divisive message more likely to be shared or even perceived in a more positive light.
But what is “cute”? Cute is something people know when they see it, and not everyone’s perception of cuteness is the same. One of the best descriptions of cuteness, NST Future Force points out, is the Sanskirt term “kama muta,” which translates into the “feeling of being heart-warmed when seeing cute, infant-like things.” Thanks to the internet, we know this also means big-eyed kittens.
“By determining ways to measure cuteness and emotional reactions to cute stimuli, it is possible to then conduct statistical analyses on the impact of cute content and reactions on social media sharing. To prove this hypothesis, researchers conducted a pilot study in 2018 using Twitter to test the role of different emotions on social media sharing… As expected, researchers found that tweets containing cute images or cute behavior and tweets that evoked heartwarming responses were more likely to be shared.”
ONR’s stated goal is to understand why people share cute cat photos, vids and memes and understand how positive emotions like kama muta can be used to stifle negative, divisive content. Could social media become yet another theater of conflict, where the Pentagon and groups like ISIS engage in a meme war to win hearts and minds?