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Positive YouTube Videos Help Deflect Blame From Sharks

Sharks in the ocean
Sharks in the ocean. Credit: Gerald Schombs on Unsplash,

For Immediate Release

M. Nils Peterson
Laura Oleniacz, NC State University

In a new study, North Carolina State University researchers found more people shifted blame for shark bites away from the animals after watching positive YouTube videos about them. They also saw greater support on average for non-lethal strategies for responding to incidents in which a shark has bitten a person.

“We found that positive social media could help make the general public less likely to blame sharks for negative interactions, and more supportive of pro-conservation responses to problems that occur,” said study co-author Nils Peterson, a professor in NC State’s Fisheries, Wildlife and Conservation Biology program. “Wildlife managers, conservationists, and biologists tasked with conserving these species can use this to build support for decisions beneficial to sharks.”

In the study, researchers surveyed 340 North Carolina residents before and after watching either a series of “positive” YouTube videos about sharks, or “negative” videos that portrayed sharks in scary contexts.

“We wanted to see how the positive use of social media might change baseline attitudes toward sharks, since the baseline is shaped by negative portrayals,” said the study’s lead author Will Casola, a former graduate student at NC State. “A group of social scientists has already coined the term the ‘Jaws Effect’ to describe how ‘Jaws’ and other shark-related content has driven the narrative around these animals as violent killers.”

In the surveys, researchers asked people to rate their fear of shark bites; to rate how intentional they think most shark bites are; and to list who they think is responsible when shark bites occur: sharks, swimmers, no one, the government or other.

Before and after respondents watched the videos, researchers also asked them about their support for either lethal or non-lethal response strategies to bites. Non-lethal strategies included leaving sharks alone, educating the public, conducting more research to investigate human-shark interactions or paying for new technologies to prevent shark bites. The lethal strategies included hunting sharks or using nets or baited drums. Researchers said these strategies can kill sharks because many species can’t breathe unless they’re moving through water.

“Theoretically, you could go out there on a frequent basis and unhook the sharks and move them elsewhere, but the most likely outcome from nets or baited drum lines is a dead animal, although it depends on the location and the species,” Peterson said.

After watching the positive videos, people were less likely to rate shark bites as intentional. More people shifted blame away from sharks, while more people blamed the swimmers.

“Rather than just blaming the shark, we saw people moving responsibility onto humans not to perform high-risk activities,” Casola said.  

After watching positive videos, they also saw decreased support on average for all three lethal response measures, and higher support on average for three of five non-lethal strategies. Meanwhile, negative videos increased support for two of three lethal measures – hunting sharks and baited drum lines – and decreased support for two non-lethal measures.

In future work, the researchers want to explore how people’s attitudes about sharks and shark management strategies would shift after watching videos about them amid commercials, or spaced out over time. They also want to explore whether people’s attitudes are influenced by unconscious bias and education.

The study, “Influence of social media on fear of sharks, perceptions of intentionality associated with shark bites, and shark management preferences,” was published online in Frontiers in Communication. Co-authors included Justin M. Beall, Lincoln R. Larson and Carol S. Price.


Note to Editors: The study abstract follows.

“Influence of social media on fear of sharks, perceptions of intentionality associated with shark bites, and shark management preferences”

Authors: William R. Casola, Justin M. Beall, M. Nils Peterson, Lincoln R. Larson and Carol S. Price.

Published: Oct. 21, 2022, Frontiers in Communication

DOI: 10.3389/fcomm.2022.1033347

Abstract: Sharks, a critical component of marine ecosystems, represent one of the most threatened taxa globally. Shark conservation efforts are constrained by public fear and misperceptions. Positive social media-based outreach may provide one cost effective means to reduce fear of sharks and change misperceptions about shark bite intentionality. Using framing theory, which suggests that the ways in which information is presented influences how it is processed and the changes in perceptions that result from it, we experimentally evaluated impacts of positively and negatively framed YouTube videos on fear of sharks and perceptions of shark bite intentionality among participants from the coastal state of North Carolina (NC), USA in Spring 2020. Respondents took a pre-test, followed by a randomly assigned positive or negative video treatment consisting of approximately 15 minutes of shark week videos. Pre/post-test comparisons suggest positive YouTube content decreased fright by 24%, perceived danger by 27%, and perception of shark bite intentionality by 29%, whereas negatively framed media did the opposite. Negatively framed media resulted in more respondents blaming shark bites on the shark or the swimmer. Positively framed media resulted in people blaming the swimmer or no one. Positively framed media decreased support for lethal responses to shark bites, such as shark nets, hunting down sharks that bite people, and drum lines. The positive treatment increased support for responding with research, leaving the shark alone, and education. Negatively framed media decreased support for responding by leaving the shark alone or doing nothing and increased support for some lethal responses to shark bites (i.e., drum lines and hunting down sharks). When positive and negative treatments had different effect sizes, the positive treatments tended to be more impactful. Collectively these results suggest social media may be a valuable tool for leveraging the power of communication to promote shark conservation.