want to go viral? lose the substance.

I was idly scrolling through Twitter before meeting some friends for dinner on Saturday night when an unusual photo crossed my feed. In it, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg smile, crinkly-eyed, in black suits and loosened ties in a warmly-lit room at what one assumes is a VIP event at the Munich Security Conference, where both men spoke last week. Zelenskyy, who shared the photo, captioned it: “Зближуємо світ. Робимо це разом! / Bringing the world closer. Doing it together!”

I sighed audibly. Two glasses of wine into the evening, unpacking the nuance of what that photo meant for countering disinformation in Ukraine and beyond seemed a like a big lift.

“I have a lot of feelings about this picture,” I wrote, eschewing punctuation, and sent the tweet.

Two days later, it had nearly 300 retweets and 1500 likes. For comparison, President Zelenskyy’s original tweet has earned 311 retweets and 2200 likes as of this writing. Thanks to the tweet, I gained over 250 followers in 48 hours. It has garnered over half a million impressions, making it my second most successful tweet of all time. I’m still a small fry on Twitter, but these are big numbers in my universe.

As I watched it blow up, I wondered why it was doing so well. It was not clever or funny. It did not offer any analysis or opinion. It certainly was not nuanced. It got a few bumps from some “influencers,” but as the replies rolled in, I realized what made them and their followers engage with it in the first place: being completely devoid of substance, it was a blank screen onto which users could project whatever they were feeling.

Oh, and was there ever projection. There were my old friends from the Ukrainian presidential election, who popped out of the Twitter woodwork to insist that this picture was yet more proof Zelenskyy was a Russian stooge. There were unkind people who dunked on Mark Zuckerberg’s personality or appearance. There were those who tried to appoint both Ze and Zuck to honorary Trump administration positions, highlighting their alleged complicity in what they viewed as the US government’s misdeeds. And there were many, many, many people bragging that they deleted Facebook, imploring me to do the same.

I tried to redirect them. I linked to this piece I wrote last spring about how quitting Facebook is a privilege that many in countries like Ukraine don’t have. I wondered if Zelenskyy spoke to Zuckerberg about Facebook’s many failures during the Ukrainian presidential election.

It’s sobering to realize that these “takes” that aren’t takes at all are what can travel so far and fast on social media. An off-the-cuff, vapid remark is more appealing to many than the 2000-word features over which I agonize, let alone my (typically) carefully-worded tweets. In the communications world, it wasn’t long ago that we used to be told that we should aim to make our audiences “feel something.” Make them sad! Make them happy! Make them angry! Definitely include animals wherever possible! (Speaking of which, I recently adopted a cat. Meet Baxter:)

That’s all still in play; we know both foreign and domestic purveyors of disinformation are emotionally manipulative to a fault; feeling strong emotion is a great indicator that a piece of content may not be trustworthy. (They also made use of animal memes.)

But in a world that’s increasingly self-centered — a world of TikToks and SnapChats and selfies — a person’s urge to insert themselves, their opinions, their frustrations into the timeline, and onto a blank screen can also be a powerful tool to manipulate discourse.

And don’t worry; a longer piece on the nuance of that photograph will be coming soon.

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