RALEIGH, N.C. — The 1975 thriller “Jaws” put Steven Spielberg on a path to directorial stardom, but it also made sharks a target of human cruelty against these animals. Since then, people often stereotype sharks as violent and bloodthirsty creatures, but a new study hopes to change that perception. Researchers at North Carolina State University found that people were less likely to blame sharks for attacking people after viewing a few positive YouTube videos about them.
Watching the videos also created greater support for non-lethal strategies to deal with sharks after an attack.
“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,” says Nils Peterson, a professor in NC State’s Fisheries, Wildlife and Conservation Biology program, in a university release. “Wildlife managers, conservationists, and biologists tasked with conserving these species can use this to build support for decisions beneficial to sharks.”
The study invited 340 people living in North Carolina to view a series of “positive” YouTube videos about sharks, as well as “negative” videos showing sharks in scary contexts. Afterwards, the participants rated their fear of a future shark attack and how intentional they think most shark attacks are. Researchers also asked participants to list who they think is responsible for shark bite incidents — sharks, swimmers, no one, the government, or someone else.
“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,” adds lead study 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.”
Before and after watching the videos, participants voiced their support for either lethal or non-lethal strategies after a shark-biting event. Non-lethal strategies involved leaving sharks alone, educating the public on sharks, supporting research efforts on human-shark interactions, or paying for new technologies to prevent shark bites.
Lethal strategies involved hunting sharks or using nets or baited drums, which can kill sharks because they cannot breathe without 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,” says Peterson.
After watching videos of sharks that put them in a positive light, people were less likely to rate shark bites as intentional. People were also less likely to blame sharks, while placing more of the responsibility on swimmers who were probably attempting high-risk and dangerous activities. There was also less support overall for all three lethal options for dealing with sharks and higher support for three of the five non-lethal responses.
Watching negative videos increased support for using two of three lethal strategies, hunting sharks and baited drum lines. There was also less support for two non-lethal measures.
The research team is working on exploring more of the public’s attitudes toward sharks and shark management strategies after watching videos about them during commercials or spaced out over time. They hope to look at why people feel a certain way towards sharks and if it is the result of an unconscious bias or their education on the animals.
The study is published in the journal Frontiers in Communication.