Is the democratization of media bad for democracy?
We thought more information would open our minds. Instead, our brains have revolted against unlimited stimulation.
Bad news: It cost me zero dollars to publish this article.
Not long ago, sharing information with thousands of people was a serious endeavor. The cost of printing and the time it took to produce and transport magazines and newspapers created physical barriers to how much could be written and how much we could read.
Before word counts and three-minute reads, journalists were allotted column inches. Paper was money, and the space your publisher set aside was a proxy for the value and quality of your story.
Today, those limits have evaporated, and we’ve lost our best neurological shortcut for deciding who to trust. The democratization of publishing seemed like a great idea, but it has been a disaster for democracy.
We thought more information would make us more knowledgeable and allow us to consider a wider range of worldviews. Instead, our brains have revolted against unlimited stimulation. Without any limits on what can be published or how much we can consume, we’ve decided we can’t trust anything we read.
Faced with an infinitely scrolling news feed, our brains revert to a digital form of fight or flight.
Some readers embrace their social media echo chambers.
They rely on their friends to provide a new, replacement filter on the information they receive. This is the fight reaction, because it leads to more anger, more conflict and more polarization. Your friends have no stake in your quest to become an informed, responsible citizen — they post on social media so they can feel smart or edgy, and so they can grab a fleeting rush of dopamine from a few hours of approval and attention. That’s not a recipe for a calm, balanced view of the world.
Others go off the grid and eschew the news entirely.
This works well if you truly aim to live in a cabin in the woods, but a certain degree of engagement and understanding of government and current events is a prerequisite to being an active participant in society. The urge to cut yourself off is the natural flight response to the threat of infinite information. It protects your brain in the short term, but it prevents you from reaching your potential.
The rest of us rely on an elaborate suite of tools, tricks and willpower to strike a tenuous balance.
But even the best time-trackers and ad-blockers can only get you so far. Every time you engage with the media vortex, you’re expending willpower, subjecting yourself to stress, and making it more likely you’ll get sucked back in. All that risk, and there’s no guarantee you’ll even find a source you trust.
We can’t deny the value of technology and the Internet, and there were plenty of problems when journalism was ruled by a hegemony of major publishers. But we also can’t build a nation of knowledgeable citizens in an environment of unlimited stimulation and information overload.
The truth hidden behind the likes, comments and clickbait is that the world is not quite as extreme and chaotic as it seems.
When we step back from the vortex, even for a few days, the snap reactions to scary stories and angry tweets fade away. We have the calm, relaxed focus to see the big picture — including the parts of the world we like and the parts we want to change — and we can use that renewed energy to become the citizens the world deserves.
Rob Howard is the author of Hiatus, a free, weekly current events briefing with no links, no likes and no distractions. In five minutes a week, you get the knowledge you need to be an informed, responsible citizen.