The Real Problem With Mass Media

Live Twitter Feed — Brant (flickr)

You’re bored at work or school. You’re on a break. You’re doing a quick social media check while your date goes to the restroom, perhaps to do the same. Whatever the situation, we’re all on our phones. Cue the almighty [insert app of choice] feed.

It’s a wonderful invention, really. All of your closest friends, most important pages you’re following, companies you care about, idols and celebrities you worship… conveniently amassed in a single, endless stream for your viewing pleasure. You see your friend Lailah was engaged, learned about Tesla’s new solar roof pricing, and indulged in your daily fill of cute kittens doing stupid shit — all in the span of 2 minutes. This is the epitome of entertainment.

So why not get all of your information from social media? Oh hey, look at that: your favorite news publications are also on Facebook/Twitter/Blah! What a time to be alive! Everything you care about, including politics and news, amassed into a single location, where you can endlessly just flick your thumb and suck in information like a black hole destroying the local solar system.

But there’s a problem with this: politics and news stories aren’t simple.

Social Media For News Is Like Poking A Hornets’ Nest

…as in, you technically could do it, but you really shouldn’t.

When we take breaks and browse social media, the primary focus is for us to relax and mindlessly feed our connection addictions. Subsequently, the thinking caps are turned off — everything becomes a thoughtless, emotional reaction. And it is at these points where we are most susceptible to being swayed by bullshit…not a great time to engage in conversations about the state of education in the country or the perils of dictatorships.

Worse yet, the problem exacerbates itself — every blogger, news publication, what-have-you, knows you’re just quickly scrolling through your feed. This means their focus is going to be on catching your attention. Now, we cue the outrageous headlines, and possibly even more outrageous articles. They either outright lie, or they deliberately twist and mutate their message such that they’re not technically lying, but they’re not really telling the truth either. This Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal (great comic, by the way) illustrates it pretty well.

Seriously, damned if that comic doesn’t perfectly illustrate 90% of mass media. Problem is, can you blame them for doing things this way?

So Who’s To Blame?

There is a lot of garbage in the media because people consume that garbage. It earns views, and subsequently, earns money. If something didn’t earn money, it most likely wouldn’t exist. As much as some people, I’m sure, would love to post accurate news articles and participate in totally honest journalism for free, people sort of need money to live -> people need views to get money -> people need to be outrageous to get views.

Read: YOU are part of the problem.

With most Americans being dissatisfied with their jobs and evidence suggesting Americans are becoming unhappier, people are likely coming home from awful days at work already stressed and emotionally wound up.

When we are at emotional lows, we will react to things much differently than when we’re at our best. Think about when something pissed you off far more than it probably should have. It doesn’t happen all the time, right? Or how about that time when something you usually love didn’t appeal to you?

As an example, I’m cranky when I don’t get enough sleep. It’s a consistent pattern. And when I’m cranky, pretty much everything pisses me off — even stuff that shouldn’t. My most favorite thing in the world is ice cream. But when I’m pissed off, even ice cream doesn’t stop my irritability.

Now think about the fact people are now more often in a state where they are reacting quite badly to things. This means that happy, truthful, detailed, in-depth news articles and analyses (a.k.a. actual journalism) aren’t going to grab their attention.

The Culmination

The setup goes like this: people are generally unhappy, and we’re currently in the technological boom where the vast majority of people (in 1st-world countries) are choosing social media as their boon. This means there are emotionally wound-up people exposing themselves to the idiotic, unregulated, and often stimulating overtures of the Internet. We also take into account the fact all media outlets need money to live and need views to earn money, so they will do anything they can to get views.

These two premises combine into a disgusting gag-cycle whereby the media continually feeds outrage-porn articles to the masses and the masses keep getting more and more pissed off, so they share and consume more media.

What a doozy.

The Solution: Action Steps

To destroy this endless cycle and topple the colossus, the consumer side of society must actively change our choices and remember we ultimately control the tide of media:

  1. Stop turning to social media for news. You must understand political and religious issues tend to be complicated and require high focus and depth of thought. A quick headline skim will give you very little information, and hell, even reading through a single article from a single source usually only scratches the surface of an issue.
  2. Stop or reduce turning to the Internet as a means of emotional relief. If you’re pissed off or emotional, put the phone down and go do something. Talk to a loved one. Go on a walk. Get in your car and drive out to Starbucks or something. Treat yourself to a milkshake. Whatever. But for chrissakes, stop purposefully browsing through incendiary content when you’re not in a controlled mood.
  3. Stop waking up to rage-inducing stuff (i.e., political or religious radio shows). I actually found out recently this was the source of my unhappiness. I’m not sure why I didn’t figure it out until now, but waking up to morning political talk shows usually ruined my day depending on what they talked about. I’d spend my entire commute cursing at imaginary people, getting angry at other drivers on the road for no good reason (well, sometimes there is good reason, but I digress). Turns out this is sort of toxic for mental well-being. Huh. Flip on some 80s tunes instead. Or bad J-Pop. Whatever works.
  4. Selectively choose what things are worth your consumption. If someone writes a headline like, “Republicans Want Women To Be Subservient!” or, “Democrats Worship Muslims and ISIS”, take a deep breath, realize someone is trying to piss you off, and don’t let them. Scroll past that shit. You’ll be smarter and happier at the end of the day. I’m convinced that with the advent of outrage news, there is such a thing as losing IQ points.

Sometimes it’s easy to get caught up in the complexity of media and consumption, but we must remember media depends on consumers to earn a living. They will put out whatever content earns them views. This means we consumers, ultimately, control what content is published: they’re not going to put out content that doesn’t earn them money.

So if you don’t want garbage in the media, stop consuming garbage.

The Shrewd Citizen Project

We are all human, so many of us have the same perks and quirks. But the separator of the successful from unsuccessful, the happy from unhappy, and the effective from ineffective, is self-awareness. Are you aware of why you feel this way? Do you recognize the cause?

Can you leverage that knowledge for the benefit of yourself and the world?

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