Consider these headlines from July, 21st, 2020
Case Numbers are far higher than reported in parts of U.S, C.D.C Says-NYtimes
Armed Gunman with explosives holding passengers hostage on Ukraine bus: local police-FoxNews
China blows up dam as death toll from flooding rises-Los Angeles Times
Are you afraid yet? You should be! They are all headlines of disease, terrorism, and disaster from July, 21st, 2020.
Let’s make this more interesting. What if the headlines said,
Everything That You Need to Know About the Coronavirus-Wired
Or what about,
Did a Person Write This Headline Or a Machine?-Wired
Did you notice anything? They are not as startling. Some people might call this boring. Psychologists call this the Availablity Heuristic. The Heuristic is the capacity for people to overestimate the frequency of a tragedy.
For example, plenty of people are terrified of dying in a plane crash and this is in spite of the reality that you are far more likely to expire in a vehicle driving to the airport. You are also far more likely to bite the dust by heart disease than by a tornado, but the former rarely makes it into the news because it is less dramatic.
It’s also not an accident either. The data scientist Kalev Leetaru did a sentiment analysis of news stories from 1945 to 2005 using Natural Language Processing (NLP). He discovered that the news did get more negative over the last sixty years.
All this negativity is depressing people with increased reports of anxiety, contempt, hostility, and generally bad moods. Negative reports also have a habit of distorting reality for its consumers. For example, some people believe that a Coronavirus diagnosis is a death sentence. This is delusional. In reality you have a 96-97% chance of making a full recovery. It’s mostly only the sick and the elderly that are at any real risk.
But this story isn’t about the Coronavirus. It is about the business of the modern news cycle.
How did we get here?
In the sixty years since the news industry went to a dark place, it’s also changed as a medium. The news is no longer sold and distributed by newspapers. Well some of it still is. The majority of news these days is dealt by social media corporations like Facebook, Twitter, Youtube, and LinkedIn. Being private companies, they have their own motivations for dispensing the news. These motivations are monetized by providing you with a fleeting sense of community using a variety of social engineering tricks.
How do they do this?
We all want to be Liked and social media makes this easy. With Facebook there is the Like button. Twitter has the star and I shouldn’t need to explain the rest. People further like to reciprocate to people who like their posts. Social media companies know this and they immediately notify you when you are liked. It is these alerts that are the irresistible candy for many people to boost their self esteem.
Then there is the fear of missing out or FOMO. For some people there is the real fear that they could miss out on a rewarding experience on social media. You know, like the cat videos. This fear can be problematic for some people and can lead to an addiction.
The social media companies know this. They know this very well and it’s earned them billions of dollars in advertising revenue. They exploit your need for validation and cat videos by providing an endless stream of ping, buzz, or rings on your phone. These sounds are deliberately designed to condition you to react to your account.
The team at Snapchat has turned this into a game with the Streak Score that rewards its visitors for staying engaged. The consumers that spend the most time sending photos to other people receive the highest score. This score creates an incentive for consumers to be competitive. Plus it introduces a “sunk cost” trap that makes it more difficult for the consumer to quit after investing considerable time in the task.
This addiction can be enhanced by your personality type. If you are someone that combats depression and anxiety, then you are more likely to compare yourself to others that you consider to be better off. If you are a person that receives pleasure from inciting distress in others by trolling, then you are likely to compare yourself to others that you perceive to be worse off than you. Both of these activities are coping mechanisms that can be addictive.
But how is the news on social media driving my stress?
Are you still scrolling? Good, we can proceed. Did you notice anything while you were seeking your next like? Any reports of catastrophe like with Covid-19 and police brutality? If you are reading this in the future then please leave a desperate rant about the current threats to your life in the comments. You must have found a threat by now. You are aware of these threats because the brain is wired to instinctively respond to any potential hazards. It is the biological imperative of survival and the cause of much stress. Uncertainty over these threats is the primary driver of anxiety. It is this uncertainty that drives people to keep searching for information in the effort of regaining control. But instead of regaining control, this information validates our fears and further drives our anxiety in a vicious feedback loop.
The never ending stream of posts, likes, and FOMO on social media all build into a self-fulfilling prophecy of anxiety that we call Doomscrolling.
How can I quit?
Anxiety can be a tenacious disease to dislodge after it sinks its teeth into your mind and I can speak from experience. When the feeling does arrive and stalk you like an obedient dog, it can be difficult to escape. Yet there is a way out. It’s been my experience that any of these methods work when you need to get out of your head.
- Change your location. Get outside and take a walk, jog or drive around town.
- Close your browser and take a few deep breaths.
- Turn on some calming music.
- Try a new activity.
- Find yourself a new challenge, like solving a puzzle.
- Any ideas? _______________________________