(Image: Steve Cutts)
The way in which we consume information determines how we interpret it.
In his seminal work “Thinking, Fast and Slow” Daniel Kahneman, Nobel prize winning behavioural psychologist describes how two basic systems govern the way we think. We have a primal ‘system one’ way of thinking which is fast, impulsive and emotional. We also have a ‘system two’ form of thinking which is slow, deliberative and logical.
Democracy demands we use ‘system two’ thinking in order to function. Our institutions are designed to arrive at logical, evidence-based decisions. Our legal systems are designed to apply standards of ‘reasonableness’ in solving disputes. And our media should, in theory, be designed to engender healthy, informed, public debate.
The internet, by contrast, is designed for impulse. Everything is fast and personal. We click, like, swipe and tweet as our neural circuits light up and react to stimuli like notifications, clickbait and automatically playing video. The internet creates an effortless, instantly, interactive experience which allows us to constantly redirect our attention to whatever grabs it in the moment never settling on one task or focus.
The speed and responsive nature of the internet means not only is it a distracted medium for news consumption but also a highly emotional one. Unlike when reading a physical newspaper in which you digest information and can contemplate it’s content in manageable morsels, online news comes at you fast and encourages you to instantly share your emotional response to a story on a public platform. Today people barely get past the headlines before erupting in a tweet-storm of rage or entering the cesspit of crass comments to vent their anger and opposition.
The toxic environment for discussion and debate we all witness online is a natural manifestation of the internet’s fast and fleeting format. Studies repeatedly show that the more moral and emotional language used in political headlines and tweets, the more likely they are to receive likes, shares, comments and retweets.
Thus in the competition for clicks, reasoned, logical and important information is often traded for stories that can manufacture outrage, anger and fear. If we want live in a world where media can inform citizens, reflect healthy disagreement and host democratic debate then we must begin to accept the current business model and infrastructure of the internet is incompatible with this objective.
We should also be concerned by the increasing extent to which online news consumption is being dictated by for-profit algorithms. In the same way the food industry has exploited our natural craving for fat, salt and sugar, so too is the attention industry exploiting our natural curiosity conspiracy, mystery and doubt to lead us down a dangerous rabbit hole of consuming more extreme content.
Youtube is the worst offender. Sociologist Zeynep Tufecki has written on just how manipulative Youtube’s recommended videos and autoplay function are in encouraging extreme consumption:
“Videos about vegetarianism led to videos about veganism. Videos about jogging led to videos about running ultra-marathons. It seems as if you are never “hard core” enough for YouTube’s recommendation algorithm. It promotes, recommends and disseminates videos in a manner that appears to constantly up the stakes”
The Wall Street Journal also conducted an investigation of YouTube content finding that YouTube often “fed far-right or far-left videos to users who watched relatively mainstream news sources”.
Tufecki describes this recent phenomenon as “the computational exploitation of a natural human desire: to look “behind the curtain,” to dig deeper into something that engages us.” As we click and click, we are carried along by the exciting sensation of uncovering more secrets and deeper truths. YouTube leads users down a rabbit hole of extremism and profits from the process.
The internet has opened up access to unlimited libraries of information allowing us to learn more about the world than ever before. However from inhibiting reasoned discussion to encouraging extreme consumption today’s diet of digital news isn’t making us smart it’s making us sick.