Why News And The Internet Don’t Mix

(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 for conspiracy, mystery and doubt to lead us down a dangerous rabbit hole of consuming more extreme content in the name of “engagement.”

Youtube is the worst offender. Sociologist Zeynep Tufekci 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.

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What Makes A Video Go Viral?

What makes a video go viral? Is it a formula or is it just something elusive and unpredictable? trying to make content that will go viral can be a dangerous game for content creators, limiting their creativity or trying to tailor their talents to what they think people like, rather than just trusting their gut with what is actually good content.

Unfortunately we have an online system that prioritizes vitality over quality. Videos such as “Charlie bit my finger” or the salt bae meme show that these things are almost impossible to predict and that trends change often, if you become good at what you like, it is likely the trend will follow you rather than the other way around.

Wikipedia Proves Fake News Hysteria is Bullsh*t

Katherine Maher, executive director at the Wikimedia Foundation discusses how Wikipedia went from a site loaded with errors and false information to the world’s trusted open encyclopedia.

Through the process of constant self improvement and a dedication to ensuring accurate information, Wikipedia shows that sorting fact from fiction is a much easier job than has been made out from public figures such as Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump.

Maher suggsts that the way news is consumed and how information is spread is more the problem than fake news itself.  It is the profiteering, commercial model of clickbait and stretching of truth as companies and individuals fight for our screen time that must be seen as the focal point of fake news.

She states the product design is flawed and the major providers need to take a stand on the way information is presented to the consumer and allowing quick resolution to removing what is fake, just as Wikipedia has done:

“When I’m looking at a Facebook feed I don’t know why information is being presented to me. Is it because it’s timely? Is it because it’s relevant? Is it because it’s trending, popular, important?
All of that is stripped out of context so it’s hard for me to assess: is it good information that I should make decisions on? Is it bad information that I should ignore? And then you think about the fact that all of the other sort of heuristics that people use to interpret information, where does it come from? Who wrote it? When was it published? All of that is obscured in the product design as well.”

So does Fake News really have the problem or is this an obfuscation of what is really causing the spread of misinformation?

How Social Media is Shaping Our Thought Patterns

In this extraordinary clip Dr. Dan Siegel, clinical professor of psychiatry at the UCLA School of Medicine reveals how social media is actually physically rewiring our brains.

The addictive nature of social media has become starkly apparent as anyone who takes public transport will be aware. Yet its capacity to manipulate and reshape our brains is something not often discussed and something parents should be particularly aware of in relation to exposing their children to smartphones.

 

Stop Thinking You Need Motivation.

Mel Robbins in this interview for Impact Theory explains why she believes motivation to be a debilitating concept which holds people back. She argues that people get fixated with the idea that “one day” they will do the things they really want to do and all that is missing is courage and motivation.

In reality however, it will always be difficult to do things which create risk in our lives and this belief in motivation contradicts the way in which are brains are designed.

 

 

Why Millennials Can’t be Happy 

Simon Sinek explores the reasons why Millenials are getting a bad reputation. From growing up with a toxic addiction to social media to the sense of entitlement which is cultivated in today’s youth through instant gratification and pampering.

This talk is a riveting insight into the potential damage of overuse of social media at a young age and poses some stark questions about how young people today will cope with the harshness of the working world.

Are we closer to a Utopia than we think?

Owen Jones interviews Dutch writer Rudger Bregman on his new book “Utopia for realists”.

This is a riveting discussion on the idea of utopia. Is it a dangerous concept?   Or can it be used to reboot the welfare model of capitalism and shape a better global future?