Media overload: how much do we take in?

On 13 November 2015, 130 people died in terrorist attacks in Paris. However, eclipsed by the US election and Remembrance Day, the commemoration received little media coverage. How can we prevent such tragedies from slipping our minds, or more importantly, why should we?

299 people died in an earthquake in L’Aquila, Italy on 24 August 2016. An estimate of 300,000 to 400,000 people have died in the Syrian civil war. In November 2016, at least 240 refugees drowned in the Mediterranean Sea. 49 people were killed by an attacker in an Orlando nightclub on 12 June 2016. These figures instantly horrify and sadden us – and then we forget. We would need more time to learn about the victims, about the big picture – time we think we do not have.

It is no revelation that time represents a rare and valuable resource. Yet, the homo sapiens of the 21st century continue to crave knowledge; the more immediate and convenient, the better. We skim through headlines, scroll through Facebook feeds and share articles on WhatsApp. But how many of these articles have we fully read, rather than quickly browsed them on the way to work? It is impossible to fathom the devastating horror of 400,000 deaths, especially while making sure not to miss your bus stop, and also when the article is preceded by photos from your uncle’s Cuban holiday and followed by a funny cat video.

The world of media has changed. This change includes blogs and podcasts popping up on every corner and more traditional outlets struggling to keep up. In the 1990s and 2000s, the internet made the individual’s world bigger. In this decade, Twitter and Snapchat continue the upward trend by accelerating the pace. Push messages and live blogs of online newspapers are the most recent manifestations of the constant pressure to be first.

This time pressure reigns not only on the side of media creators, but equally affects consumer behaviour. Many social media users have shared an article which they themselves have not fully read, afraid that someone else might post it before them, harvesting all the likes and approving comments. In a booming, flashing, entirely oversaturated world of media, the discovery of something actually newsworthy has turned into a status symbol.

But is it not a good thing that we have ubiquitous access to information? Doubtlessly, the changes in the media have upsides. Everyone can participate in what used to be an elitist circle of journalists and other opinion makers. At first glance, there are fewer filters, and censorship seems practically impossible. What is pre-selected is chosen by the consumer, either directly through follows and subscriptions, or indirectly via Facebook algorithms which calculate clicks and likes. Indeed, the modern media world seems open, participatory, and egalitarian.

Yet, there are problems with this interpretation, and they begin with the media outlets themselves. The requirement to produce something that stands out from an incessant stream of information favours novelty and immediacy. 24-hour news channels embody these two features like no other medium: they broadcast incessantly, and a majority of what they show is called breaking news. The fear is that if it were not called breaking news, nobody would watch.

The situation is similar for media consumers: participation is easy, or more accurately, non-participation is practically impossible. While our parents may have read the paper in the morning and watched the news at night, our whole days are inwrought with media consumption. But our brains are not designed for processing ample information at such speed. As Daniel Levitin, professor of psychology at McGill University, explains, the human mind is able to simultaneously handle three to four things: “If you get much beyond that, you begin to exercise poorer judgment, you lose track of things and you lose your focus.”

According to Anita Gadhia-Smith, psychologist in Washington DC, hearing about terror attacks can create anxiety and desensitisation at the same time. Thus, reading headline after headline about shootings and disasters produces a vague sensation of vulnerability. Ironically, social media is often stripped of the sociality which could counteract this feeling. Many people would struggle to mention the last photo they liked, while it is significantly easier to recall the last person one has complimented in real life.

Social media does offer exceptional opportunities, which is exemplified by crowdfunding and the organisation of demonstrations. However, these online platforms are rarely constructed for the purpose of in-depth reflection. Unlike traditional media, the structure of Facebook and Twitter often do not allow for debating the complexity of issues, including what is positive or hopeful: the courage of first-responders, the empathy of volunteers, or politicians’ attempts to bring about change.

The lack of neutral rooms and moderators precludes balanced debates. The act of scrolling itself invites superficial browsing, as your screen is constantly filled with two to three entirely different topics at once. It is due to its inherent make-up that in the wild world of social media, soundbites defeat elaborate arguments. In addition, online posts are intermingled with miscellaneous notices, including invitations to your friend’s birthday and advertisements for that pair of ankle boots you wanted. And after reading an article on the Paris attacks, watching a hamster eating pizza provides exactly the distraction and comfort we crave.

In an appearance on the US late night show Conan, comedian Louis CK was asked why he did not buy phones for his daughters. He recalled driving and listening to an emotional Bruce Springsteen song: “And I hear it and it made me really sad. Oh, I’m getting sad, gotta get the phone and write ‘Hi’ to like 50 people. So I started to get that sad feeling and I was reaching for my phone and I said, ‘You know what, don’t! Just be sad and let it hit you.’ And I pulled over and I just cried and it was beautiful […] Because we don’t want that first bit of sad we push it away […] You never feel completely sad or completely happy. That’s why I don’t wanna get a phone for my kids.”

Reading about tragedy and death is heartbreaking. And while social media may make it easy to fleetingly hear about these events, they can make it harder to really reflect on them. This does not mean that these new technologies cannot be improved, inspired by time-tested features of traditional media such as editing, moderating, and fact-checking. Some of these changes are already beginning to take place.

Still, for those willing to spend two to three hours on one topic, rather than bingeing on headlines between bus stops, it is worthwhile to resort to articles in traditional newspapers. The New York Times has recently run a comprehensive feature on the Paris attacks as experienced by 27 survivors. It will break your heart to read their stories and learn about the ringing phones that said ‘Papa’ or ‘Maman’ on the dead. The feature equally has time and room to focus on the immense bravery of by-standers and the collective expression of grief and hope by Parisians. Ultimately, this empathy, the ability to feel with others, is what makes us human. We would be well-advised to find a way to remain social beings, even on social media.


Image: 1lifeincity,

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