Part 5 in the Democracy in Distress series about the five key threats to American democracy and what you can do about them today.
Threat 5: News and social media
Stay informed, not inflamed. Let knowledge guide action, not fear.– Jennifer Hofmann
The Maze of Media
Have you ever felt a sinking sense of helplessness in the wake of negative news or social media overload? Many people grapple with feeling informed yet powerless to effect change. In our efforts to stay informed, concerned Americans often encounter a flood of information that causes us to question the possibility of meaningful change.
Media narratives that often highlight the worst of humanity can overshadow everyday kindness and generosity present in our communities. This gradual erosion of hope constitutes a silent threat to our democracy. Media overwhelm and the resulting disillusionment can compromise our vital role in shaping a brighter future.
Fortunately, solutions exist: become a more informed consumer of media – print, televised, and online. As an empowered consumer, you can balance both the need to be informed and the commitment to engaging in solutions.
Can you recognize the biggest barriers?
Spotting Hidden Agendas in Media
If you’re reading, watching, or listening to news, specific tactics can keep you hooked and eager for more:
- Sensationalized content: Dramatic, attention-grabbing elements that amplify extremes, distilling complex issues soundbites, or amplifying novelty and shock value.
- Oversimplified content: Short segments fail to explore complexities, diverse perspectives, or solutions to a particular issue.
- Lack of Context: Dramatic angles (often with accompanying images) are one-dimensional or lack comprehensive background about the origins of an issue.
- Breaking News Alerts: Hasty delivery of “scoop” (significant piece of information delivered before other media organizations) can mean it contains possible inaccuracies, incomplete information, and even misleading speculation. “Breaking” news is brittle.
- Commentary and Analysis: Segments featuring experts (or the appearance of expertise) can allow one-sided opinions, misinformation, and bias to be broadcast unchecked.
- Familiarity: News delivered by familiar anchors, personalities, or a strong brand identity can increase trust, but create the illusion of camaraderie while reducing exposure to diverse viewpoints.
- Loaded language: Focusing on polarizing terms (like “anti-American”), hyperbolic expressions (“the nanny state”), and inflammatory rhetoric (“deplorables”) can elicit an emotional responses (anger, outrage, disgust, etc.) intended to influence consumers’ perception of information.
Being an informed consumer of media means maintaining a critical eye, moment to moment, on the quality, depth, and thoroughness of the news getting air time in your home.
Decoding Sensationalism on Social Platforms
Similar to mainstream news, social media platforms highlight sensational content in order to keep you hooked and to sell advertising. Be on alert for content like:
- Clickbait Headlines and Thumbnails: Headlines that use loaded language or “thumbnail” graphic images can grab your attention without providing empowering information.
- Emotive Posts and Memes: Graphics about issues like immigration (images of people at the border), climate change (stranded polar bear), or vaccines (few words or false claims) evoke fear and urgency without addressing context, sources, or solutions.
- Algorithmic Bias: Social media platforms prioritize content based on your previous behavior, leading to an echo chamber of similar (rather than novel) ideas.
- Virality: An emotionally charged or shocking posts may go viral simply due to the ability to share and “like” content on social platforms, not because it has credibility or merit.
- Beyond Facebook: Be alert that any platform can host biased opinions masquerading as legitimate news: YouTube, Amazon and Google reviews, Meetup, NextDoor, group chats, and even comments sections on mainstream news sites.
Recognizing and navigating sensational content on social media involves being critical of what you encounter, fact-checking before sharing, and seeking out diverse perspectives. It takes work, but it’s worth your well-being.
Strategies for Empowering Engagement
While you may not be able to change the content of the news you watch or read nor the social sites you visit, there are proven ways to overcome overwhelm and reengage with hope.
- Start with yourself: When you feel overwhelmed or distraught by the news, practice using compassionate self-talk instead of escalation. Give yourself permission to take a media break or a sabbatical from activism. Even a few days of rest (or two weeks like the AoCC team takes in December) creates room to breathe, restore, and ultimately recommit.
- Find the good: Restoring faith in the goodness of others is a meaningful antidote to cynicism. Seek out evidence of kindness and generosity in the world. Once you start, you find it everywhere. Our checklist includes Good News with every edition, and we love getting suggestions from you.
- Cultivate Gratitude: Deliberately focus on good moments and simple abundance in your life. No matter how small, this simple daily practice releases a cascade of feel-good hormones, and can shift focus to hope.
- Monitor Media Consumption: Be mindful of the quality of media you consume. Limit exposure to distressing content and echo chambers, seeking balanced perspectives that counter your cynicism. Restore your sense of empowerment by fact checking concerning issues.
- Focused Engagement: Consider narrowing the scope of your engagement to causes that resonate deeply with you. Specializing in a few areas (instead of every single thing) allows for greater impact and renewed energy. Use our Sustaining Activism worksheet to help you clarify (or attend our virtual class in January 2024).
- Community Connection: Social change is magnified through collective effort, not isolated actions by individuals. Make connections with groups that inspire you and reconnect with caring individuals to sustain both heart and mind.
Empowerment Through Action
Remember: the goal of consuming media isn’t for mere awareness, but impact. Consciously channeling your frustration, hope, and passion into tangible steps creates a stronger democracy and a more equitable society for all. Every action you take contributes to a larger movement for good.
As you navigate the maze of media, remember that being informed should be a catalyst for action, not a roadblock. Recognizing sensationalism, controlling media intake, and nurturing resilience are vital steps.
Together, the true measure of our engagement lies in what we do next.
We’re a community of Americans of conscience saving democracy, one action at a time. We’re Americans of every political party who believe we can create a kind and thriving nation by working together. If you’d like to join our effort, sign up for our twice-monthly Checklist of pro-democracy, pro-equality, pro-planet actions.