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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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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
  5. 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).
  6. 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.

6 Comments

  1. This would be such a good post except that the truth of the genocide in Gaza IS being hidden from Americans as we pay for the slaughter. Our silence has deputized Israel to be an aggressor that will start WW3.
    70% of Americans are not in favor of this! The air earth and water is being contaminated by this madness. It is ALL being done for the oil that belongs to Gaza! Just kill all Gazans and it’s yours. This is why COP28 was
    run by oil. Biden could stop this
    but we all knew he was weak by nature. We listened when we were told we had to vote for him or we would have Trump. The USA is responsible – each of us. We have coddled and protected a monster that is unleashing WW3
    And we are in the wrong side.
    The martyrs being shown to the world are not for Muslims or Palestinians – I am a 76 yr old catholic – they are for anyone who still will not be silent. The lies told by Israel about beheaded babies, the targeting and killing of 78 journalists, the starvation of civilians, the stripping naked and staging of every man holding guns overhead for Israeli propaganda. The spraying of raw sewage on Palestinians houses.
    The killing of the university president and the bombing of universities – the bombing of 35 hospitals so disease and starvation could take whoever is left. If pleas from human rights watch, Oxfam, Doctors Without Borders can only be seen on social media – you have only one choice in finding the truth.
    I have seen this and more. I do not trust my president or the media of the USA because of Oil.
    I cannot un see this genocide and I will not be silent, and I have no respect for those who will go along with and pretend it is acceptable,

    • As you know, we strongly support contacting your elected officials with views on any issue. The White House comment line is 202-456-1111, and your two senators and one House representative have staff who respond to citizen concerns. Here’s the link to look them up in case you don’t have it handy: https://www.usa.gov/election-office Thank you for being concerned about the welfare of so many. You are not alone.

  2. Thank you for this wonderful essay, I learned a lot about my own habits regarding media and news, especially now regarding issues I do not need to reiterate here 🙂 . Your article taught me slow down , calm down, and step back as needed.

    • Thank you so much for this comment, Rebecca! The practice of slowing down is one we would all do well to adopt. The urgency with which much media is presented makes everything seem urgent (when much of it takes time to solve). In fact, some say that slowing down is an act of self care and even rebellion. Keep up the great work!
      🙂 jeh

  3. I am SO grateful for all that you do but especially this article right now. This has been a wonderful way to bring hope to family and friends and add something to FaceBook that many folks don’t usually see. Thank you! Happy Healthy Holidays to you all.

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