Why we must change the way we engage with news…
Over the past few months I have regularly found myself pretty depressed by the state of the world; the relentless torrent of bad news coupled with the ridicule and denigration of powerful public figures. I have had the feeling at times that the world is being run by meglomaniacal despots intent on the demise of humanity and there’s nothing I can do about it. The world is screwed. Whether environmentally, politically or socially – everything feels like it is spiralling downhill. Fast. And based on the sources I’ve been exposed to, it’s too late to do much about it. We might be able to slow our demise but basically and inevitably we are doomed!
Then I realised something through reading Rebel Ideas by Matthew Syed (brilliant book!). I live in an Echo Chamber. The way we digest our news these days is skewed more than ever before in recent times,. For instance I recently joined the world of twitter and started getting some of my news from twitter. Except of course I’m getting news only from the journalists or sources that I follow. Which largely speaking are sources which reflect my own political and ideological views. Hence all the perspectives I read, which tend to be left of centre, pummel relentlessly anything or anyone who represents the right – pretty much regardless of what they’ve done or just announced.
No matter what efforts the current government are making, they will always be lambasted by the opposition. This itself is not new – it is the nature of two party politics. But what is new is that, in this social media driven world, we can live almost entirely in whichever Echo Chamber we choose and literally NEVER hear a perspective that challenges our own underlying set of assumptions. All we hear is the news or opinion that reinforces our own standpoint. And this is dangerous. The same happened during the Brexit years – both sides inexorably peddling their agenda, neither side really engaging with the other.
Echo Chambers are structures of strategic discrediting. It’s not that information is necessarily misreported or deliberately distorted, it’s that the source of a particular decision or policy is routinely discredited through ridicule, satire, mimicry or mockery. It’s playing the person instead of playing the ball. If I have determined that a certain source or side or person is inherently untrustworthy, mistaken or wrong, then I will judge what they say or do negatively even before they say or do it. And when they say or do it, no matter what it is, my judgment or interpretation of it will be helpfully skewed almost immediately by my twitter feed.
It’s not just twitter. Google algorithms invisibly personalise our searches and limit our access to diverse viewpoints. We get suggested films, products, youtube videos and websites all skewed by our previous viewing or search habits. We’ve signed up to this through our acceptance of cookies. And therefore we are destined to believe, buy and digest whatever our particular Echo Chamber suggests. Couple this with the fact that as humans we tend to hang out most with those people who share our views and agree with our rantings and you have a very one-sided view of the world.
So what I realised is that maybe everything isn’t as bad as it seems. Maybe if I change my informational diet, I would discover a different ‘truth’: a world full of people who are kind and compassionate, a world which cares far more about morality and equality than the world presented on my news feed. A world in which the latest political wranglings are not as significant to the every day life of people as they might seem. A world in which justice and mercy do mean something.
This isn’t to say we bury our heads in the sand and ignore the gross injustices out there. Of course not. Nor that we don’t call them out and address them. Just that we expose ourselves deliberately to contrary perspectives and to the bigger picture. With rose-tinted spectacles on everything looks rose-coloured. With darkened spectacles on, everything looks dark. If we view the world through the lenses of certain news and twitter feeds we will undoubtedly see a bleak outlook. But here’s the point: no view, no matter whose it is, including my own, is ever the whole picture. It is a version, a view, a perspective.
History unequivocally shows us that humanity develops and grows through collaboration and communication. To give one example, when the island of Tasmania was discovered by Europeans in the late 18th century, explorers were astonished to find that technology there was so primitive: there are tribes dating back 40 000 years with a more sophisticated toolkit. How come? Well, Tasmania was cut off from Australia about 12 000 years ago, at which point inhabitants lost their connection with the outside world. They failed to benefit from the perspectives, ideas and developments of people who were different to them.
We need divergent views and opinions. We need to actively seek out ideas and perspectives that challenge our underlying assumptions and we need to limit our diet of news and opinion from sources within our own echo chamber. We need to listen. We need to listen open-mindedly.
I think we have got to the point where we are almost willing whichever leader we can’t stand to do or say something even more outrageous, ridiculous or unjust than ever, just so that we can pounce on it and find new fodder for our tweets. It’s going nowhere. Yes we must discuss facts and yes we must hold those in power to account. But surely we must also want them to do good not bad. We must want the world to be better not worse. We must will the current government to make good decisions not bad ones. And we must acknowledge their humanity too and the fact that they are caught up in this same mudslinging system we have all created. A system in which everyone has joined in with this polarised perpetuation of Echo Chambers.
So I’m determining to change my outlook on the world and my twitter feed; to seek out people who are different to me and ask them for their views and listen to their stories; to question my assumptions and look for good not bad. My pleas is that you do the same.