Maybe Jean Baudrillard was right, and the system is accelerating toward implosion. Information in the 21st century is easily dispersed and produced, but at what cost?
I’m a long-time politics junkie, binging political information like new episodes of a TV show. But I kept this spring break relatively information-free, and it has done wonders for my stress levels and mental health. Instead of keeping up with hour-by-hour updates, I limited myself to skimming the occasional article and glancing at news notifications.
And I’ve rarely felt so unencumbered.
It’s no joke that political information overload can muddle our thoughts and values. With the advent of the Facebook newsfeed as a trusted news source, we’re treated to a minute-by-minute analysis and sometimes even a live report. An event happens, and we’re slammed with opinion articles, tweets, blog posts and even the occasional vlog.
From what I can tell, there are two main problems with information saturation. First, knowing all the “bad” things that happen in the world of politics creates a fatalism that subsumes any optimism. How do we respond when we’re constantly moving from one negative topic to another with no time to regroup, reorganize and reconceptualize our base values?
For example, The Washington Post’s Brian Klaas lists 19 separate issues that surrounded the president in March 2018. Just in March! The actions ranged from starting a trade war with China to congratulating Russian President Vladimir Putin on winning an election to bullying a journalist for his physical appearance. In this endless stream of political information, it’s unsurprising that 57 percent of Americans are stressed out by the political climate, according to the American Psychological Association.
Topics like the Pentagon’s policy on transgender troops or Donald Trump’s Muslim ban are deeply personal for many, but we rarely get to reflect on their importance because there’s always another crisis, another eye-popping story. The news media moves swiftly on to Stormy Daniels, Beto for President or Trump firing James Comey. This oversaturation impedes our capability to parse what matters and what doesn’t in these conversations.
The second problem from information saturation lies in the realm of misinformation. By misinformation, I mean both the proliferation of so-called fake news, which is news distributed without credible underlying facts, and a broader failure to consider what information plays into our socio-political calculus.
The capacity of social media spaces to promote echo chambers, only consisting of users who share the same viewpoint, has played a large role in the spread of fake news. False reports spread faster among groups of people that keep liking, commenting and sharing on stories with dubious author credentials and no actual reporting. The viral video of a confrontation between an elder of a Native American tribe and a high-school student wearing a Make America Great Again hat proves my point: Thousands of social media posts spawned after the video was released either condemning the teenager for being a white supremacist or condemning the liberals for condemning the teenager. Yet, the majority of the posts didn’t account for the full video, which was released later and undercut both narratives.
The construction of this event in our political imagination was immature and lacking fact. Supporting either the high-schooler or the Native American elder created immediate grounds for vilification. Yet, this vilification was never truly justified — the boys were later cleared of instigating the incident — showing how this model of information proliferation lets rash or dishonest opinions proliferate.
All of this is why I chose to lay off on the political news this break. As college students who are constantly plugged into social media, we can respond to information saturation by taking breaks and conscientiously mapping out our standards for political leaders so we can fall back to our base values.
But sometimes, we simply need to unplug. In the middle of prelim week number two or problem set five, we should be spending time on our homework. Vox’s brief email recap of the day’s news should sate our thirst for knowledge, because truly delving deep on any topic requires time we often don’t have to spare. Realizing that the news is exhausting is a first step to better and more responsible responses. We need to build an instinct to withhold judgment until the facts are in. No one wins in the race to be wrong first.
Let’s bring it back to Baudrillard. We can find meaning in politics and the hyper-real, but we should adhere to our base set of beliefs instead of allowing the media and other political leaders to define our prioritization of news. We can and must track the issues we think determine our vote and political orientation. We can nail down the voting issues instead of hopping from one problem to the next, lost in a sea of never-ending information overload.
Darren Chang is a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Swamp Snorkeling runs every other Monday this semester.