News: a poor quality distraction

98329748_a947300152_bTwo related articles about news and distraction lately.

(1): America’s junk news binge epidemic:

We in the media have spent decades turning the news into a consumer business that’s basically indistinguishable from selling cheeseburgers or video games. You want bigger margins, you just cram the product full of more fat and sugar and violence and wait for your obese, over-stimulated customer to come waddling forth.

(2): Addicted to distraction:

ONE evening early this summer, I opened a book and found myself reading the same paragraph over and over, a half dozen times before concluding that it was hopeless to continue. I simply couldn’t marshal the necessary focus.

I was horrified… Instead of reading [books], I was spending too many hours online, checking the traffic numbers for my company’s website, shopping for more colorful socks on Gilt and Rue La La, even though I had more than I needed, and even guiltily clicking through pictures with irresistible headlines such as “Awkward Child Stars Who Grew Up to Be Attractive.”

This is familiar territory to us here at arbitrary constant. It’s been nearly two years since I shared how I was feeling about news and media.

The crux of my reflections was this:

But even with spending so much time consuming [news and media] I was left none the wiser. I felt like I still didn’t understand what was going on. In my mind I couldn’t answer questions such as: why is what’s happening happening? How and why did we get here? Where are we going? Why are we going here and not there? What can the past tell us about why here may be better than there and what we might be able to learn about the options for getting there?

I had reached a dead end. Or, rather, I had so many choices of which direction to go in that I went nowhere.

The rest of the post explores what remains a fantastic essay by Ralf Dobelli, “Avoid News: towards a healthy news diet” (pdf), which:

provided me with some thoughts as to why I was feeling that way. His argument gives 15 reasons on why news is bad for us, including: news systematically misleads us, news limits our understanding, news massively increases cognitive errors and news inhibits thinking.

It’s an essay and way of thinking I can’t recommend highly enough.

How has it gone? To a large extent I’ve managed to alter my news consumption and instead switched to reading more books (you can see what I’ve been reading on my Libib Library). I occasionally find myself slipping back into old ways, though – especially when it comes to Twitter – and so am hoping to refocus a bit more in order to

pursue the things that interest me and my mind – giving myself chance and space to be curious, to think, to create and to be.

Reading these two articles was a timely reminder of this intent. I’ll let you know how I get on!


Back to the Future, misogynist coders and harmful memes


The Back to the Future meme does the rounds on Twitter and Facebook every couple of months or so. As Paul Clarke notes, people want to believe this rubbish, irrespective of whether it’s true or not, because it harks back to their younger days.

Similarly, the CCTV camera outside the house where George Orwell used to live pops up in my timeline at least once a month, despite there being no such camera.


This probably relates to people wanting to show they’re clever because (a) they’ve read a book, and (b) they understand the irony.

Both the Back to the Future and Orwell memes are, though, pretty harmless. But what if a meme isn’t as harmless?

This weekend saw a really good example. Tomas Sancio was being “burned” on Twitter for supposedly suggesting to a (female) journalist that they “read” an article they had in fact written.

Burned edited convo

Except, of course, that isn’t what he was saying. As he makes clear in later tweets, Sancio was saying he had “read” (“red”, past tense) the article and was offering a comment on it.

What’s worse, the actual exchange included an additional tweet from the journalist that didn’t show up in the screen grab doing the rounds.

Burned actual convoIn this case, it would appear someone edited the screen grab of the actual conversation, which itself was based on a misunderstanding of what Sancio had tweeted.

What this meant for Sancio himself can be seen from the number of times the altered image was retweeted (of the order of a thousand) and the tenor of comments made directly to him. In my view he deals with it with good grace, but it can’t have been easy; at times what people tweeted at him was clearly harmful.

We see similarly harmful memes beyond the level of the individual: the infamous all-male panel at an international women’s conference and how many MPs vote on particular types of issues are two recent examples of memes supposedly representing system-wide issues when, in fact, they do no such thing.

But what do these harmful memes represent? Why do people create them, literally, out of something that isn’t there?

Clearly, they reinforce people’s existing views. People hold views about particular issues – “we live in a surveillance state” (Orwell’s meme); “men are misogynists” (Sancio’s tweet, the all-male panel); “all MPs are only in it for themselves” (the Commons pictures) – and the pictures/memes they see reinforce those views.

Having had their view so neatly backed-up it takes very little thought or effort to share those pictures/memes on to others, without wondering (or perhaps caring) whether or not they are accurate. Very quickly and very easily, then, the essence of what each meme represents – and so people’s views – is transmitted, irrespective of whether it’s true or not.

Much harm can be and is done quickly and easily by this process – just ask Tomas Sancio. Such behaviour isn’t anything that can curbed easily (it is, after all, human nature) but next time you see a meme that captures perfectly how someone might feel about a particular topic, try to engage your critical faculties and ask whether it is just a bit too perfect before sharing it.