Facebook’s trending news topics are a hot topic of conversation, but I can’t help but think we are blaming the messenger, not the message. Saying Facebook is ruining journalism is kind of like saying Microsoft and spell check have ruined my grammar. Sure I could slow down and check the words I mistype, or even open up an online dictionary, but I don’t. I look for those red underlines and let technology fix my flaws. Likewise, Facebook is merely a delivery technology that we can choose to pay attention to, or we choose to actively seek out multiple news outlets, look for facts about what is happening around the world, and read various opinions from experts, pundits, and journalists. But, for the most part, most of us don’t.
What would happen if we did? In my current research I am doing it every day. Yesterday morning on FoxNews I was overwhelmed with political infighting, on CNN I heard all about Bill Cosby’s trial, and on NPR I learned about President Obama’s trip to Vietnam. On the BBC and the New York Times, I read about the Islamic State and the Turkey’s hidden war with Kurdish rebels. And if I just followed Facebook’s trends? I would be well informed about Jupiter’s moons and an elephant giving birth at the Dallas zoo. (Over the past few days, since Mark Zuckerberg met with right-leaning leaders, the amount of political news in the “Top Trending” corner seems to be on a downward trend of its own).
Frank Bruni, Ross Douthat, and many other reporters are highlighting the impact of Facebook on news. While the medium of news is a necessary conversation perhaps we also need to talk about the message itself, and how we can take ownership for being informed, rather than trusting the latest technology. Democracy only works when citizens participate and are informed about issues the impact society, not just themselves.
Christina Tangora Schlachter, PhD is the Executive Director of the Rocky Mountain Communication Institute and studies the impact of 24×7 information in our world.
Over the past decade I have been studying the impact of excessive information in our workplaces and world, and no messages are as intense or lengthy than those on the US Presidential campaign trail. But information overload is not just caused by Mr. Trump’s twitter account and 24×7 news. To understand why we have too much information, I go back 120 years to see where it all started.
In 1896, Democratic candidate William Jennings Bryan changed the way Americans were involved in elections by traveling the country to give speeches, rather than the voters traveling to see the candidate. RNC Chairman Mark Hanna answered with significant fundraising, building a war chest for McKinley totaling $3.5 million, larger than any previous campaigns. “‘There are two things important in politics’, Hanna once said. ‘The first is money and I can’t remember what the second one is.”[i] The war chest provided McKinley with unprecedented negative campaigning against Bryan. McKinley’s work was not unanswered, as publisher William Randolph Hearst put his newspaper empire to work for Bryan.
And that is how the modern campaign strategy of selling a candidate was born.
Selling candidates will not go away, and with social media it will just continue to grow. This leaves voters with massive information to weed through, or choose to focus on the one image or message in the media (e.g. Walter Mondale and taxes, Howard Dean and WHOA! fist pump, or more recently, Jeb Bush and low energy).
I can’t help but wonder if we could limit the information overload by borrowing policies from other democratic nations. In Mexico, law dictates campaigns can officially start 147 days before voting. In France, the cycle usually lasts only 2 weeks. Canada’s most recent election cycle was the longest in its history at a lengthy 11 weeks. In the UK, campaigns hover around 5 to 6 weeks.[ii] This year, Prime Minister Turnbull started the longest election campaign in Australia since the 1960s –it will officially be 56 days.[iii]
If we allow our presidential campaigns to last 365+ days, there is potential for 8760 hours of presidential meals and missteps. Cut that number in half (say only 6 months of active campaigning) and it is just basic math – there is half the amount of airtime/Twitter-time to fill. Many candidates will find a way to run without formally announcing, but perhaps limiting the potential airtime for election coverage would spur elections to focus a bit more on the issues and not simply about selling. And if not, at least our brains could look forward to a break from what appears to be non-stop presidential chatter.
Christina Tangora Schlachter, PhD is the Executive Director of the Rocky Mountain Communication Institute. Her current research focuses how constant information may impact the brain’s decision-making function.
[i]Hanna quoted in Kazin, M. (2001). The Nation; One Political Constant. The New York Times, from http://www.nytimes.com/2001/04/01/weekinreview/the-nation-one-political-constant.html
[ii] From http://www.loc.gov/law/help/campaign-finance/comparative-summary.php#durationand http://www.npr.org/sections/itsallpolitics/2015/10/21/450238156/canadas-11-week-campaign-reminds-us-that-american-elections-are-much-longer
This week, the NYTimes asked readers: Is Facebook Saving Journalism or Ruining It? I wonder if we are missing the bigger issue. What are your thoughts? This was my commentary:
Facebook compliments traditional journalism, or maybe it will replace it. But are we missing the bigger point? While we need real journalism to learn about information in the world, being connected to the news through personal experience is what creates social change. Facebook, Twitter, or any other social media platform could be the perfect opportunity to share this personal connection. Nicolas Kristoff’s Facebook page is the perfect example: the every day citizen can connect with the realities of devastating human rights conditions around the world. From 2009 to today, his “likes” have grown from 50,000 to almost 642,000. While not everyone may have the opportunity to see trauma and the devastation of disregarded basic human rights, social media is a tremendous tool to bring those connected opportunities closer to society.
Unfortunately, Kristoff’s “likes” are about 1/10 the “likes” Dancing with the Stars has received (currently hovering around 6 million likes). Perhaps it is not just journalism that needs to change, maybe we need to change what we “like”.
Join the conversation on the NYTimes page or post your thoughts here.
Information is addictive. Yes, constant information – e.g. your work email always up and running, FaceBook or Twitter notifications beeping on your phone every 5 seconds, and 24×7 news available everywhere you look – can have the same impact on your brain as caffeine. Like caffeine, the right amount can get you going and make you productive. But also like caffeine, too much information and you could fly through life like a hyperactive ferret unable to focus and retain what is important.
What happens to your brain with Facebook notifications, your boss’ constant emails, or the countdown-to-election-day timers in the corner of the news screen? The bright flashing light, scrolling feeds on a screen, and constant pings on a phone will create a short, but immediate high. The brain is excited. But too much of a high is not a good thing and can lead to an inability to bring clarity or focus to life or work.
With a constant stream of information available we aren’t able to focus on any one thing. Instead we try to pay attention to many things at once (tweets from who we are following, the bright blinking lights on a TV or computer), but in doing so we could be reacting and missing the opportunity to learn from events around us and make decisions from it.
How can we slow down enough to absorb, process, and respond to information, instead of just reacting to it? For those who practice it, mindfulness can help. If you are the type who responds to every FB post or email, try turning off your notification function and blocking out time to respond once a day (I promise you won’t miss anything). And when it comes to how we get our news, try mixing it up a bit. For example, if you watch your news, try mixing it up and just listening to a podcast (rather than watch it) without any visual stimulation or distraction. I do not want to go back to the days when we all gathered around the television and watched the evening news, but there is merit in finding a brain-friendly midpoint of news and information.
I have heard from a number of colleagues that this presidential election just does not excite them and they are beginning to tune it all out. While someone could blame the candidates’ personalities or constant fighting, there could be a more simple answer: our brains are tired. Even for the smartest and savvy citizen, there is just too much information for the brain to handle. And having too much information does not just apply to elections, it applies to almost every area of our life.
Since disengaging from important decision-making or the political process is not an ideal solution in our society, the alternative is to get better at blocking out irrelevant information or stimuli and focus on what is important. Blocking out irrelevant information is harder than it may sound since we have been distracted for so long. How often have you been in the middle of writing an email when a co-worker pings you about lunch plans and you get distracted? But we cannot blame modern technology too much – our brains were distracted way before email and texts. Remember back in grade school when your teacher would say, “let’s focus” when another class walked by your classroom? Those kids walking outside the door were irrelevant to the day’s lessons, but nonetheless, we turned our heads to see if anyone in the class were our friends and wondered where they were going.
Getting information about current events can be just as challenging as it was to maintain focus back in grade school or to pay attention to work when lunch plans are being made. Today, new tweets come as quickly as you can read 140 characters. If you still get your news on television, especially cable television, multiple screens are streaming information while a reporter debates with 4 guests, each talking over one another (sound familiar presidential candidates?). And for those that read their news online, a flashing advertisement makes its way across your screen, or email and text alerts pop-up as your brain is trying to focus on the words on the screen.
How do you focus? When it comes to news, some people shut the door and turn off their phones while they listen or read to the news. At work, many executives download their emails and read them without being online to avoid distractions. Whatever your strategy, when you find your brain just can’t take it anymore, give it a break. Sleep, exercise, and fresh air all can help our brains process information more efficiently.
Here is the conundrum: If I am completely focused, other data coming in will not impact my ability to focus on the task at hand. If I am not engaged in what I am reading or listening to, I can easily get distracted by any other source of information. If you find yourself unengaged from decisions that impact your work and life, it may have nothing to do with the topic but rather the amount of information. As important as it is to tune into what is happening in the world, remember to also tune out to keep your brain happy.