Try asking yourself these four questions when reading any piece of media content online:
What does the author want me to pay attention to, feel, or believe?
Why do they want me to pay attention to, feel, or believe that?
What do I want to pay attention to, feel, or believe?
What is true?
The full movie:
People are shitty consumers of information. I don't mean in general, though that's certainly true – our brains have lots of biases and take shortcuts, both of which are largely about making the world easier to manage rather than about being responsible to the other people we share the world with. But I think people are particularly shitty consumers of information on social media and from news outlets.
This could turn out to be, well, kind of a problem. One aspect of the danger is that these information streams seem more passive than they actually are. Even though the Facebook algorithm, Twitter, and even our media outlets constantly adjust themselves in response to our decisions, it’s easy to experience these platforms passively, as things just happening to show up in front of you. This is not how it works. What you decide to like, favorite, share and comment on – and, probably, how you do any of these, especially commenting - affects what you see and what the others your content is delivered to see. Then, it affects a social environment around you, contributing to subtle shifts in how other people understand their social world and the people in it.
All of this fuels the speculation that those of us plugged into these platforms have more constant access to people's representations of their thoughts and lives than people have ever had before, and in more poorly structured and less socially accountable ways than ever before. Think about what normally holds you back from taking conversations too far in real life. Yes, this includes the much complained about factor of nonverbal communication. But it also includes the fact that there are different stakes to in person social interactions – how you act in offline interactions is tied to your body, your face, you, not a persona or a user ID or a handle (not to diminish the seriousness of your e-identity, SmokeWeedErrday256).
The official uniform of “bet you wouldn't say that shit to my face!1!one!"
The stakes, the risks and rewards of internet life, play an important role in how we engage with each other and with information online. This works out for the good, because people now have outlets to say things that they would have been too afraid to say, or the things that no one physically around them would have wanted to hear. People discover new connections, or realize that they’re not as weird and unlovable as their small town made them think. They finally find some someone who’s going to laugh at their dumb ass 1917 Russian Revolution jokes. This also works out for the bad, people have outlets to say things that they would have been too afraid to otherwise say. Some of the things people have to say are stupid, cruel, or otherwise awful. People discover new connections via unsolicited slides into DMs, realize that they are as weird and unlovable as their small town made them think. They finally find someone who’s going to laugh at their ethnic cleansing jokes.
You’re sensing the theme here, right? The very same aspects of this new communication era that make it a potential tool for justice are also what make it such a dumpster fire. Forces of darkness are rising, and the fate of the galaxy depends on these forces meeting their equals in the light.
Coincidentally, Darth Garnier Fructis – er, Kylo Ren is pretty much my exact mental representation of angry YouTube commenters
We all need to take responsibility for our part of these social butterfly effects (sorry). Here’s a list of questions that people careful consumers of media seem to ask themselves, with a brief explanation about why I think they're good questions. But if this turns out to be helpful, maybe I’ll be true to my format and go in depth about each in later posts.
What does the author want me to pay attention to, feel, or believe? This one seems pretty easy.
Why do they want me to pay attention to, feel, or believe that? Obviously closely related to the first. What purpose does spreading this kind of content serve? Will people you spread it to read it in the same way that you will? How common is your perspective on this content?
What do I want to pay attention to, feel, or believe? This is, in my opinion, the most important one. BE HONEST ABOUT THIS SHIT, LIKE THE WORLD DEPENDS ON IT (because it does). Identify the psychological needs and wants you have, and think about how media content serves them. This includes your innocent desires and interests, like cool music and cat videos. But it also includes the darker aspects of your personality – your resentments, your insecurities, the lies you’re struggling to tell yourself to make up for shame and despair that you've felt. And it includes the things in the middle, the aspects of you that can be turned to good or evil depending on the purposes they're put in service to. These are the parts of you that need hope, that want to be able to rely on other people's testimony and knowledge, the parts of you that feel sympathy and empathy.
What is true? Now, despite everyone yelling about fake news, I don't think that this is itself the most important question. That’s simply because, for most issues coming up in your feed, you won’t personally be in a position to affect the outcome. We can all forgive ourselves for getting the hot take of the day wrong - you think the dress is blue, turns out you’re a monster and you suck but thankfully the world is no worse off for it. What is important about this question is that you do your damndest not to confuse it with any of the other three.
On the one hand, that's harder than this little checklist might be making it out to be. When issues come up that are close to our heart and politics – like a cost estimate about a healthcare bill that we think should be supported, or some unflattering information about a politician we deeply suspect is a fuckboy, it's very easy to ignore the specifics of what’s being said and accept anything that flatters our pre-determined stance on the set of issues. We might reflexively accept anything that reflects well on single-payer healthcare and badly on Senator Dipshit, ignoring what's actually being said.
On the other hand, it's often exactly as easy I’m making it out to be. If you support universal healthcare, it’s probably not because the CBO estimated it would cost 4.9 trillion instead of 5.3 trillion. The deep commitments that the news story of the day is actually making us think about often aren't themselves at stake in the specifics of the discussion that we could have about this or that article.
But most importantly, even if our deep commitments were at stake: none of these issues, nothing in the world is about you. Nothing that is true about the world will stop being true in order to settle the debate you had with your annoying cousin last month, nothing that is false about the world will become true so that you don’t have to revise the narrative about the world that casts the people you dislike as always in the wrong. The fact that you'd like single payer health care does not make news stories claiming that it will cost 4.9 trillion any likelier to be true or worth sharing than stories that claim it will cost 5.3 trillion, even if the lower number makes it seem like a better idea and thus makes accepting an article or meme using this lower number more enticing. The fact that it would really stick it to people you dislike on the other side if Senator Dipshit turned out to be running an illegal cockfighting ring out of the state capital doesn't make this news story any more plausible, or make the evidence for or against any weightier. Figuring out whether these claims are true or false is about normal, boring fact-checking procedures like counting and source-verification.
When we bend information to our own advantage, when we confuse this fourth question with the other three, we make the world about us – specifically, we make our actual actions in the world respond to the imaginary version of it that is easiest for us to cope with, not the actual world that we live in with other people.