The News is Information Junk Food

Published: 2022-06-11
Updated: 2022-09-16

Cutting out the news has been one of the best lifestyle decisions I've made in recent years, second only to cutting out social media (though the two are not mutually exclusive). Reducing my intake of what is essentially junk information has significantly reduced anxiety and worry in my day to day life, and has freed up more of my time to pursue other interests and deeper reading. I'm able to concentrate better because there are less disruptions. My view is that "the news" primarily exists to keep consumers entertained rather than keeping citizens informed, very rarely presenting us with useful information and designed to get us to spend more time than we intended to keep us consuming more content. We live in an age where we're constantly bombarded with information and messaging, most commonly in the form of advertisements, but also in the form of news that's constantly competing for our attention. The news (and social media use) is indicative of a poor information diet. I think any news junkie reading this will immediately go on the defensive. To them, I ask that you please put your existing views on hold for the meantime and be honest with yourself.

The News is a Business

Modern news is similar if not identical to that of a of a business-to-consumer relationship. The information is presented in a manner to make the consumer think that it's essential information (an essential product) and, as a result, the consumer does what the business wants which is paying with your attention (a scarce resource as valuable as money). The strategy here is to get you to keep consuming and to find more information to consume. This is why modern journalism favors quantity over quality. Almost all of it is useless and irrelevant information which floods our senses, appealing to the lowest parts of the brain stem, with a worldview that is irrelevant to your life. At best it's entertaining but it's primarily irrelevant information. As Yuval Noah Harari points out "people just don't know what to pay attention to, and they often spend their time investigating and debating side issues. In ancient times having power meant having access to data. Today having power means knowing what to ignore. The 24 hour news cycle is something to be ignored."

Over time, we've also found ourselves in a world where most of the information is controlled by only a handful of companies, resulting in "alternate" sources of information being either absurd conspiracy theories or "takes" of mainstream news on social media. Stories themselves are often slanted to please advertisers and company shareholders. Success is defined as whatever gets lots of clicks (and therefore ad revenue). I recently stumbled across this article about how a small number of companies control 90% of the media - not just "the news". That's 90% of what we read, watch, and listen to. Let that sink in.

Ignorance is Bliss?

A common argument against cutting out the news is that "ignorance is bliss", suggesting that those who do not consume the news are ignorant. The argument goes further in that we must keep up with important current events to be an informed citizen in a democracy. While I admit there is a grain of truth to this, my perspective is that consuming the 24 hour news cycle does anything but make someone an "informed citizen". Rather it makes one less informed of the world and distracts you from what's going on in your own physical life and your own neighborhood, while instilling a very negative view of the world that's divorced from reality.

The news is presented with click-bait headlines that's designed to get us to emotionally react and click a link so that the website gets ad-revenue. The articles themselves are often sensationalized and created to reaffirm our exists beliefs and biases and to reach the maximum possible audience. The news, much like advertisers, are competing for our attention. Our attention is a finite scarce resource and giving it away freely can be detrimental and have real world impact. This is a major conflict of interest, creating great potential to skew what's true, and incentivizes sensationalism.

Spending hours a day on a social media feed, YouTube, news websites, and even good 'ol fashion TV, consuming the news does not make one a more "informed" person. Information junkies often have the most extreme views (on both sides of the US political spectrum) with a strong "us vs them" mindset where "them" are viewed to have a twisted sense of morality and "us" are viewed as freedom fighters protect others from evil. News (and social media platforms) capitalize on the Fear of Missing Out as it offers a view into an endless feed of stories and activities in which the person (the news junkie) is not involved in.

Because of this infinite feed of information, a person cannot possibly get the full story, much less the facts, and it's common to resort to simply reading headlines. In fact, I'd argue that the majority of people form their opinions simply from headlines, memes, and "hot takes" from iNfLuEnCeRs, and at best short-form lazy journalism.

Avoiding news may lead one to think I live under a rock, but if it's important enough, the major news stories will make it's way to my perception. If something horrific happens in my country, I do find out about it perhaps hours after the news breaks - maybe a few days for less dramatic stuff from other people in my life. That said, what difference does it make if I hear about the story hours after it happens? If there's an important piece of information that relates to my community, family, friends, or profession, I will here about it in time. In fact, even today 99% of the "news" that makes it to my eyeballs because someone thought it was important that I see it is garbage anyways.

Maybe I'm viewed as being out of touch with the world, that if everyone mostly ignored the news the way I do, that governments and corporations will be getting away with murder and exploitation. To that I'll point out that we've never been exposed to as much information as we are today and governments and corporations are still getting away with murder and exploitation.

What is ignorant about not wanting to consume useless information, but rather consuming science, history, literature, and long-form writing, or even pursuing other hobbies and interests? Who is more ignorant of the world: a social media news junkie, or someone that spends their time studying history or particle physics?

The Price of Attention

Attention is a scarce and valuable resource in the 21st century. Information, on the other hand, is an abundant commodity. Our brains are wired to give attention to sensationalized, scandalous, "loud", story-driven content, that functions as an interruption system that weakens our ability to understand. This is how their business model works.

There's also the opportunity cost. Spending time on what the news deems important could be better spent reading long form articles or books. However, reading a news article that invokes outrage is far more likely to be engaged with - and engagement/attention is the currency of the digital world. Sharing your outrage of said article on social media makes it feel like you're doing something; that you're taking action, that you're doing gods work by spreading the word and keeping others informed of what's really going on. The reality is that you aren't doing anything at all. At best, it's playing into the shareability/marketing aspect of the news. You may get some reactions from your followers, but they, like you, will also not likely do anything to change. The news gives us the illusion of caring and social media is a circle-jerk. It's a distraction from life and yourself. It also deters you from other things that developing a skill or spending time with real people in the physical world.

The news is overwhelmingly about things you cannot possibly influence which sets up the news consumers for a fatalistic outlook on the world. News headlines are 90% bad news designed to invoke negative feelings because the reality is that negative stories get the highest engagement rate and time-on-site because humans are naturally hardwired to most likely react to the bad things that are happening in the world. Now imagine what that does psychologically to a mind in the long term that consumes these types of negative stories that are mostly anger inducing, deplorable, terrifying, or horrific? Undoubtedly, this person will suffer from stress, anxiety, and/or depression, and will likely have a negative view of the world and distrust their fellow human. Too much news instills fear, aggression, helplessness, victimhood, and tunnel-vision. Personally, I don't want to be this type of person.

Looking back, all that time I spent reading news articles being fed to me by various social feeds were a complete waste of time. There's not a single news blurb I consumed that made me change the way I live my life. All those feeds did for me were feed me stories about things I could not possibly change and making me fearful of the world. Dropping out from the collective psychosis has done wonders for my mental health and I've legitimately done much more interesting things with me time. When you are robbed of your attention, you are also robbed of your creativity, productivity, and train of thought.

Consumption of information is similar to that of consumption of food. Consuming too much low quality food is not good for our physical health. Likewise, consuming too much news and low quality information is not good for our mental health. The metaphor that 'you are what you eat' holds true as you also are what you feed you mind. Spending a significant portion of your free time wasting time online watching YouTube videos, playing video games, and yes, consuming the news, is not much different from a diet consisting a fast food and other junk food. Furthermore, when we create the habit of checking the news feed, we are training our brains to pay attention to shit. Once you recognize that you've been on a steady diet of information junk food, building a better information diet is difficult but more helpful than rather than starving yourself entirely. I believe that if I want to improve myself, I should begin by critically looking at what I have in my life and removing something (an object, behavior, or belief) before adding something new - much like cutting out the heavily processed shit that we put in our body.

It Makes Us Prone to Cognitive Errors

The news is primarily irrelevant information, under the guise of coherent analysis. The problem is that it's difficult for humans to recognize what's actually relevant, as we're prone to making cognitive errors and get caught up in the dramatic - it's part of what it means to be human.

The news increases cognitive biases where we "inflate" information that consistent with our preexisting views and "deflate" information that does not align with our preexisting views (see Confirmation Bias). Humans have a tendency to interpret new information in such a way that their prior conclusions remain intact. We like to spend time with other people who share our preexisting beliefs. This results in the formation of echo chambers which amplify and reinforce our beliefs, creating polarization and extremism. This largely has to do with not just human nature but it's also facilitated by the almighty social media algorithm. Dark patterns also exist to trick us into spending more time on websites and applications than we initially intended to.

We fixate on horrific stories like airplane crashes and school shootings, which are indeed absolutely terrible (and as a society we should do things to prevent school shootings and planes from crashing), but it leads us to make probablistic errors with actual risks we face in real life. The truth is that we're far more likely to die in an auto accident or heart disease than we are from being shot or dying in a plane crash, yet we can't help but feel like we're at higher risk from dying in such ways because of the information we consume. Even intelligent and sophisticated thinkers are prone to making these errors.

There's a 1978 research paper titled "Judged Frequency of Lethal Events" that studied the errors made in quantifying the severity of risks, and judging which of two risks occurred more frequently. The participants believed that deaths from accidents occurred as often as deaths from disease, and believed that homicide was a more frequent cause of death than suicide. However, in actuality diseases cause about sixteen times as many deaths than accidents, and death from suicide is twice that as homicide. This availability bias happens because accidents and murders are much more likely to be talked about on the news, discuss them, and more likely to remember them.

News, especially customized news intake like a social media feed, greatly exacerbates overconfidence. News junkies may think they have a competitive advantage, but are no better at making decisions - in fact they're probably worse. Cryptocurrency investors are a prime example. We take in what's believed to be confirming information, then make stupid risks. Some cryptocurrency investors may make money, but this is simply survivorship bias as the silent vast majority have lost money due to consuming bad information.

Cut the Garbage Out of Your Diet

I'm not advocating a nihilistic worldview and if you think I'm being too cynical, I actually believe I'm being optimistic. I think it's good to know what's going on in the world, but I think it's absolutely essential to learn and think deeply about worldly matters than to simply absorb morsels of incomplete and often time skewed information we get from the news. Do you want news reporters setting the public agenda for what's important? As is the case with any profession, journalism has incompetent people working who either don't have the time, motivation, or mental capacity for providing appropriate analysis of social issues. This is why we're presented with bite sized nuggets of information in the form of headlines, lazy articles, and tweets that don't require much thinking because it's easy for our minds to digest.

I'm not suggesting throwing the baby out with the bathwater and cutting ourselves entirely off from all information. Become long-form literate by spending more time deep-reading such as a book or long-form article that's more representative of the world's complexity as opposed to an overly simplified social-mediated and sensational news blurb. Unfollow news companies from your social media feed or better yet, delete your social media accounts entirely. As mentioned earlier, people are all too willing to reshare the news that they deem important, and once that headline hits your eyeballs, they've already won. To avoid temptation, read offline via a read-it-later app or a physical book.

Spend time focusing on more interesting and rewarding things like social science, gardening, Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, cooking, web design... you know, the hobbies and interests that you used to have before your attention became set on fast-breaking news where you fell into the habit of checking your phone hundreds of times throughout the day.

George Orwell's 1984 and Aldous Huxley's Brave New World are two of the more impactful books I've read in regards to how I've come to understand the present and future of human societies. Here's a quote from Neil Postman in his book Amusing Ourselves to Death about the differences between Orwell and Huxley that I think is relevant. Undoubtedly this quote will make more sense after reading both books (and you should).

What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one. Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egoism. Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance. Orwell feared we would become a captive culture. Huxley feared we would become a trivial culture, preoccupied with some equivalent of the feelies, the orgy porgy, and the centrifugal bumblepuppy. As Huxley remarked in Brave New World Revisited, the civil libertarians and rationalists who are ever on the alert to oppose tyranny "failed to take into account man's almost infinite appetite for distractions."

Further Reading

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