By Jim Powers
There’s an old print newspaper adage that goes, “If it bleeds, it leads.” It points to a dangerous trait of humans, to be more attracted to negative stories than positive stories. It suggests that if want to sell newspapers, then make sure the news story above the fold on page one is a murder, or fatal car accident, or disaster of some kind.
In our contemporary digital landscape, this adage has taken on a new, much more insidious form. Once confined to the realms of print newspapers and television, it has infiltrated the world of social media. Our predilection for negativity, scandal, and outrage in our feeds is not only a reflection of our built-in psychological biases but is made worse by algorithms and engagement-driven platforms. When we scroll through these endless streams of information, we better pause and consider the impact of this phenomenon on our mental health, society, and the fabric of our communities.
Why are we attracted so strongly to the negative? Historically, human beings have been evolutionarily attuned to potential threats for survival. The negativity bias, a left over from our evolutionary experience, makes us hyper-aware of adverse stimuli. In social media, this translates into a magnetic attraction to posts filled with controversy, conflict, or negativity.
Social media platforms, understanding this predisposition, employ algorithms designed to maximize engagement. These algorithms are not neutral; they are inherently biased towards content that elicits strong emotional reactions. As a result, the most polarizing and sensational posts often gain prominence, creating an echo chamber that distorts reality and fuels divisiveness.
This relentless deluge of negative content has pernicious effects on individual and societal well-being. On an individual level, exposure to a constant stream of others' perfectly curated lives coupled with negativity can lead to anxiety, depression, and something we call “doomscrolling,” where we compulsively consume negative online content to the point it impacts our mental health.
This stuff is kryptonite to society. The polarization promoted by social media threatens the foundations of civil discourse. When we are entrenched in echo chambers that amplify their viewpoints and demonize the “other side,” the space for reasoned debate and mutual understanding dwindles. Worse, the overshadowing of nuanced or positive stories by sensational content interferes with our ability to remain informed about critical issues that require our immediate attention and action.
It is essential that we as users of social media exercise discernment and agency in the way we consume media. We must recognize the power we wield in shaping our online environments. By consciously diversifying the content we engage with, seeking out positive stories, and critically examining the information presented to us, we can counter the myopic tendencies of social media algorithms.
It is crucial that we advocate for greater transparency and accountability from social media companies. The algorithms that dictate what we see should not be black boxes but must be subject to scrutiny and regulation to ensure they do not unduly favor sensationalism over substance.
Education is equally essential. Media literacy should be a cornerstone of modern education, equipping individuals with the tools to critically evaluate information, understand the motives behind content creation, and engage responsibly in the digital space.
The thing we cannot do and remain a free democracy is to check out. A lot of folks have become so frustrated with trying to sort the truth from the lies that they have simply stopped paying attention.
Many people I talk to have stopped watching the news or reading newspapers. As tempting as that can be, it doesn’t change things. You may, indeed, live in bliss until the day someone kicks in your door and orders you to show your papers. Disengagement is simply not an option.
Let’s make “If it bleeds, it leads” a relic of history. Through mindful consumption, holding media outlets and social media companies accountable for their actions, and through educational initiatives, we can reclaim control over our feeds and promote a digital landscape that is conducive to personal well-being and a thriving, informed society.
Jim Powers writes opinion columns. His opinions are his own and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of this publication.