Hopeful Education Optimism and progress

Is doomscrolling feeding ‘mean world syndrome’?

Is doomscrolling making us fear the world? Source: Charles Deluvio

Do you ever find yourself ‘doomscrolling’?

Bad news has always tended to hit the headlines, but our consumption of it is no longer restricted to a small number of daily doses: it happens almost every time we pick up our smartphones.  On the surface, this is just another irritation of modern life.  But could doomscrolling have more profound impacts on society?

Media outlets understandably accentuate dramatic and negative stories.  After all, it makes commercial sense: bad news sells.  A less cynical view would credit news outlets for bringing to light financial and political scandals in the hope of keeping check on those in power, so I am not claiming that all such news is unwarranted.  And only a fool would castigate the media for documenting contemporary crises.  Citizens need to know about the aftermath of the Global Financial Crisis, climate change, the impacts of Brexit, the Covid-19 pandemic, the invasion of Ukraine and the floods in Pakistan, for example.

But today there appears to be unusually high levels of uncertainty and fear in the public sphere, characterised by what the Germans call ‘weltschmerz’, or world-weariness.  And this has been accompanied by a rise in challenges to our mental health and the rise of eco-anxiety.

What does this have to do with doomscrolling?

A media landscape which feeds our appetite for doomscrolling allows little space for the reporting of planet-wide and centuries-long social trends.  This impacts upon wider public discourse: people are becoming increasingly distrustful of those in positions of responsibility and therefore, I posit, they are less likely to be able to conceive of a brighter future for humanity.

Martin Luther King popularised Theodore Parker’s saying that “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice”, and in this age of ‘big data’, there is ample evidence of the historical progress that King referred to.  However, the ‘long arc of social progress’ is poorly documented, let alone reflected upon, and this applies to both traditional and social media outlets.

In the 1990s, George Gerbner coined the term ‘mean world syndrome’, referring to the correlation between high levels of news consumption and attitudes of cynicism, misanthropy and pessimism.  This syndrome has become more entrenched in today’s era of rolling news, consumed on smart devices.  A 2020 report from the European Commission examining the influence of online technologies on political behaviour points out that algorithms that are designed to promote attractive and engaging content exploit people’s predispositions to orient towards negative news.

Moreover, once pessimistic worldviews develop, they can make people despair with democracy and drive them towards supporting populists and extremists in elections.  And even when such populists do not gain power themselves, the fearful narratives that they thrive on still influence policy and discourse, leading to an erosion of tolerance and even a threat to democracy, human rights, and internationalism.  One need only look back to the rise of fascism in the 1930s to see where such fear might eventually lead.

Where are the headlines about the incremental gains in education, healthcare and access to energy that have occurred in most countries over the past few decades?  There are so few of them, because good news does not sell; good news does not generate clickbait; good news does not get us talking to each other the way that tragedies and armed conflict (or the threat of it) does.  And whenever long-term, hard-fought, stories of social progress do make it into the media, they are soon swamped by the next wave of drama, threat, and despair.

How might we overcome this?  Yes, we should fund and publicise investigative journalism and send reporters to disaster zones.  But we should also give more space to analysing social and technological progress, so that voters and media consumers can consider the benefits of open, democratic, societies, and indeed of multilateralism.  We need reminding of the fact that international co-operation and progressive activism has, for example, conserved the Antarctic, combatted acid rain, enhanced the rights of women and minority groups, and almost removed the scourges of polio and tapeworms from the face of the earth.  As Rebecca Solnit writes, “We need litanies or recitations or monuments to those victories, so that they are landmarks in everyone’s mind”.

Waiting passively for this shift to occur is not an option.  We can’t just wait for ‘mean world syndrome’ to morph into a ‘hopeful world syndrome’.  It is incumbent upon everyone in the public sphere – whether that be the media, politics, or education – to write a new narrative.

This is not an encouragement of blind optimism.  It is a plea for wider global contexts and long-term trends to be considered, and it is a reminder to anyone involved in shaping public discourse that tone and balance matters.  What a shame it would be if persistently highlighting malign influences out of the context of more widespread social progress ended up pushing more and more despairing citizens into the arms of the populist despots who feed such malignancies!  The media should acknowledge its role in perpetuating this syndrome and play a more active role in its reversal.

An edited version of this article was published in the Yorkshire Post, 4 October, 2022