The Mean World

From Humankind: A Hopeful History by Rutger Bregman:

“Imagine for a moment that a new drug comes on the market. It’s super-addictive, and in no time everyone’s hooked. Scientists investigate and soon conclude that the drug causes, I quote, ‘a misperception of risk, anxiety, lower mood levels, learned helplessness, contempt and hostility towards others, and desensitization’……That drug is the news.”

Over the last several decades, extreme poverty, victims of war, child mortality, crime, famine, child labour, deaths in natural disasters and the number of plane crashes have all plummeted. We’re living in the richest, safest, healthiest era ever. So why don’t we realise this? It’s simple. Because the news is about the exceptional, and the more exceptional an event is – be it a terrorist attack, violent uprising, or natural disaster – the bigger its newsworthiness.”

The “mean world” theory: we fall prey to the synergistic effect of availability bias and negativity bias, making us believe the world is more dangerous and violent and scary than it really is. It’s a potent source of misunderstanding about how the world works, our place within it, and the general happiness of humankind.

The power of the news in shaping your mood and feelings is much more potent now than it used to be, not just because you spend more time on social media than you ever did consuming network television or the newpaper in years past, but because the algorithmic targeting of your attention allows companies to feed you content that engages you, even if that content isn’t good for you. Rare events that cause your outrage are singled out to be given to you in regular doses to keep your attention and maximize your engagement. That’s why a quick check of your Facebook feed turns into a 20-minute slog, leaving you drained and frustrated.

On top of that, individual content creators, journalists, and influencers suffer from audience capture, where a feedback loop of positive reactions from their audience to their most extreme or hot-button content creates a feedback loop resulting in the creation of evermore egregious content. Even a billionaire like Elon Musk was unable to resist wasting his fortune to buy Twitter because he enjoyed feeding the trolls so much.

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