I can’t watch television. There was a time when I thought the talking heads were giving us the news. Now, I see the so called “news” as actors who are feeding me their daily dose of fear and rage. I ignored the Orellian exaggerations for a while, but now I can’t. The problem is that facts don’t matter and we’re easy to manipulate once we’ve overdosed on fear and rage. Those emotions are like dangerous drugs because I can’t think when I’m angry and afraid. How did we assume such a weak and subservient position when we have the world of information at our fingertips?
Like many truths that are obvious in hindsight, we should have known we were vulnerable to media manipulation. As early as 1938 we panicked when an actor, Orson Welles, read a science fiction story on the radio. Because of that broadcast, we thought that H.G. Wells’s science fiction story “War of the Worlds” was real. We thought we were being invaded by space aliens from Mars and we panicked. We fared slightly better in 1954 when a small latex monster was put on the TV and we watched Godzilla destroy Tokyo.
That progress was temporary. Today, we panic after a glamorous spokes-model breathlessly says some people died from the flu. We are never told about the size of previous epidemics or of last year’s flu. We see government officials being chastised for not wearing a mask. What we don’t see is the news media taking their masks off as soon as the broadcast ends. We see riots being called “peaceful protest”. What we’re not shown is the armed security team hired to protect the camera crews. We are never shown how small the protest really is.
The media feeds us a distorted view of the world. We’re looking at the world through a media microscope, yet we think that the images we’re shown are representative of the world around us.
We have our weaknesses. We don’t know what to do when we face a complex problem armed with contradictory information. We want to feel effective and in control so we do everything we can, even if those actions are ineffective. We feel hyper responsible if we lock our doors, wipe every surface with bleach, and wear a mask as we take a shower four times a day. We think we are sophisticated, intelligent, and informed, yet our actions are the very definition of superstition.
We were not meant to live that way, and it plays to our weaknesses. The cell phone in our pocket lets us live in an ocean of facts. It is easy to search for the facts that fit your current perspective without ever looking for facts that contradict your favorite beliefs. The antidote is to read widely and look for contradictions.
It is easy to believe that we’re in the middle of a race war, yet I see a peaceful scene as I walk down mainstreet in town after town. It is easy to think that police are out of control, yet the officers I meet are as responsible as they could be. It is easy to believe that the economic situation is hopeless, yet I see help wanted signs everywhere I go. So do you if you lift your head out of your phone.
Context puts facts in perspective. Are you going to believe the microscope in your pocket, or are you going to believe your own experience? I favor my own observations above those of the media.
We’ve had economic downturns before. We’ve had waves of the flu before. We’ve been manipulated by the media and by politicians before.
We will come out of this stronger. We will develop an immunity to the flu and to the hysterical media. Give us time.
If I were offering a prescription, I’d say you’ll feel better soon. Turn off the TV, step out of the echochamber of social media, read a history book, and call me in the morning.