No comfort at the bottom of the feed: how to prevent information overload in the time of Covid | Social media

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There was a routine. Kate Sewell would watch the New South Wales premier’s daily Covid press conference at 11am. During the work day, she kept a browser tab running with a pandemic news live blog. She’d pick up her phone and scroll through posts about masks and lockdowns on social media. And then, on her drive home from her healthcare job in Sydney, maybe listen to a podcast or news radio.

She never felt exactly good when she turned off the TV or put down her phone, but maybe there was comfort in the noise. “It was the numbers game,” she says. “Are things going up? Are things going down? Chasing that hope that if the numbers are going down, OK, things are getting better.” The announcement in September that Gladys Berejiklian’s daily press conferences were coming to an end was “a hallelujah moment”, Sewell says.

Information-seeking has become a complex habit to manage during recent years of plague and unrest. For some, both relief and anxiety are found on platforms where work, play and social connection are increasingly blurred. It feels necessary to be informed and prepared, but it’s also easy to fall into the numbing embrace of case rates and vaccination statistics – as if comfort can be found at the bottom of the feed.

These habits may be about reducing uncertainty, but Covid-19 has been a rather slow-moving crisis. What we must do to stay safe – wear a mask, stay home, vaccinate – has stayed fairly consistent for months.

Yet almost every situation prompts us to “check to see if there’s any more information”, according to Art Markman, a professor of psychology at the University of Texas, who suggests “doom scrolling” during the pandemic has kept us unhelpfully focused on a threat “out there”. The stress provoked by this state can lead to self-medicating behaviours, he says. It may also heighten our attention not only to the threat of the virus, but to every other threat in our environment.

It makes sense to have contradictory feelings about news consumption in this climate; to feel swamped on the one hand, and reliant on the other. Sora Park, a professor of communication at the University of Canberra, says her research shows Australians consumed more news during the pandemic, but also avoided news more than before. “They also find it overwhelming … really disturbing and negative and emotional,” Park says.

Of course, the media itself plays a part in this – because it delivers the news in constant rolling bulletins, and it has an innate preference for novelty and uncertainty over plodding change. And social media thrives on tension. But even allowing for that, how can we wrestle back some agency?

Check your sources of stress

To change a habit you must first pay attention to it. Markman suggests keeping a diary about your media and social media consumption for a week or so, noting all the times you pull up a social media app or open a news website. When are you doing it? How often are you doing it? And how are you feeling when you do it?

Of course, it’s difficult to stop doing something habitual. Instead, Markman suggests creating an alternative pattern. Take compulsively checking Twitter. If you feel the need to check the feed, do something else instead. Walk around the room, call a friend – something desirable. “You want to begin to associate that feeling of ‘I need to check the news’ with an action that actually creates some amount of joy,” he says.

Some days are always going to be better than others. Mike Caulfield, a researcher into misinformation at the University of Washington’s Center for an Informed Public, suggests reassessing the way we consume information when our attention is continuously being hijacked. One method he’s devised is known as SIFT, which aims to help us resist the temptation to get to the bottom of everything we see. SIFT stands for “Stop, Investigate, Find better coverage, and Trace claims”.

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Imagine someone emails you an article that makes a distressing claim about Covid-19 vaccines. First stop and think about what you’re looking at and how you’re feeling. If something provokes a strong emotion, that is often a good reason to be cautious. If you don’t recognise the source of the article, have a quick (really quick) look to see what kind of outlet it is. If you don’t recognise it or something seems off, Caulfield suggests waiting to see if the same information turns up elsewhere – if it’s important, other outlets will almost certainly pick up the story.

“People have got themselves into this mode that we can’t disregard anything unless we prove it to be untrue, but that’s entirely backwards,” he says. If small things are off about a claim or a source, it can be enough for us to say, “not today”. Finally, if your interest is sparked, trace claims, quotes and media to the original context to ensure you’re not being misled by the way the information is being framed in the email or on social media.

Your feed can be a beast

Stevie Zhang is a research reporter for First Draft, an organisation that tracks online misinformation. That means almost all their work is focused on social media platforms, which makes it especially hard to turn away from the deluge. “That’s where you go for your information, where you go to do work,” they say. “The personal, the professional, all the research that we do. There’s not that many boundaries.”

Even when your job is to investigate how attention can be manipulated, it can be hard to stop endless information-seeking. Zhang says in the past he and his colleagues were “terminally online”, and would continue to browse online after work hours. But now, once the work day is done, they log off and do not log back on.

Zhang has found benefit in more purposeful engagement: email newsletters that serve content on a specific theme, for example – although it’s hard not to subscribe to too many. They also have a Twitter account that’s just for fun, which provides some delineation between work and pleasure.

But being more choosy is not the same as being actively uninformed. Some may feel their media habits are a necessary and protective way to move through the world, and others may struggle to find information in the formats and languages they need. Nevertheless, it helps to be intentional about what you take in.

Caulfield advocates “tuning” your feed on social media: muting, unsubscribing from or unfollowing people who seem to be pushing dubious information. He acknowledges people can react badly to this idea – as if unsubscribing from someone who repeatedly posts inflammatory things is akin to censorship. But unless it’s your job or you have some greater purpose for understanding them, that argument doesn’t hold much water.

“When people speak a lot of nonsense or are careless with the truth, you’ve got to stop dealing with them, or they’ll exhaust you,” he says. “You don’t owe people your attention and you’ve got to take action to reclaim it.”

For Sewell, the end of the daily press conferences allowed her to reassess her Covid-19 information consumption. She has closed the live blogs, and instead looks only for what she needs to have informed conversations with family and friends.

She is also an advocate of the “unfollow” button – especially since consuming other people’s opinions on every little thing to do with Covid began to feel like work. “When people started coming out of the woodwork with some questionable thoughts on vaccination, that was when it was a good time to say ‘no thank you’.”

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