The Lure of Bad News

I have this Facebook friend—a woman I haven’t seen in decades but who was my actual pal and work partner in high school.  As it happens, with relationships like this—threadbare, based on outgrown commonalities—we have taken two very diverging roads in the yellow wood of life.

And not just politically and socially. She is that person who continually reposts urgent TV reports of missing children, including children who have mercifully been found safe, six months ago. I don’t know where she gets her news and information, but you can count on her to post flamingly incorrect horror stories every three or four days:

Did you know the Obama White House banned nativity scenes?  Not a single flag at the Democratic debate! There once was a time the president was honored, no matter who he was—let’s get that back! Christians are being persecuted! We could feed and house all the homeless in America with what the Democrats have spent on impeachment!

About that last one, which Snopes doesn’t touch—there are an estimated 553, 742 homeless people in the United States. Spending $10K on each homeless person (which might, optimistically, feed them and get them off the streets for six months) would cost us $5.5 billion.  A far cry from the actual costs of investigating the President since 2017, calculated by PolitiFact last month$32 million (minus some $22 million recouped in Paul Manafort’s forfeited real estate).

These numbers are not in the same ballpark. No matter. It’s the shock that counts.

I know what you’re thinking: Unfriend, unfriend, unfriend. Who needs to be connected to someone so benighted, so right-wing?

Well, hmm. Part of the reason I’m still wrinkling my nose at her Boomer memes and posting corrections on her page—no, they found this kid, safe with his dad, in July (confirming link)—is because, I, too, am attracted to bad news.

In fact, we all are, even though the world has always seemed to be bound for hell and things are actually much better now than they used to be.

There is a natural human bias toward bad news. The title of a 1998 article in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology sums it up: “Negative Information Weighs More Heavily on the Brain.” Negative stimuli get our attention much more than positive stimuli — which makes evolutionary sense for survival. Nice things are enjoyable; bad things can be deadly, so focus on them. And given that, in the news media, attention equals money, we can see the commercial reason for a lack of headlines such as “Millions not going to bed hungry tonight.”

Think about President Trump’s inaugural speech. Here’s how U.S.A. Today described it: Trump delivers populist manifesto that depicted U.S. as a land of abandoned factories, economic angst, rising crime and dystopian “carnage.”

Not exactly morning in America. Or hope and change, asking what we can do for our country. And we now know that wherever the buck stops these days, it is no longer the Oval Office. Instead, the leader of the free world seems focused on the water pressure in our bathrooms.

Which is a perfect illustration of the President’s mastery of the lure of bad news: These pesky water-saving regulations for new plumbing fixtures (designed to be environmentally friendly)! I find them super annoying! Bring back the Niagara flush! Courtesy of Donald J. Trump! You’re welcome!

So much for the planet.

Using trauma, fear and alarm over distressing news—think Shock Doctrine—to move people to action is not new. In fact, crisis is often an opportunity for positive action—being attacked by a foreign enemy, rapid climate change, perfidy at the highest levels of government. There is genuinely bad news—threats to our democracy and the dangerous and growing equity gap. We can and should do more.

So why bother with those who are unduly influenced by genuinely fake news?

Because we’re all vulnerable. Piece in today’s NYT: Foreign meddling was once the most feared source of online deception before critical elections. Now, some candidates themselves are turning to such manipulative tactics.

Apparently, a healthy chunk of the electorate can’t distinguish between fake bad news and real bad news, so candidates feel free to ask the Russians to intervene. Or the bot factories cook up bad news memes on their own. It’s scary.

I’ll keep posting Snopes corrections on my friend’s Facebook page (even though she now says she ‘doesn’t believe in’ Snopes—or PolitiFact). Because that’s the heart of this perilous situation: there is no one trusted source of truth.

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2 Comments

  1. well stated, nancy. having a husband who is a conservative while i tend to be liberal, i’m well aware of all that you describe. so very very sad

    jon ________________________________

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    1. Thanks for commenting. My big fear is that once this impeachment process is formally resolved, the country will be further divided, with no place to go. And still no trusted sources for information.

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