Of course, such moments may not be an occasional blip on our emotional radar. For many of us, they’re the default; a continual state of distress as we’re battered by gale after gale of confusing, infuriating, and morally repulsive content. The resulting exhaustion has a name—“social media fatigue”—and its implications are psychological and informational. Recent studies have shown a positive correlation between social media fatigue and sharing Covid-19 misinformation as well as other false narratives.
Most of us have seen this play out in big and small ways, whether in others or ourselves. When people feel crushed by the everything-all-the-time of the moment, when they’re a bundle of nerves and reactivity, they can generate all kinds of stormy energies of their own. Or they may decide they’ve had enough, board up the house, and evacuate the internet with the scream: We quit! See you in 2021, assholes.
Both outcomes are terrible for the media environment. Instead, we need to bring our own storm surges down, so we can stay safe, self-possessed, and socially-active. But what does a balance between digging in our heels and heading for the hills look like in practice?
Here’s what I do. To minimize information fatigue on Twitter, I’ve organized everything into lists: left- and right-leaning sources, news organizations, Fox News, and so on. I also have lists for academics, as well as one for journalists and other commentators. I keep a separate tab open for mentions, which I check when I have the bandwidth, and don’t check when I don’t. On especially stormy days, I focus my scrolling on the news organizations, which allow me to take in plenty of facts with minimal screaming. When I need to venture into the Fox News orbit or some equivalently stressful list, I can prepare myself and set a time limit. Instagram serves a different purpose entirely; it’s where I retreat to scroll through pottery and herbalism and other points of feel-good interest. I don’t go there often, but it’s good for a quick vacation.
But information is only part of the story. Depending on what I’m seeing online or how I’m feeling in my life more broadly, I often—certainly daily, sometimes hourly—need to down-regulate my overactive limbic system. Without that, even my most meticulous curatorial efforts won’t protect me. In my first column for this series , I wrote about some of my most reliable coping strategies, including using a makeshift weighted blanket made from a Trader Joe’s bag filled with rice. Post-Covid, I still use this method (though I’ve upgraded to a real blanket, mainly because my Trader Joe’s bag is in my campus office, and I haven’t been there in eight months). I’ve also grown more attuned to the signals that I’m approaching depletion. For me, that means being aware of my intrusive thoughts about perceived illnesses (a longtime generalized anxiety companion) or catching myself when I start to ignore my surroundings. Both things tell me: You’re tired, old friend.
She’s currently the director of a new group called Civic, the Coalition to Integrate Values Into the Information Commons—which she runs with former founding director of the International Fact-Checking Network, Alexios Mantzarlis—and she came to TED 2019 to lay out her vision for the coalition: to bring the power of crowdsourcing to the fight against misinformation online.
So, for a few minutes, I stop. I do slow breathing exercises, or a bit of yoga, or focus on my immediate sensations: what I can hear, what I can see. When I realize I’m depleted before I need to write something intimidating (for example, this column) I’ll watch a time-lapse nature video. Lately I’ve been drawn to this short film, which has a lovely shot of a Redwood sapling followed by a slow pan up the trunk of an old growth tree. The sapling is small and vulnerable. It could easily be crushed. The thought of what can grow from its tiny branches—from all our tiny branches—when we remain rooted and steady makes me cry every time. When my schedule allows it, I’ll go for a walk by the lake and focus on the bottom of my feet: the roots I can’t see but can feel; all the other connections I can’t see but can feel. Nothing takes away from the chaos and uncertainty of the moment. And I am very often a mess. But by tending to my breath and myself, I’m able to keep showing up.
A years-old internet hoax warning about a new, nonexistent Instagram rule resurfaced this week—and demonstrated the staying power of even low-stakes misinformation online.If the story pushed by a meme or hoax fits in a way that feels like a coherent narrative to a critical mass of people, it’s game over, says Phillips.