Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has made it difficult to focus on anything else. Images of people living underground to escape missile attacks, families trekking across borders, children crying—they are ingrained in my mind. We are rightly impressed by the determination of the Ukrainian people in the face of an unprovoked attack, a kind of determination people around the world have shown in the face of violence.
This human spirit is why I feel responsible not only for being informed, but also for being informed testify. It’s easy to look the other way when conflict feels far away, but it’s the responsibility of being a citizen of a global superpower to bear witness. I am also part of a community of people characterized by others consciously forgetting the price we had to pay to achieve human dignity. That makes the testimony urgent. I don’t want to do to others what is routinely done to us. I don’t want to be the person who deals with human cruelty by ignoring it.
The desire to be informed witnesses leads some of us to “doomscrolling” — obsessively checking media feeds for the latest update. I’m no exception. I recently found myself at 3am on my phone with refreshing news feeds.
Doomscrolling is a new phenomenon, not just a new word for old behavior. Something happened that makes us obsessed with negative news. And research on Doomscrolling suggests that this change in the way we consume information is not driven by ideology. People across the spectrum from liberal to conservative tend to doom scroll. For me, the prime suspect is the scales.
We have more information at our fingertips than ever before, and the scale is larger than our individual and collective ability to sustain attention. How do we manage size when the information available is both so plentiful and so urgent? My colleagues often talk about media diets or the mix of information sources we can reasonably accommodate. The word “diet” has many negative connotations – deprivation, self-denial, exclusion and penance. But it might be useful to think about variety. At a large information event, it is worth comparing your diet with that of other informed people.
When I asked my colleagues at the Center for information, technology and public life at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, what they pay attention to, there was a clear preference for ancient media. There is little substitute for the systematic information gathering that media institutions offer. Almost all cited major sources such as The New York Times, The Associated Press and the BBC. Additionally, The Kiev Independent joins the list for providing local English language coverage. Experts say that when it comes to fast-paced events like armed conflicts or mass shootings, institutional media still come out on top.
But as we have learned, institutional media are not infallible. Information-dense moments are full of conflicts between worldviews, perspectives and ideological motivations. To counteract this, I also rely on media organizations that collect news but also report on the state of the media. the Nieman Journalism Lab, The Independent and The editorial office were regulars with me in the last week. On the recommendation of another doomscroller, I’m following this casebook media manipulation, tracking content removals in Russia and Ukraine. Organizations like these are window frames for information flows. They provide the framework for an information event. Still, every frame leaves something out of the picture. This is where social media comes in handy, with some caveats.
Twitter has taken on the mantle of being the central gathering place for media from below – ordinary people, analysts, and independent writers and researchers all in one place. Talking Points Memo editor Josh Marshall has a list the following Twitter accounts for different perspectives on Ukraine and Russia. The list adds perspective on how the invasion will be designed. I developed a new appreciation for other platforms during the Ukrainian invasion. TikTok users create first-person content that diversifies my sources of information.
Of course, social media is plagued with disinformation and misinformation in the form of organized campaigns, viral rumors, and outright lies. This week Facebook and Google clogged Russian state media from running ads for the first time, showing how easy it is to manipulate this information environment. They also demonstrate the extent to which social media platforms can disrupt organized disinformation campaigns – which might lead one to wonder why they are reluctant to use this power when the stakes are as high as voter fraud.
Another way to look at sources of information is to focus on genre rather than platform. Newsletters are a powerful entry point into the information ecosystem. My theory is that newsletters are an evolution of a very old genre: the new iteration of brochures. Political pamphlets are hundreds of years old. They move somewhere between “objective” journalism and polemics. They often present deep explorations of issues and explicitly unexplained arguments. Good newsletters at information events put these window frames up for discussion. You analyze the event systematically, but also think critically about the sources that inform the analysis. The historian Heather Cox Richardson’s newsletter is a good example.
A good media diet is about more than diversity of sources. It is also about information with different purposes. Investigative journalism takes time and resources. Social media shrinks time and resources but can react quickly. Newsletters provide context and help us understand informational events. We can’t parse everything. The answer to the problems caused by scaling is to recognize that we are not infinitely deep containers capable of holding as much water as information requires. We must witness, but we must remember that we have limitations.
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Tressie McMillan Cottom (@tressiemcphd) is an associate professor at the University of North Carolina’s Chapel Hill School of Information and Library Science, author of Thick: And Other Essays, and a 2020 MacArthur Fellow.