I’ve done some stupid things, but this is one of the stupidest. Like many people, I found myself consuming and reading too much media.
The COVID pandemic has been one of the generation defining events of our time (although the Russia-Ukranian invasion is definitely up there). Millions of people died, international travel stopped, domestic travel was restricted, people were sealed in their houses, vaccines were mandatory, and the impact on world economies is still not yet known.
At the time of writing, the CEO of Moderna has indicated the belief that 2022 is the year for COVID to become endemic, if it hasn’t already in some parts of the world.
This has made me reflect on the stupidest thing I did during the COVID pandemic. I did already write about 7 Good Things To Come Out Of COVID Season (For Real), but I thought what’s something that I didn’t do very well? And I worked it out.
Like most people, I ended up reading too much media.
Well, we had to, right? In my country, like in many Western countries especially, we had daily updates at 10am on case numbers, changes to restrictions, places we could or couldn’t travel, and every other update under the sun. And like many people, I found myself tuning into not just the state premier’s announcement, but the health minister’s update, the Prime Minister’s update, and other federal updates.
In Australia, they would sometimes give you as short as 6 hours notice to head back home otherwise you could be locked out of your state or even your city for two weeks, so we were all tuning in constantly for over a year. In general, I’ve always kept my ear pretty close to the ground on current affairs and always want to know what’s happening.
But then something happened. It wasn’t enough for me to just read the government updates. I needed the media commentary. I needed the explatory studies being raised to the surface. I needed the pros and cons of vaccination from the news sources I usually trusted. Which then turned into the pros and cons from the news sources I don’t usually check (NB. I’m pro-vax). And their contempories.
And then, maybe worst of all – what the comments sections had to say on all the issues. It started as finding out that sometimes the comment sections would list a restriction change or a venue closure that hadn’t been publicised elsewhere at that point in time.
And then my mood started to change. I needed to check the video update as soon as it was available. I needed to see people I didn’t know fight about the benefits and disadvantages of certain virus management strategies. I needed to read all the things people were saying about the government. And sometimes I would get so into the debates that I would find myself getting physically angry, anxious, or upset.
And then I realised – I had been reading too much media.
In reflecting on this discovery that I was reading too much media, I had a few big thoughts coming out of that. Here they are.
Outrage capitalism has (almost) replaced “sex sells”
We all know sex sells. It always has, and it always will. I’ve written about that reality and the impacts of that several times.
But I’ll always remember my friend Aaron describing what was happening in a single phrase – the media was no longer using clickbait, it was now outrage-bait.
There are a variety of sources on this information but a conservative estimate puts video and media consumption up at least 60% due to the pandemic. Nielsen puts it up between 52 and 215% depending on your country. That’s staggering.
And he was right.
Media companies and advertising agencies now even advise their media clients on the power of using shock or outrage marketing.
You don’t even have to look very far to see it happen. Headlines are set up to deliberately trigger people, especially outlets like The Guardian and The Daily Mail which REGULARLY use CAPTIAL LETTERS on ALMOST EVERY post. Headlines are designed to start fights, with most of them even deliberately using words “outrage”, “backlash”, “controversy”. Even though they’re the ones who want you to be outraged or to fight about it!
Then there are media outlets like BuzzFeed, Vox, MTV, and other pop culture oriented sights which intentionally start fights, from vaccines to religion to sexuality to Black Lives Matter and racial tensions.
You and I are the product, my friend. Just look how heated the comments sections get on posts about any of these topics. I know everyone jokingly posts that Michael Jackson popcorn meme as they’re just there for the comments, but the reality is that’s how companies are now making big money.
They’ll even try to manufacture outrage – I’m calling out specifically the Murdoch brand of media such as 9 News Australia or Courier Mail or news.com.au, which have regularly featured articles which are just people going through Twitter for controversial opinions and posting it as if it’s news.
Or think about how many times you see a post about Flat Earthers. They want you to debate the views of a small minority simply because they’ll get you fired up and drive their engagements up too.
This is what news has turned into, people.
And guess what else happens? Those comment sections drive clicks and shares, which means the media companies make more money.
Which in turn, means they keep making more posts like that. In reading too much media, I found that I was buying into this outrage capitalism.
Don’t kid yourself: social engineering is real
Of course, there is a more insidious side to media. Not only does reading too much media influence and incite outrage and us vs. them violence and conflicts, but it also controls and directs cultural and behavioural trends.
We live in a world that no longer relies on conservative philosophies or religious documents in the way it once did – but don’t be kidding yourself that nothing took their place. I would strongly argue the media is now filling the void of priests and books and churches and directing people’s thinking, and they’re succeeding.
I always remember hearing a quote from the vice president, Robert Pittman, of Warner speaking of MTV on how he viewed the platform. As far back as 1982, he said of MTV, “At MTV, we don’t shoot for the 14-year-olds — we own them. We will reach 90 percent of them in any given household.”
Did you catch that? The head of programming said he believed he owned teenagers. MTV continues today and has significantly broadened its content offering, mainly known nowadays as another BuzzFeed. More topics like manspreading, racial tension, and sexual diversity are the topics of the day.
All the while you are consuming this content, keep in mind the owners of this company believes he owns you. And based on the behaviour of media outlets in general, this is not a viewpoint exclusive to MTV or Warner companies.
The impact of media on group think is measurable. The New York Times even did a significant feature measuring the shift in views on government, family, and relationships that the Murdoch empire has absolutely shifted.
I remember when I was in university that a fully free newspaper was being given out to everyone called MX. It was a cutdown version of the Courier Mail essentially from the same people. Everyone would read it, and it was pretty good for a while.
But then around that time (2006ish), there was a dramatic shift in news in general. We used to have a “news” section and an “opinion” section in our news, with the news section presenting the exact facts without (much) bias, and the opinion section providing commentary. However around this time and even now, these sections are now completely joined – and many outlets no longer even hide fact this is going on.
I hadn’t questioned the idea of a free newspaper that a company was spending millions of dollars in creating, printing, distributing en masse and marketing, but I probably should have.
If a government did this, we would call it propaganda and an insult to democracy. But when a company does it, we lap it up.
As a parent, I have been particularly interested on what the current drive of media is doing to our young people. Here are some standout facts I’ve discovered about Generation Z – the generation who has grown up during this media shift:
- Gender theory and fluidity is one of the most topics regularly covered by news outlets. Recent Gallup studies from 2022 have shown the impacts of this with 25% of Generation Z identifying as non-binary. This has been on an upward trend, and as conservative commentator Matt Walsh stated, if these numbers are even half true, this represents a dramatic sexual revolution unlike anything previously observed in history. Even Alfred Kinsey put his famously optimistic estimate at 10% of a generation, and more thorough studies used to put this at about 4.2% even just a few years ago. Social commentators on both the left and the right credit media and societal factors in this shift.
- Pride has always been a big deal, but even left-leaning LGBTIQ+ activists cite their frustrations with Rainbow Capitalism. This is the tendency for many big organisations (think Body Shop, Levis, Bonds, as well as these media outlets) to heavily push their support of Pride any chance they can get with the agenda of getting more consumers – Generation Z identified as the prime target, and all of these brands doing very well at these times of year.
- Generation Z was not born during the times of slavery or apartheid, but the media’s constant stoking of racial tensions for clicks and views is increasing the perception and experience of race issues around the world. Some university studies have highlighted that only one racial narrative is being perpetuated throughout media currently and affecting Gen Z’s own experiences, and even more concerning, is that media is intentionally inciting conflict between Black and Asian-American experiences. I personally recall seeing how quickly any post about race would turn into Black Lives Matter vs. All Lives Matter vs. Blue Lives Matter vs. Asian Lives Matter vs. Black Wives Matter, and the numbers of comments and engagement were through the roof.
- Generation Z is now cited as the most depressed and anxious generation. Research showed they were the least interested in COVID but the most anxious and concerned about it. 90% of Gen Z’ers report high stress levels (wow). I read a powerful piece on Psychology Today highlighting the real factors involved in this increased anxiety and they put it on a few perspectives pushed on them by the media – “You are fragile”, “If you feel it, it must be true”, and “Life is about us vs. them”. Such perspectives create a generation dependent on the very information that is also poisoning it.
I’ve known a few people in advertising and marketing over the years, and they had regularly highlighted to me the practice of social engineering. This is also an increased push in the research on marketing in not just targeting the insecurities of the audience, but pushing to adjust societal beliefs for corporate objectives. News sites and their social media teams are all over this in even which comments and viewpoints they promote or remove.
Media and marketing corporations are undoubtedly fighting for your what you should believe. If like me you were or are reading too much media, you might want to stop and think about where your current belief systems have come from.
Who are you letting speak into your life?
I recently wrote about the question of who are we allowing to teach us about sex. It seems there are so many views about it nowadays, no wonder it’s hard for people to work out what they should be doing in their own relationships.
But beyond sex, it raises a real question about who we are allowing to speak into our lives about anything in general. I know I found myself being affected by reading too much media especially in mood and thinking. It reminded me of how important it is not just to think about what I believe, but where I got a belief from.
Don’t get me wrong, I think it’s important for all of us to be aware of what’s going on in our world. I think it’s way worse to live in a bubble or under a rock and not know the very real issues people are facing.
But with companies paying bllions of dollars for their right and ability to influence the way we think and behave, we’ve gotta wonder who is winning the war for our minds.
I think truth is something that can be found. But unfortunately many people get all their truth now from incredibly biased, unbalanced, corporate sources. Balanced too far one way to the expense of all perspectives on an issue, or even replacing truth about who they are with opinions from companies with an agenda.
Let’s make sure we’re building our house upon the rock and not on the shifting sand of commercialism.
And more than that, I would encourage you to think about how you are contributing to this culture of outrage. I previously did a deepdive on a reality I continue to observe, that Our Obsession With Outrage and Being Triggered is Destroying Society. Are we more known for what we are for, or what we are against? We should be people who are demonstrating an exemplery and a copyable lifestyle, not just living lives constantly tearing down without displaying an alternative.
How about you? Were you reading too much media during COVID? Or before or after? How much should we allow the media to drive our thinking and behaviour?