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Is Social Media Destroying Our Attention Spans?

The rapid-fire nature of news cycles can lead to untruths and short memories.

With the rapid-fire changes in internet technology and social media, our society is barely coming to terms with the cataclysmic changes these phenomena are having on us. It has affected our elections, our human interactions, and our societies dramatically—and, by its own nature, at such a pace that we have had no real time to reflect or analyze sufficiently on what is happening.

On the positive side, these changes have enabled new ways to galvanize human capital and allow democratization of some types of information. New types of services, businesses, and idea exchanges and fundraising are possible. Some corrupt dynamics that relied and flourished on secrecy and behind-the-scenes tactics can no longer hide, thanks to movements like #MeToo and more.

But we have all reckoned with the dangerous side of this brave new world, as well. The dissemination of false news, the rise of canned reality show demagogues, the easy manipulation of the masses, the temptations of quick infamy for an embittered few, and the fickle rapidity of clickbait-based communication are all cause for great concern.

Due to economic pressures induced by these new formats, the media world is one example of a forum that is succumbing to change in ways that aren’t always positive. While there were some problems with having a very establishment-minded cabal quietly controlling major media outlets, journalism itself as a craft was nurtured and built upon itself. There were well-versed practitioners, writing in-depth, high-quality, long-form pieces with deep impact; while never a super-lucrative profession, it was still possible to make a reasonable career and living as a staff reporter or editor. News cycles had the time to delineate the full impact of wars, tragedies, scandals, and more.

While cable news was somewhat to blame for the shift towards in-the-moment news reporting, with the shift towards internet media, the volume of material and noise has become a deluge. And the only way to stand out is to turn towards sensationalistic, addiction-driven highlights; advertising relies on clicks. The best clicks are not unlike the characteristics of addictive drugs: a short rapid-onset high that just as quickly falls off, leaving one craving the next hit. Articles need to be short, with a catchy lede, and increasingly less reliant on substance and facts and in-depth research. Controversial opinion pieces sometimes push aside in-depth factual journalism articles on the page.

There remain some positive aspects to the new media environment; there is a democratization of a wider range of voices, including those that have been traditionally marginalized such as people of color and others who have not been prioritized by establishment outlets but have important and valuable insights. There is direct access to the expertise of people in a wide range of professions (or even just practical life experience such as parenting), who see the virtue of open dialogue with the public and access to greater information and insider details, everything from medicine to finances to cosmetic tips. Blogging can become its own valuable and flexible form of expression, with ease, simplicity, practical advice, and conversational intuitions.

But there is also the danger of amplification of misinformation and toxic extremism. Without a discerning eye, some members of the public may easily be persuaded by whatever they encounter online; there are studies that indicate that people will choose media outlets that mirror their own pre-existing views, and numerous recent articles that hypothesize that social media has led to political polarization, such as one South Korean study from Telematics and Informatics (Lee et al, 2018) that indicated greater political engagement led to less moderate views via social media. This polarization isn’t necessarily negative when it’s a reaction to extreme issues that require action; but when it incites hate crimes, bigotry, and violence, it can be dangerous.

Finally, there is concern about a numbing effect from information overload, particularly with violent imagery and stories. Desensitization and rapid attention shifts can result, leading to outrage fatigue or distraction, when the need for action and concern are still warranted with serious issues like mass shootings, wars, and human rights violations. The speed at which people move on to the next “high” of a dramatic news flash and forget the last one is becoming disturbingly quick.

Hopefully, as people step back and continue to study and analyze these media effects, and think hard about previously unforeseen consequences as they play out historically, we can implement reasonable safeguards against frank lying and manipulation. The key is to be open to learning and continue to prioritize critical thinking.