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Leaving Social Media Taught Me How Broken The News Cycle Is

In December, I began a three-month break from Facebook and Twitter. I was on a brief book leave from FiveThirtyEight, and with the election finally over, it seemed like a good time to step away from the news cycle.

The first thing I noticed was that I suddenly lacked an outlet for the compulsion not to write.1 It wasn’t news to me that I used social media for procrastination purposes, but without it, I found myself lacking an easy source for distractions.

It dawned on me that I’d mostly stopped visiting websites directly and instead had been following the recommendations in my feeds to wherever they might lead me. My reading was no longer deliberate but curated by external forces that may or may not have aligned with my interests. I’d ceded control of my most valuable currency: my attention.

Of course, these are largely people and news organizations I’ve chosen to connect with. My Facebook friends are a mix of family, real-life friends, interest groups and professional acquaintances. On Twitter, it’s mostly journalists and sources I follow to keep up on my beats.

What became acutely obvious when I stopped taking their recommendations was how tribal online discussions can be. So many posts in my feeds were people broadcasting their political or professional identities by expressing outrage or praise for a particular news event or article. It seems to me that these kinds of posts aren’t so much about instigating thoughtful discourse as they are about broadcasting your own tastes or positioning yourself on a team. By opting out, I wasn’t missing thoughtful discussions, I was skipping pep rallies for various factions.

I still consumed the news — in old-fashioned print and a few news apps — but I was taking it in without being told how to feel, and I was reading more stories that weren’t the emotion-provoking ones that most often seem to get shared in my feeds. In short, my consumption of the news felt more balanced, and research bears this out. A study of 12,000 Twitter users during the 2011 Spanish general election and 50,000 American tweeters during the 2012 presidential election found that political discussions during these times were dominated by people on the extreme left and right. Without my most vocal acquaintances telling me what to read and how to think, it was easier to form my own opinions.

Social media is opinion-oriented, and people are quick to comment without verifying and judge and share without reading (admit it, you’ve done this; I have!). Social media runs on emotion and knee-jerk reactions, and I’ve observed that it often exploits our cognitive biases and preconceived notions.

Shortly after my return to work and to social media, my feeds lit up with moral outrage over the story of two young girls who were prohibited from boarding a United Airlines flight because they were wearing leggings. According to the tweet that started it all, the gate agent told them Spandex wasn’t allowed.

On its face, this story sounds outrageous: a cranky gate agent denying two girls their seats on the plane for sexist reasons. The story feeds into an existing narrative about a real problem — women and girls being judged and shamed for their bodies and how they dress — and people in the Twitterverse were quick to pile on. It’s hard to argue that young women shouldn’t be allowed to wear leggings. Within hours, there were calls to boycott United.

But Twitter and Facebook unleashed a flurry of rage based on only half the story. Yes, the girls were told to change clothes if they wanted to board the flight, but they weren’t ordinary ticketed passengers. They were flying on discounted employee passes that come with rules of conduct. As the daughter of a pilot, I know these rules well. When flying non-rev, as it’s called, you’re representing the company, and they expect you to follow their dress code. If you don’t like it, you can buy a ticket.2

You can argue whether the dress code is fair, but that’s different from calling out an agent you think is randomly targeting girls for their clothing. Once the rage was unleashed, though, it was hard to quell. New articles soon appeared — most with the full facts — but the tone of the conversation was set (and United’s bumbling response didn’t help). Even with the new facts, the calls to boycott continued to pop up in my newsfeed. It’s far easier to unleash a half-truth than it is to correct it.

The leggings incident is the kind of fast-moving story that quickly takes over social media, and after opting out of this news-of-now cycle, I’ve come to believe that distractions like these leave me less informed.

On a recent night, President Trump’s covfefe tweet made the rounds as well as headlines the next day. It was a stupid typo that people who dislike Trump took as further proof that he’s unfit to be president, while his supporters interpreted coverage of it as evidence that the mainstream media was out to get him. Regardless, it was far less important than real news such as the Russia investigation and Trump’s impending decision on whether to leave the Paris climate agreement. Attention that could have been directed to the president’s actions was instead focused on a tweet.

More than anything else, my break from social media reinforced my belief in the importance of traditional journalism, where (ideally) facts are verified and follow-up questions are asked before a story is published. Without social media focusing me on the news of the instant, I consumed news in a slower, less frantic fashion. I read second-day stories and deep dives that put news in context, and I came away feeling better informed.

At the same time, I did miss some things during my break. It turns out, I use Facebook to keep up with the lives of many real-life friends and family members. I never made a public announcement about my social media break, and so I missed announcements and news from people outside my inner circle. But I didn’t really mind missing all the updates from old acquaintances I’d probably never keep up with if it weren’t for Facebook, and without these distractions, I could focus on things I really cared about. For me, social media is a passive way of connecting with people, and I liked how my friends and family called and texted me more often when they knew they couldn’t reach me on Facebook. Following people on social media often feels like voyeuristically looking in on their lives, and I’d much prefer to actively participate.

Footnotes

  1. Are there other professions where people hate doing the work, but love having completed it? Are there plumbers who hate plumbing but love having plumbed?

  2. I’ve been there — I once had to buy a blouse in the Dallas-Fort Worth airport so I could board my connecting non-rev flight. (The gate agent in my originating city had deemed my dressy T-shirt sufficient. The gate agent in Dallas did not.)

Christie Aschwanden is FiveThirtyEight’s lead writer for science.

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