Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has made it difficult to focus on anything else. Images of people living underground to escape missile strikes, of families crossing borders, of crying children – they are seared in my mind. We are rightly impressed by the resolve of the Ukrainian people in the face of an unprovoked attack, a sort of resolve that we see people all over the world display in the face of violence.
This human spirit is why I feel responsible not only for being informed, but also for bear witness. It’s easy to look the other way when conflict seems distant, but bearing witness is the responsibility of being a citizen of a global superpower. I am also part of a community of people marked by others’ willful forgetfulness about the price we had to pay to earn human dignity. This makes witnessing urgent. I don’t want to do to others what they systematically do to us. I don’t want to be the person who deals with human cruelty and ignores it.
The desire to be informed witnesses leads some of us to “doomscrolling” – obsessively checking media feeds for the latest update. I am no exception. I recently found myself on my phone at 3am to refresh the news feeds.
“Doomscrolling” is a new phenomenon, not just a new word for old behavior. Something happened to make us obsessed with negative news. And doomscrolling research suggests that this change in how we consume information is not ideologically dependent. People from all points of the spectrum, from liberal to conservative, are prone to doomscrolling. For me, the main suspect is the scale.
We have more information at our fingertips than ever before, and the scale is greater than our individual and collective capacity for sustained attention. How do we manage scale when the information available is both so abundant and urgent? My colleagues often talk about media regimes or the mix of news sources that we can reasonably assimilate. The word “diet” has many negative connotations – deprivation, self-denial, exclusion and penance. But it might help to think about variety. When a major news event happens, it’s worth checking your feed against 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 paid attention to, there was a clear preference for legacy media. There are few substitutes for the systematic gathering of information provided by media institutions. Almost everyone named major sources like The New York Times, The Associated Press and the BBC. Additionally, The Kyiv Independent joins the list to provide local coverage in English. Experts say that in fast-paced events like armed conflict or mass shootings, corporate media always have the upper hand.
But as we have learned, corporate media is not infallible. Information-rich moments are full of clashes between worldviews, perspectives, and ideological motivations. To counter this, I also rely on media organizations that aggregate news but also report on the state of the media. The Nieman Journalism Lab, The Independent and The Editorial Board have been regulars for me over the past week. On the recommendation of a fellow doomscroller, I follow the Media Manipulation Casebook, which tracks content removal in Russia and Ukraine. Organizations like these are windows for information flows. They provide the framework for an information event. Yet every picture leaves something out of the picture. This is where social media comes in handy, with a few caveats.
Twitter has taken over as a one-stop bottom-up media aggregator — everyday people, analysts, and freelance writers and researchers can be found in one place. Talking Points Memo editor Josh Marshall has compiled a listing of Twitter accounts to follow for various perspectives on Ukraine and Russia. The list adds perspective on how the invasion is framed. 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 rife with misinformation and misinformation, in the form of organized campaigns, viral rumors and outright lies. This week, Facebook and Google for the first time blocked Russian state media from running ads, demonstrating how easy it is to manipulate this information environment. They also demonstrate how social media platforms can disrupt organized disinformation campaigns — which might raise questions about why they’re reluctant to use that power when the stakes are as high as election malfeasance.
Another way to look at news sources is to focus on genre rather than platform. Newsletters are a powerful entry into the news 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 are somewhere between “objective” journalism and polemics. They often feature in-depth explorations of topics and explicitly unresolved arguments. Good newsletters at information events bring these showcases up for debate. They are systematic in their analysis of the event, but also have a critical reflection on the sources that shape the analysis. A good example is historian Heather Cox Richardson’s newsletter.
A good media regime is not limited to diversity of sources. It is also information for different purposes. Investigative journalism takes time and resources. Social media reduces time and resources, but can react quickly. Newsletters provide context and help us make sense of news events. We cannot analyze everything. The answer to the problems created by scale is to recognize that we are not infinitely deep containers that can hold as much water as the information demands. We must bear witness, but we must remember that we have limits.
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Tressie McMillan Cottom (@tresiemcphd) is an associate professor at the University of North Carolina at the Chapel Hill School of Information and Library Science, author of “Thick: And Other Essays” and 2020 MacArthur Fellow.