Public health departments need to address healthy information consumption

In much of the world, industrialisation has led to the abundance of calories, often in very unhealthy forms — a novel state for a creature that is accustomed to subsistence. This has posed serious challenges for society (e.g., how do we provide large populations of people with healthy food?) and individuals (i.e., how do I eat healthy food in reasonable amounts when millions of years of evolution has instilled a nature of scarcity into me, that drives me to consume all I can find?). Growing up in the 1990s, the golden age of the fad workout plan and diet, the public debate regarding the dangers of junk food was prominent. The parents of many kids in my generation changed their attitudes towards sustenance significantly throughout our childhoods. Abundance, while positive in so many ways, comes with challenges.

Society is experiencing something very similar right now when it comes to information. From the printing press, global literacy booms, the invention of newspapers, cable news, internet publishing and now social media, information has become exponentially more abundant in recent centuries and especially decades. Information abundance, like caloric abundance, is positive in many ways. More truth is out there than ever before. But there is more misinformation, disinformation, click bait and thus doomscrolling. Negativity bias (i.e., the idea that negative information has a bigger sway on your mental health than positive information) is the informational equivalent of the sweet tooth — an irresistible evolutionary glitch in our programming that hijacks our reward centre, turning our adaptations against us.

We no longer live in a world where the most accessible informational calories can possibly form a healthy diet, and in the absence of a significant change to the content creation and distribution pipeline, individuals need to start to take their information diets seriously (noting that junk food is still a significant public health problem that we have not solved). If social media companies are not going to fix their feeds (they may be unfixable), maybe it’s time for us to step away from them. Maybe we need to proactively avoid the partisan media divide and content that is clearly designed to outrage us. Maybe we need to view all content (whether from Big Press or Substack) through a more skeptical lens. Perhaps we need to consume a lot less content in general.

Is social media trying to outrage us, or are the algorithms simply feeding us what we subconsciously want to see? Better question: is there any point in personally waiting to find out the cause of this problem? After years of watching and commenting on Big Press’ failure to understand and intentional misrepresentation of Big Tech (who I have also extensively criticised), on occasion defending the utility to the wider economy of Facebook’s advertising business and the complexity of content moderation, it occurred to me: in spite of my habit of arguing the technicalities of the situation, I’ve significantly extricated many of these algorithms from my life. Through ad blockers, social media abstinence and the adoption of personally-curated sources of content, I’ve divorced the algorithms I’ve occasionally defended. So, while I may disagree with the Big Press view of how and why we got to where we are, and what governments should do next, I absolutely agree that the current state of things is problematic.

In my own journey as a compulsive content consumer, I’ve learned that I’m happier (and probably better informed) when I opt-out of the exhibitionism of Instagram, trade algorithmic feeds for the chronological feed of my RSS reader, and avoid headline skimming and click-bait-prone publications. Perhaps, as information becomes increasingly abundant, public health campaigns should promote the importance of establishing information diets the way we do with food.

21 October, 2021

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