Surfing for Doom: Notes on Coronavirus and Bad News

In these times of uncertainty and upheaval, many people have resorted to excessive consumption of bad news to feel a sense of control. Doom-scrolling, as they’re calling it, is bad for you and here’s how to stop doing it.

As a response to our changing realities during the Covid-19 outbreak, many neologisms have surfaced in our vocabularies. The shifts in our paradigms have bled into language, reintroducing some terminologies that were hitherto used scarcely in academic spaces (‘social distancing’, ‘flattening the curve’, etc.) and pushed some – well, let’s say — colorful vocabulary in people’s common usage. 

For example, there is Covidiot (noun)- variably used for someone who forgoes the necessary act of wearing a mask in public spaces or hoards stockpiles of toilet paper that is significantly disproportionate to the measure of excreta a single individual may be able to estimatedly produce over the course of a racoon’s life span. And, of course, everyone’s heard of a Quarantini (noun)- an alcoholic beverage to sedate the chronic melancholia induced by continuous isolation. 

But there’s one term which specifically catches my attention- doom-scrolling. The Merriam Webster dictionary defines it as “the tendency to continue to surf or scroll through bad news, even though that news is saddening, disheartening, or depressing”. In the recent months, doom-scrolling was designated one of Merriam Webster’s Words We’re Watching, and Dictionary.com named it one of its New Words We Created Because of Coronavirus. The earliest noted use of the word is from a 2018 Tweet. This word arguably says more about how a large number of individuals are responding to the difficulty of the pandemic than most of the other diverting coinages. 

Doom-scrolling is a stealthy, compulsive behavioral pattern that has been, if not necessitated, made more commonplace in the context of the pandemic. To feel connected, it can feel necessary to stay plugged in and maintain a visible presence on social media during a period of near-total isolation. According to a new Pew Research Center survey, 53 percent of adults say the internet has become “essential” during the pandemic. By becoming a tool of active engagement and staying updated, news can make people feel more connected with the outside world. But what if you don’t know when to stop? 

Our social media are algorithmically incentivised to prioritise negative content as individuals are generally more likely to engage and respond to mildly upsetting information. Mesfin Bekalu, a research scientist at the Lee Kum Sheung Center for Health and Happiness at Harvard’s T. H. Chan School of Public Health, notes that while a lot of the news is bad, “as humans we have a ‘natural’ tendency to pay more attention to negative news.” 

This is a predisposed behaviour in human beings that most likely precedes the ubiquity of the internet but has nonetheless been made more commonplace because of it.

In the olden days, news broadcasting was restricted to certain hours of the day. Newspapers chronicled events that were at least a day old. This provided the scope for introspection and reconsideration. In the present times, the internet has enabled instant sharing of information, which can be as bad a thing as it is good. Not only is information readily accessible, people are expected to give immediate reactions. If there’s a citywide demonstration, well then you better Tweet about it. This need to immediately respond within the first exposure to information amounts to anxiety, uncertainty and speculation. This is a historically unprecedented way of media consumption that has left us polarised and damaged.

In George Orwell’s dystopian novel 1989, Two Minutes Hate is a daily communal period during which members of the Outer Party of Oceania must watch a film depicting the enemies of the state in order to openly and vocally express their hatred for them. Twitter seems to be the atmospheric embodiment of the same thing with polarised groups of people existing on a principle of opposition to each other and consistent absorption of negative information as a fuel for their solidarity. It’s slowly transmitting to other social media platforms as well. 

Relating this into the present context, the Coronavirus seems to have accelerated many people’s latent doom-scrolling potentials. Ariane Ling, PhD, a psychologist and clinical assistant professor in the department of psychiatry at New York University, said: “The pandemic has exacerbated these habits in many ways, including the fact that there is no shortage of doomsday news.” 

College students are one of those most susceptible demographic groups to the threats of doom-scrolling. I interviewed one such person in the approximate demographic to get insight into the situation:

The main cause for doom-scrolling is Twitter, because it’s easier to find people who are polarised and horrible to each other. I think it’s addictive because people unconsciously like to feel helpless and they search for things that fuel their anger and frustration. I don’t know, it’s just addictive. I just like feeling annoyed. When I heard from a friend that it’s a real problem and there’s a word for it, that’s when I became more aware of it. I’m trying to be more consciously aware, because doom-scrolling is always very reflexive.

– Anonymous, Ramjas College 

Of course, that is not the only group which is being affected by this newly morphed behaviour. My grandmother, actually, was the first person where I noticed this pattern of obsessive news consumption. Instead of timing her news intake, she would watch it, obsessively and fervently, whenever her busy schedule as a secondary school principal allowed it. In the morning as she left for school, drinking her lemon tea, and right before hitting bed. Even as a child, I felt there was something ominous about the religiosity with which she approached news-watching. Her proclivity towards bad news only worsened after retirement and turned into a daylong undertaking.

A few summers ago, my grandmother got a new iPad as a more convenient option for watching Satyajit Ray films and listening to her favourite Ghazels (as opposed to her too-small phone screen and too-big laptop.) I- not recalling my initial childhood anxiety around her news habit- installed InShorts on her device, thinking she could put it to good use for her research. The internet gave her an unmatched exposure to all the news-related content she could want- elections, recessions, politician scandals, and she wolfed it down like a cup of her lemon tea, too bitter in her mouth. 

Instead of waiting for television news channels to report on the latest news, she flocked to scandalizing tabloids, harshly opinionated editorials and of course, YouTube videos, deriving the instant gratification of knowing things, of scanning disaster with a cool eye and feeling like you’re in control somehow.

Fortunately, she has, being the sagest person I know, fortunately clocked her destructive habit and put a definite end to it. She knew when to hit uninstall- unlike a lot of us. During a phone call in lockdown, she casually brought up that her news-habit had tried to come back to haunt her, to claim repossession of her time. But she knows she has quit for good. 

Her news habit, I learned through another conversation with her, was a way of her trying to take control when things seemed to be generally unpleasant – initially as a school headmistress and the ad-ministerial strife that come with the role, and later on, dealing with the existential vacancy of a retired life and my grandfather’s passing. 

All of us are currently facing a viral threat that has no personable dimensions, classifiable nature or remotely known cure. That in itself seems to be an anxious experience for our primitive selves. While we may be able to evaluate the problem on a more cerebral level, our evolutionarily basic selves cannot – it cannot rationalize or justify defending itself against an invisible and ambiguous threat. India has reported 86,821 new coronaviruses cases and another 1,181 fatalities, making September its worst month of the pandemic. It’s not getting any better. 

Doom-scrolling, then, is a search for clarity; it is a botched attempt of trying to attain nirvana. People click because they think the next article may bring a sense of clarity, a semblance of coherence in the middle of all the ensuing chaos. It’s a climb for illumination, but the ladder is unsteady, dank, dwindling. The more you take in, the emptier you feel. In human beings, there is an urgent need to interpret, to understand, to rationalize. But we are being inundated with information that is constantly rewriting itself, inconclusive and peripatetic in its most elemental form. 

News these days becomes old within hours of reporting. People move on to newer, exciting things – the fouler the headline, the better. This type of news consumption is also systematically desensitizing people and irreparably damaging their natural human response to bad news. There is a Twitter account, ‘Doom-scroller Reminder Lady’, that, according to their own bio, “reminds people to stop doom-scrolling every night”. The account currently has 38.1K followers on the website. 

Rather than enforcing severe restrictions on ourselves such as using news-blocking apps or quitting social media, maybe we need to radically rethink our approach to news in general. First of all, what even is news? What purpose does it serve? Why are we watching, listening and taking it all in- are we just simply performing to do those things? Is it necessary to engage with news, to comment, especially if you don’t have anything particularly meaningful to say? Do we even have individual responses to news content or are we just participating in a different kind of groupthink, becoming echoes bouncing off the fountainhead of polarised ideologies? Maybe it’s time for some social (media) distancing?

Feature Image Credits: LivePost

Sushrut Yadav

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