Why avoiding the news can turn people into “idiotes”
by Denis Hejlova
Charles University, Prague
The Covid-pandemics, polarization and the Russian war have hit the news headlines in the past years. The people soon felt overwhelmed, depressed or angry, with social media only amplifying the negative emotions. Soon many people found a simple solution: to turn off the news. To stop discussing polarizing issues with their relatives and friends seemed the only solution to increasing social tensions.
Research by the Reuters Institute and the University of Oxford showed that the number of people who avoid (political) news had increased dramatically. Moreover, the trust in the media fell again deeper. Young people became skilled “selective avoiders” of the news, personalizing their social media feed to maximize emotional gratification. The proportion of people who claim to be interested in news fell from 67% in 2015 to 47% in 2022 (Newman at al., 2022). People disconnect from the news, because they feel it´s not relevant to their lives – 43% say there´s too much politics (and Covid), 36% say it negatively affects their mood, and 29% say the news is untrustworthy or biased (Newman et al., 2022, p. 12). Occasionally, they get the news – through their favourite significant others, meaning online influencers, who present the information in a more digestible way. And indeed with their own opinion on each matter.
Surely, we cannot take those opinions lightly – media houses and journalism schools should revisit and ask themselves whether they set professional standards high enough. The fight to get the news faster and faster than others is extreme in a digital world, and so is desktop journalism – there are a few reporters literally on the ground. The other problem is digital platforms, such as Google and Meta, which share and push stories from media outlets without questioning their dignity or trustworthiness.
The undeniable fact that people are less and less interested in politics and “public affairs” is indeed disturbing. In ancient Greece, the word idiotes was used not for those who are intellectually unfit but for those who do not care about the public sphere – who avoid politics, and live only in their private environment. The word idiotes stemms from idios, meaning personal, not public. Idiotes were those who did not care about the civic debates in agora, democratic participation and co–creating societal rules – which, of course, could not happen without fierce discussions, arguments and surely even rhetorical fights. Contrary to idiotés, there were polites, who participated on the social and political life) of their community. It has always been essential for the democratic society to foster public debates and promote literacy, argumentation, and the general public vote, enabling genuine civic participation in public life.
In the past few years, many researchers, NGOs, or governments have increased their interest in fighting disinformation, fostering resilience, critical thinking, and navigating the digital information world. Researchers are doing a great job in analyzing cognitive biases, prebunking and debunking interventions to help people develop and train critical thinking. Once people shape their opinion, it´s challenging to change it (Swire-Thompson at al., 2021). Citizens should aim not to become idiotés and care about politics – be polítés. Journalists should strive to care about politics too – to report about the facts, not promote their Weltanschaung through framing or agenda-setting. Raising literacy in general knowledge about politics will help citizens develop critical thinking and foster immunity even against such sophisticated techniques, as using emotions as a weapon in digital public diplomacy, described by Zhao Alexander Huang in Euprera Highlights recently (Huang, 2022).
Anderson, Greg (2018). The Realness of Things Past. Ancient Greece and Ontological History. Oxford University Press.
Huang, Z. A. (2022). Emotions as a Weapon for Digital Public Diplomacy Practitioners? EUPRERA Highlights Retrieved Aug 1, 2022 from https://euprera.org/category/highlights/
Newman, N., Fletcher, R., Robertson, C.T., Eddy, K. & Nielsen, R. K. (2022). Reuters Institute digital news report 2022. Reuters Institute for the study of Journalism. Online. Retrieved Sept 1, 2022 from https://reutersinstitute.politics.ox.ac.uk/sites/default/files/2022-06/Digital_News-Report_2022.pdf
Swire-Thompson, B., Cook, J., Butler, L. H., Sanderson, J. A., Lewandowsky, S., & Ecker, U. K. (2021). Correction format has a limited role when debunking misinformation. Cognitive research: principles and implications, 6(1), 1-15.