I Need To Stop Scrolling
The diminishing returns of constant covid news
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EDITOR’S NOTE: I left an editing note to myself in bold in the original draft of this newsletter at the end of the first paragraph. Because I forgot to address it before I scheduled this piece to publish, tens of thousands of you have now seen how I talk to myself while writing. Highly embarrassing move! The appropriate Galaxy Brain employees have been disciplined (me).
The delta phase of the pandemic is distinct from the vaccine-less days of 2020. There’s still a great deal to be thankful for, vaccine-wise. But with cases and hospitalizations rising aggressively, the last two weeks have felt very March/April 2020 to me in the information realm1 WHAT DO YOU MEAN BY THIS, I DON’T KNOW WHAT THE INFORMATiON REALM IS2
The primary feeling out there is uncertainty, and the uncertainty manifests for many — online, at least — is through the process of constantly consuming iterative information. I notice it in my own browsing behaviors. I took a solid, almost three month break from more than glancing at the New York Times covid numbers and maps. My covid news consumption became almost old fashioned: I checked in every 24 to 36 hours by reading a newspaper article or something else. It was great! It was a slow-twitch way to consume information on the subject, as opposed to the fast-twitch, constant grazing pattern of consuming incremental, often-evolving information I employed throughout the early days of the pandemic.
Now, I’m retreating into old habits, which means frequently scouring the internet and my feeds for new morsels of information. I’m doing what a lot of people are doing: Trying to both navigate a mostly opened society and also to assuage my anxieties about the delta variant with the quest for some knowledge. And just like, say, April 2020, I’m seeing diminishing returns. I’m looking for something approaching certainty but there’s not a ton of certainty to be had — or at least not on the questions we’d all like definitive answers on (When will delta peak? How bad will these variants keep getting?).
What I’m getting instead is a flood of information. Some of it is high quality. Some of it is low quality and will be corrected in short order. Some of it is high quality news, interpreted incorrectly. But, frequently, what I’m consuming is what I’ll call semi-certainty: where smart people, experts, or institutions are making responsible, educated guesses about their interpretations of public health data or guidance and reminding us that what we’re learning about this virus is evolving quickly. This tactic is the scientific process at work and it is really the best we can ask for in a difficult situation. I appreciate these efforts and they’re vital. But it’s also not what I crave, which is mostly impossible: long-term certainty.
Having been through this cycle before, I am able to recognize that my quest for more information is, for me at least, a way to cope with a low baseline level of anxiety. I also recognize that this fast-twitch information consumption actually exacerbates this low baseline anxiety. But why exactly? It’s not that I’m incapable of handling bad news. Quite the opposite. Throughout the pandemic, definitive bad news has been very useful. It helps establish boundaries in my personal risk assessment. Bad covid news is crushing, but at least it is clarifying. Eighteen months in, I’ve come to appreciate even that much.
Why does my current covid scrolling feel so awful? I think it’s because my fast-twitch information cycle is mostly powered by anecdote and editorializing. My Twitter timeline, for example, started filling up in early-to-mid July with anecdotal stories and threads from vaccinated people who had a breakthrough infection, followed by people sharing these anecdotes with their own anecdotes or their own opinions on how this was very concerning and scary.
Before it became the subject of a CDC case study, the 4th of July Provincetown covid breakthrough event was all over my timelines, anecdotal case by anecdotal case. We now know, since it’s been rigorously traced and studied, that the Provincetown event, while sobering, is also a heartening example of the amazing power of vaccines. That’s the slow-twitch, 50,000 foot view. But the on-the-ground, social feed-level view was terrifying in the moment. If you read the information iteratively it felt as if, all at once, a vaccine firewall had been breached.
The anecdotal vantage of a phenomenon like covid is entirely overwhelming and disorienting. According to data in late July, 125,000 vaccinated Americans had tested positive for breakthrough cases of the virus. That’s a lot of people — until you look at the denominator (164.2 million vaccinated). But since 125,000 people is still, by any account a lot of humans, you’re going to see a lot of anecdotes from those humans. Any one of those anecdotes might be disconcerting to read but, taken together, it’s downright scary. A similar dynamic applies to even straight news articles about the pandemic when shared on social media. News headlines often get a lot of shit because they’re more salacious than the article itself. Social media posts of news stories usually go a step further. Eventually, the game of telephone collapses into itself and influences the way the media coverage works. It looks like this:
Sober and detailed article —> Slightly Salacious headline —> Even more salacious tweet/post based off the slightly salacious headline —> Salacious tweets are collected and aggregated into fully salacious news story.
I’m not breaking much new ground with these observations, but it’s been clarifying to remind myself of them. Personally, I think I need to stop all fast-twitch news consumption around covid news. I’ll show you the tweet that did me in:
I really am not picking on the original tweet author here, who’s simply sharing a news story. (Part of what complicates the fast-twitch media environment is that often, most people aren’t doing anything explicitly wrong, per se. It’s just a big, chaotic system with many nodes).
But I read the tweet and the story and was gripped by some weapons-grade levels of dread. The idea of new, more vaccine resistant variants is not a new idea for me, but, for whatever reason, this particular example pressed upon my already frayed and tired self and made me feel like shit.
But a few minutes later I saw this tweet, which suggested that the information cited in the original piece lacked some crucial context. It’s not that there was no bad news, but that the story was more complicated:
And so, for five minutes on August 3rd, I had a momentary spike of anxiety about a speculative piece of news I already considered as a potential possibility over which I have zero control. That bit of information was then slightly counteracted with additional context that made me feel slightly better. At the end of that five minute sequence, I ended up with no valuable additional information. In this instance, Twitter played the role of an ephemeral anxiety delivery device. Is that really how I want to spend my time online? Given how much I use social feeds to consume news, I don’t even know if that’s a rhetorical question. For the last two years I’ve thought a lot about whether I am lightly addicted to information that gives me a low grade level of worry.
I don’t necessarily think my lambda variant news experience is some awful failing of social media that needs to be swiftly corrected by the platforms. A lot of the pandemic news I digest each day is written/tweeted/analyzed in good faith. If you curate your social platforms with care, many of them are amazing resources for public health information. This is not a ‘Twitter is bad’ piece. This is an ‘information during the fog of a pandemic is fraught’ piece.
There’s certainly some definitive covid advice out there in the broadest strokes. Masks are a helpful tool; vaccines work extremely well and, even with statistically rare breakthrough infections, you are still very unlikely to have severe disease. If you are especially concerned and have a low tolerance for any covid risk, then the usual interventions and practices are sound (mask in public indoor spaces, get vaccinated, act accordingly with case numbers in your area).
If you are okay with some risk, but want to be responsible to protect the vulnerable and limit delta’s spread, but also want to follow through with some plans you made before the delta variant — which is where I think a lot of Americans currently find themselves — then that same, sound information might feel less satisfying. If you’re being extremely cautious and rarely venturing out in the world, the particulars of how delta interacts with vaccinated individuals is of less pressing concern. Those concerns grow drastically, however, if you’re trying to navigate restaurants or upcoming weddings or long-planned family gatherings. Things like uncertainty around the potential for Long Covid in the unvaccinated potentially change one’s risk calculations.
I realize this is ultimately personal preference, but the iterative covid news consumption across social media doesn’t really help me make those decisions. Instead, I’m left with tons of conflicting, complicating anecdotes. I’m finding it harder to separate signal from noise, even though the real and most important signal is right here:
In an essay from the early pandemic, technology theorist L. M. Sacasas argued that when it comes to issues like covid, “maybe you and I don’t need more information.” Specifically, he notes that “if we think that the key to navigating uncertainty and mitigating anxiety is simply more information, then we may very well make matters worse for ourselves.”
In the piece, which you should read in full, Sacasas suggests that we often reach for information when what we actually need is each other — and more scarce resources like “courage, patience, practical wisdom, and, perhaps most importantly, friendship.” When we’re forced to operate or plan in an unknown environment, it’s far easier to do so if we are not alone. “If I must bear the consequences of my choices alone, if there is no one whose counsel I trust,” he writes, “then it becomes especially tempting to seek both perfect knowledge and certainty before acting, and find myself paralyzed in their absence. It is easy to see how we might take refuge in the idea that we lack sufficient information. The claim that I’m holding out for more information can neatly mask my lack of courage to do what I know needs to be done.”
While scrolling these last two weeks, so much of what I’ve been looking for is an excuse. I’m looking for a piece of information that will validate decisions I desperately want to make with a clear conscience. I’m looking for reassurances to go and finish out my summer as I planned it. There’s a part of me that’s consuming so much information because I want to make the the right, responsible decision, but the information I need to do that is of the slow-twitch variety. The fast-twitch information, I think, is serving the function Sacasas described — it is masking my lack of courage to accept the reality of the delta surge.
We are not done with this pandemic. We’ve got so much to be thankful for with the vaccines, but that doesn’t discount that there are hardships ahead and likely difficult sacrifices that the most responsible, vaccinated people will have to make in their personal lives.
Again, this is my personal calculus. Yours might differ. Maybe consuming All The News is the only way you can get through these difficult times. I get it. But, if you are feeling increasingly anxious and powerless and awash in information, it might be time to ask yourself what you’re really getting out of all the scrolling. Or, more importantly, you might want to ask yourself what your quest for more information is masking.
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This sentence has been a wild ride. It started with a glorious fuck up, and then I changed the phrase ‘information realm’ to “in terms of how news is traveling online,” which, as Rusty Foster pointed out in his wonderful, ‘Today In Tabs’ newsletter, is a bad and dumb phrase. Anyhow, inspired by him, I edited the piece back to include ‘information realm.’ Why? Because I work for myself and there are no rules…especially here in the information realm.
Yeah, I even put my stupid editor’s note back in. NO. RULES.