Deconstructing the news is step one for creating a vaccine against anxiety and depression

Our polluted information streams are making us sick. Here's how we get better.

vol. 2 issue 3


This week I debuted my course, Deconstructing the News, at the Osher Life Learning Institute at American University here in Washington. I was humbled by how well-received it was. What I initially had planned as a small pilot became a much larger – three times larger – class held in a lecture hall with eager enrollees whose participation enriched the class greatly and whose feedback has convinced me the pilot worked, even if it needs tweaking before expanding it.

My hypothesis was that deconstructing the news by parsing it for truth and clarity, and also seeing how we don’t necessarily need to know all the news and information that permeates our world 24/7, we can learn to manage the news, not let it manage us. A follow on to that is my belief that if each of us can learn how not to be led by the nose to accept that what we read, hear, or see on social media is automatically true, we will have a heightened sense of our personal agency. Added together, my belief is that we can reduce our levels of anxiety, depression, and even suicidal thoughts.

I call it creating herd immunity to these diseases of the mind. Herd immunity is a public health term that means creating a strong enough resistance to an infectious disease in a population, usually through vaccinations, that even if some people are infected, the bug won’t become a pandemic. The corona virus is not yet a pandemic, but could be soon, because it’s novel and because, aside from quarantining people, we have no idea what to do to stop it from raging across the continents.

In the class, we unpacked how when we are shocked or disturbed enough by something – it could be anything, including say, a reality show administration – we can be tricked into offering our attention, which is then aggregated and sold, either to advertisers, or as we are now beginning to understand, to anyone with a desire to manipulate the herd, so to speak.

Being deliberate about where we place our time and attention is especially important in an era when Big Data, through aggregating our attention on platforms where we ostensibly are receiving a free service (think photo sharing on Instagram or searching on Google), has become so sophisticated at tracking our trails of thought online, they now package and sell it back to us as a way of controlling us.

In fact, in today’s economy, our personal data is more valuable than oil.

If my attention is worth more than oil, why on earth would I just hand it over to some faceless stranger while asking nothing in return…except the free use of a platform to post pictures of my pets or a free way to search for a recipe (I have plenty of cookbooks already anyway!).

But that is what we do.

And in so doing, we are exposing ourselves not just to theft of ourselves, but to our peace of mind: The more of ourselves we give away, the less of ourselves we have control over. If we aren’t in control of our lives, will whoever is controlling us have our best interests at heart? Not knowing makes us anxious.

The Cambridge Analytica scandal taught us we are right to be anxious. In this video, the former CEO of the company, Alexander Nix, says – without any pathos or compunction at all – that by combining more than 4 or 5 thousand data points on every adult living in the US, including mendaciously gathered data from a Facebook online quiz, and content posted by tens of millions of Facebook users, that Cambridge Analytica was able to create highly specific messaging which they sold to two candidates in the 2016 presidential race. One was Ted Cruz. The other was a certain candidate who was just acquitted of committing high crimes and misdemeanors.

You might ask, So what? All candidates want that kind of power. According to this interview with Cambridge Analytica whistleblower, Brittany Kaiser, the Obama campaign had similar psy-ops technologies, but they used it to focus on hope, not fear, as the Republican candidates did. Nor did the Obama team trick people into taking psychological profiling quizzes.

Still, this is dangerous.

As Nix freely admits, indeed shares gleefully, his product line is so specifically tailored – “nuanced,” he called it – that it’s possible no two people out of tens of thousands will see exactly the same message. And his data proves that this works, it moves election results, and it can be replicated for any issue. How efficient!

Or, how terrifying. But also, how infantile.

Democracy is for adults, and adults reach maturity by learning to accept that they can’t always get their way, and that often times, that’s actually a good thing.

If each of us lives in our own private world where the only news we ingest is news that confirms what we think we already know, we are never challenged to test our truth. Hearing only what we want to hear is like a drug. It makes us feel powerful, omnipotent. It then becomes too easy to lose perspective. This makes us easy to manipulate.

What we’re really talking about is being tricked into trading our freedom for something that we think is “free”.

Big Data, unchecked, runs the risk of destroying our democracy while also taking us down psychologically.

Hearings have at last begun on the Hill to address the threat to our democracy that using our own data against us has created, but thanks to the circus that has surrounded this POTUS since even before he was elected, Congress is facing far bigger fires right now. Don’t expect those fires to die down anytime soon. That is by design. This POTUS knows that aggregated attention = power. And power is what he is amassing, as evidenced by his success at sucking the spines out of senators, save for Mitt Romney, all of whom up until his administration had a track record of at least a little brass in their pants. However little or much they might have had, they got nothing now. They gave it all to him.

Just like we’ve been doing with our privacy and Big Data.

If my hypothesis was that it is possible to create herd immunity to anxiety and depression by learning the skills for deconstructing the news, I did not hit the mark, at least not yet. Many of my students told me that as much as they were glad to have the information I shared, they felt more, not less, anxious in this uncharted news and social media environment where we can be weaponized against ourselves.

In the case of the corona virus, the latest report from virologists in London is that it’s possible we will have a vaccine by 2021. The key here is that even if protection against the virus won’t be available as soon as we’d like it to be, we’re mobilized and looking for the most optimal way to protect the herd.

Which is why I still believe in my hypothesis, even if I have yet to prove it. By testing our individual truths, holding our lawmakers accountable, and mobilizing against those who want to stealthily steal our freedom, we can build our immunity to being manipulated. Our democracy depends on it.



Thank you for reading this newsletter, docu-mental: mapping the american states of mind. It is published every Friday, with tw weeks out of every month dedicated to premium subscribers only.

Next week’s issue for premium subscribers will continue looking at the relationship between our cultural dependence on the media and how it impacts our state of mind, including our rates of anxiety and depression.

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