It’s two minutes to midnight.
That is, according to the Doomsday Clock, a predictive model that seeks to foretell how close we are to “midnight” — the proverbial end of the world as we know it. In the decades since the Clock’s inception, issues like nuclear weapons, political instability, and climate change have pushed its hands inexorably closer to the apocalyptic end. The future foretold by the Clock is grim. Yet why hasn’t there been a concerted effort to address the realities it reveals?
Against the larger backdrop of our chaotic world, the Clock becomes yet another piece of news clamouring for our attention. The internet, along with the proliferation of social media, has exponentially increased our access to information about global problems. We can no longer claim ignorance of the disasters and injustices that occur on a daily basis. It seems, however, that knowledge does not necessarily translate to action. This then begs the question: is broadened access to information a catalyst for change? Or does the sheer magnitude of the problems it reveals paralyse us into inaction?
In some cases, the unprecedented ability offered by the internet and social media to discover and disseminate information about global issues has become a force for good. It allows us exposure to problems we would never encounter in the comfort of our safe, stable communities. It forces us to confront inequalities and injustices, and often creates a sense of urgency for change. The internet has become an especially valuable tool for activists of all causes. Movements are no longer constrained by geographical boundaries. Rather, activists can tap upon an increasingly engaged global community to reach the critical mass needed to effect change.
Civic organisation Avaaz, the world’s largest online activist network with 46 million members from 195 countries, exemplifies this. From signing petitions to crowdfunding campaigns, Avaaz members have contributed to major positive developments globally. Avaaz has pushed governments of the UK and US to set aside huge marine protected areas, took mere days to raise over $1 million in relief funds for the Haiti earthquake, and forced governments to repeal archaic laws that trampled upon women’s rights.
It seems, therefore, that the increased access to knowledge about the world’s problems has proven a powerful catalyst for change. Upon closer examination, however, this does not always hold true.
We have all experienced the same swooping dread of waking up to screaming headlines about yet another natural disaster, another outbreak of violence, another terrible injustice. We have all felt the same sense of futility when confronted with a world filled with strife and conflict. Yet many of us choose to remain within our comfort zones and do little, if anything, to address these issues. Why is this so?
Psychology has some answers to offer. In the age of social media and instant reporting, the barrage of bad news seems inescapable. Bombarded with massive amounts of information about everything wrong with the world, we begin to suffer from information overload. This grows into a sense of helplessness—if the problems are so massive, and efforts to solve them have yet to bear fruit, is there truly anything we can do to help? We thus fall back on our primitive mental defences— denial of the problem, and suppression of the anxieties it causes us— to cope with situations we are otherwise unable to handle. Indeed, studies by researchers such as Jessica Fritz have shown that exposing people to news about climate change often has the opposite of the intended effect. Rather than compelling people to make a difference, such news often immobilises them with numbness and apathy at the sheer magnitude of the crisis.
Increasingly, research has been suggesting that overexposure to violence and negativity in the media we consume daily is not only ineffective in engendering change, but can be harmful. Today, every major news website competes for viewership — and sensationalism is often a tool of the trade. British psychologist Dr. Graham Davey, for example, has noted that exposure to violence and conflict in the media may contribute to high stress and the development of PTSD symptoms. A recent survey of 342 Americans has linked concern over the climate—often fuelled by online campaigns and news pieces about the plight of the Earth—with higher rates of depression and anxiety. Indeed, it seems increased awareness of the troubles of our world can not only impact our ability to create change, but in extreme cases engenders a form of existential terror—crippling fear of an increasingly bleak future.
The way we choose to frame and process the issues we face today is instrumental in shaping the world we live in. At the individual level, we all have the difficult task of maintaining optimism tempered by an accurate perception of reality. In an increasingly turbulent world, we all have to learn how to process unpleasant information. We have to learn to give ourselves space to think constructively about opportunities for change, rather than allow ourselves to be crippled by the knowledge of what is happening in the world around us.
For this to happen, however, journalists and activists also have a role to play. Our culture needs to move towards a more positive form of reporting, one that celebrates the gains and progress made, rather than overemphasising the blood and guts of the issues just for 'clicks'. Instead of relying on apocalyptic predictions, activism needs to truly empower people by helping them find concrete ways to make a difference—something we must all bear in mind as we advocate for causes we care deeply about.
Doing so is vital— it allows the benefits of the internet and social media—mass mobilisation that transcends boundaries of space and time—to be maximised, and the psychological dangers of apathy, stress, and anxiety to be kept at bay. Then, and only then, will our newfound knowledge about the world not compromise our wellbeing, but empower us to take action.
After all, it's never too late to turn back the clock.