Navigating through chaos: How to avoid getting lost in the digital landscape

By Danna Miramontes, April 30, 2024

In a desolate desert with makeshift tents in the background, a single man sits on the sand crying and wiping his tears. His cousin had died trying to get a bag of flour, and he was on the phone mere minutes ago with his aunt relaying the news. The camera then pans to Bisan Owda, Palestinian journalist, as she is describing the situation to her followers on Instagram. In tears, she displays her utter disbelief at the situation. She ends the video by saying “Let this world burn. Fake world, fake humanity, fake people.”

I have been following Owda on Instagram, @wizard_bisan1, for a while now. Owda, in the wake of the genocide in Palestine, has dedicated her time to documenting what is happening in Palestine and uploading on her Instagram for the world to see. Owda is one of many others who have taken to social media to spread awareness of the situation. In this digital age, it has become easier than ever to do just that.

As I have grown up in the digital age, I’ve witnessed how social media has expanded and rapidly garnered a huge user base. Anyone can upload a video or a post from anywhere in the world, and users can interact with people across the globe. It is an influx of information every day that we are cycling through, and, frankly, it can be a lot for me. But I can’t stop myself from scrolling, and the culprit is not only my easily amused and short attention span but also my algorithm.

My explorer page on Instagram and my for you page on TikTok have a lot in common; an obvious development given that they are both hardwired to feed its users the content they interact with the most. Social media is designed to keep you coming back for more, so an algorithm that tailors every upload to your taste is perfect for accomplishing that ideal.

Ian Anderson, a postdoctoral researcher at the California Institute of Technology who has conducted research mainly focusing on the psychology of social media use, explains that social media’s main priority is to capture the attention of their user base and to keep them coming back for more and staying for longer; it is how they make their revenue. Its algorithm is what helps complete that goal and it’s our small interactions with the content that help devise that algorithm.

“How long did you watch the last video,” Anderson said. “Or did you like it? Did you share it? Did you comment or something like that? They pick up mostly behavioral signals of whether or not you found that video that you just watched interesting.”

But I know that. I know that liking a video or staying on a video for too long will help the algorithm know that I like that sort of content. In fact, TikTok has implemented a function on its app where you can select an option that states that you are not interested in this sort of content. I can help tailor the algorithm to my exact taste. But that is the problem. A lot of the content I interact with varies, as I assume it would for everyone else. But, for me, it is the difference between a graphic on the death count in Palestine and a video about how best to wash curly hair.

And I can’t help but ask what it means that a device I carry with me anywhere can show the worst this world has to offer while simultaneously feeding me easily consumable, nonsensical content.

I find myself believing that the world is falling apart and that there is absolutely nothing I can do about it while I scroll through countless posts detailing the tragedies many are facing. Then the whiplash I endure when my content starts veering toward must-have skincare products, Korean makeup products or edits of my favorite shows. I can see a child mere minutes from death to then see a 60-second reel of someone making a Rib Volcano in their dorm room. And it took a while for me to sit back and ask myself if this was normal.

I see the term “desensitization” floating around when people talk about my generation, Generation Z. It has become almost a joke to many now that we are so hardwired to consume horrifying content; we aren’t phased by it at all. It seems plausible that a platform that constantly feeds its users new content every day, driving them to come back and consume more content, would eventually alter the perspective of its users.

“The more likely it is that you’ll be kind of less sensitive to the things that you maybe should be paying attention to, and you will start to develop a behavior where you want to just kind of go to the next video,” said Anderson.

Navigating through this dichotomy is even more difficult when you must consider the fact that misinformation plagues virtually every aspect of the internet. It is hard for it not to. Anyone from anywhere can post anything on the internet and claim that it’s true and people will believe it. Someone could say the election was stolen and the next thing you know people are storming the capitol.

And there are sometimes issues that come about when platforms try to filter out or censor misinformation.

“In order to filter out misinformation, the websites will also decide to engage in censorship of true but inconvenient information,” Anderson said. “Ever since the Black Lives Matter movement, there’s been a lot of concern about, like Meta, in particular suppressing communications about protests like this kind of thing that’s continued on into today as well. I think we’ve seen a lot of that with the Pro Palestine movement, too.”

I would equate social media to the Wild West, and I am a simple cowboy with no gun in my strap or a horse to my name. Despite having grown up witnessing the development of the internet and social media, I still can’t completely say I have a firm grasp on it, as I don’t have the tools to navigate through it. Not a lot of people have the tools to navigate through social media nor do they understand that sources they are interacting with could contain misinformation. Hannah Cole, research and instruction librarian at Cal Poly Pomona, acknowledges this struggle and believes that there are methods many could adopt to make it easier to go through social media.

“One of the things that I try to encourage my students to do is to build a network of sources that they can trust,” Cole said. “So what are news outlets or news coverage that you have done some research on and feel relatively certain is going to be high quality and give you good information? And can you follow those new sources on social media?”

Primarily, the way I interact with social media shifts depending on the day. I have periods when I actively seek content that advocates for change, trying to learn as much as I can and do as much as I can. But there are days when I want to completely shut off from everything. As I hope it will all just go away so I can mindlessly scroll through 60-second reels of someone applying makeup or making a joke about a niche topic I’m currently obsessed with.

It breeds this sense of bitterness towards the content that flows through my social media, as it slowly starts overtaking my entire feed. I tend to become indifferent to the content shown and scroll right past it. I wish I didn’t. I wish I could do what I am supposed to do and interact with the content and spread awareness, but sometimes I just can’t stomach it. Sometimes I can’t look at the people begging in their Instagram reel for someone to donate so they can escape from their war-torn country.

What do I do then? Engaging in conversations about heavy topics is hard. I don’t think anyone can say otherwise, and, at times, we sometimes forget that it takes a toll on us too.

Cole elaborates on the struggles of interacting and trying to have conversations about heavy topics, as she had to navigate through those conversations. The goal is to understand when a conversation can be productive and determine when you can have it.

“So giving myself at least a little bit of separation and being able to identify my feelings and my thoughts versus someone else’s,” Cole said. “And then also when it’s productive for me to be in conversation with someone and be sharing something and trying to talk through a topic when it is not productive and being able to recognize that in myself that was a skill I had to learn to then be able to have those conversations with people. Because up until that point, it just was painful and awful and resulted in a lot of tears and screaming.”

I have to learn how to best engage with topics that require my utmost attention. I have to get out of the mindset that I am completely helpless. I believe that social media can also be used as a tool, and it isn’t just something that can completely derail us from reality.

Currently, Owda has over four million followers on Instagram and, generally, each post she uploads garners over 100,000 likes. People interact with her content consistently and flood her comment section with gratitude for her advocacy and sorrow for a life that was forcibly taken from her.

I admire her never-ending coverage of the situation and understand that she has no choice but to cover this tragedy. And I must acknowledge that a mere like and repost of yet another story of a life lost uploaded to her page has to count for something. I see it as the tragedies I witness are more than just 60-second reels, they are a testament to the one thing all humans want which is to be seen. I witness their tragedies, so they don’t go unheard and don’t remain lost in the digital landscape.

Feature image courtesy of Lauren Wong 

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