Emotional Overdrive

The crisis of modern news is not just an excess of data but of affect

Like returning to a comfortable bar or neighborhood, I have always gravitated toward certain homes online in an attempt to locate myself, whether blogs, forums, or all kinds of micro-communities on social media. As happened with most people, Twitter and Facebook usurped those earlier, familiar places, which was fine for a time, until recently. The Trump era of news, with its incessant news dumps, the fastidious parsing of every detail emerging from the White House, to say nothing of the frantic, scared, relentlessly angry state of the public discourse have turned what was once welcoming into something vastly more difficult and draining. Twitter in particular, honed as it is for quick reaction, vitriolic disagreement, and calcified divisions, all at a searing pace, became so intolerable to me away I had to step away. Now I am faced with two forms of feeling adrift: to roam the mediascape without a home base, or to be immersed in an environment that feels forever alienating.

Part of what makes this experience so discombobulating is that if locating oneself is in part a question of place, it is also one of ideology, identity, weltanschauung. If one were to articulate a key shift of late 20th century notions of self, it is that individuals are not inner beings that express themselves outward, but instead subjects that orient themselves among a constellation of possibilities of being, many of them fixed, some of them more fluid. The boundaries between the self and the world are not simply porous, but in an almost counter-intuitive self, inverted: who we are is to be found outside ourselves as much as inside.

When news becomes a flood of not just data, but affect, there is more at stake than frustration

The most obvious dimension of this oriented self are the big categories of identity: gender, race, nationality, class, political affiliation and so on. We construct an identity in relation to this horizon of seemingly fixed classifications, as we are of course constructed by it. But in the many intersections of these broad historical categories, there are too an infinite array of sub-categories — those things that, while not divorced from history, are less immediately submerged by it. Here are the countless subjective, idiosyncratic choices we make — the endless list of ways we self-define, a ceaseless practice that seems to exceed in scope the term we usually give it: taste.

As a basic part of the cultural milieu, news has always been part of this constellation. Why else do people keep up with the news (and look down upon those who don’t) if not because of what this orientation says about the self? Captured in that phrase “I like to know what’s going on in the world” is actually a statement about the position of oneself in relation to that world: that to know what is happening is to better be able to situate oneself, to understand how one fits into the larger ebb and flow of this first draft of history.

But the Trump era has done something to news. The past year saw an intensification of both pace and rhetoric, and combined with sheer prurient interest, news has become intellectually exhausting. This, even after only a year, is now familiar. Yet something we are still just beginning to grapple with is the persistent emotional drag to this steady stream of information, and it is made all the worse by the demand that one emotionally comport oneself to the news, showily demonstrating one’s identity through an orientation to the latest story. It is stressful, no doubt, but when news becomes a flood of not just data, but affect, there is more at stake than frustration.

As a famous tweet put it just after the election, logging into Twitter each morning is a bit like picking up one’s phone and asking “ah let’s see what fresh horrors await me on the fresh horrors device.” There has always been a circular relation between novelty, norms, and newsworthiness. Because information emanating from the White House in particular is considered of national or international importance, each update we get either from or related to the Trump administration is supposed to be taken seriously. But these updates constitute a now familiar flood of “fresh horrors” — an unending cavalcade about not just the expected policy moves, but also the Russia investigation, tales of unfilled posts or whiffs of corruption, contraventions of a host of assumed norms, and of course, the latest either about or directly from the President itself.

A piece on Slate called “The Year in Push Alerts” used an animated timeline to display how the constant barrage of updates ratcheted up over the months since November 2016, playing out in micro the accretive effect of this seemingly unending stream of news. Many readers of the piece commented on how it made them re-live the anxiety of the past year. It was not just a torrent of information per se, but a torrent of bad news — confirmation that, after decades of avoiding the kind of sinking chaos that is a persistent low hum in most parts of the world, now America too is unable to avoid how fragile its own democracy or ideals have been all along.

Despair, despite the constant exhortations that “this is not normal!,” has become the ordinary state of affairs. For many, an exhaustion has set in. We usually consider this to be effect of information overload, a kind of sped up bamboozling effect that is the product of both the moment in history and the technology through which it is mediated. As scholar Zeynep Tufecki has often argued, the mode of censorship or subterfuge in modern, digital states is not the suppression of speech, but an excess of it, so that it drowns out and confuses the actual debates over what is right or true.

But mediating news through social media is not simply a process of absorbing information; it is to take in data, its interpretation, and reaction all in the same moment. Twitter links, Facebook comment threads on news accounts, and the regular posting of our friends and family mean we are exposed to not just an ongoing stream of information, but also of opinion. While there is no point trying to recall some halcyon era of untainted news, it is the simultaneity of absorbing news and reactions to it that seems new. News comes pre-digested, framed, replete with tweetstorms about the historical significance of the latest move, or charts comparing health care systems around the world.

Mediating news through social media is to take in data, its interpretation, and reaction all in the same moment

Given that so much of news seems outrageous — or that even the mundanity of dry legislative change can itself legitimately demand outrage — the exhaustion that emerges isn’t only a result of too much to absorb; it’s that there is also too much to feel. That is, others’ exhaustion and worry and surprise itself produces a climate that fosters ceaseless exhaustion and worry and surprise. One’s timeline on Twitter is thus less a mere source of information than an oscilloscope of anxiety and anger, spikes of reaction rolling in like clockwork as each new bit of information trickles out.

Immersed in this stream of affect, it becomes difficult to simply read it like one might a news story. Rather, the affective flood induces a demand to react, express — even if that reaction is itself just the written equivalent of a sigh, a scream, a cry for help. There is a doubled emotional layer to this manner of processing news: the framing, in which we put forth a piece of information as an affront, an attack, an upending of norms; and a reaction to our own mode of dealing with news, a sort of necessarily performative exhaustion — a signaling that, as it feels like the world is being tilted off its axis, our moral compass still points true.

It is perhaps better to think of our current situation as less information overload than affect overload: not just an excess of data, but of opinion and emotion.

Each piece of news carries with it a little affective jolt. If news has a kind of metonymic function as the stand-in for “the external world,” then the experience of socially mediated news is not only of orienting one’s ideological or epistemological relation to the world (this is what I believe about the world; this is what I know about the world), but one of an affective orientation — this is what news makes me feel. As the current administration seems to upend norms and threaten seemingly resolved debates about xenophobia, Islamophobia, misogyny and more, the sense of the present moment as a rupture is only exacerbated. Social media can collapse news into a generalized sense of exteriority, conflating one’s social feeds with the state of the world. It thus accelerates the effect of news on one’s sense of being.

This is the placelessness wrought by the contemporary news cycle — the way it dislodges and produces a discombobulation at the level of the social system. If our belief systems are like coiled wires, strands of varying ideology wound together into a coherent, linear thread, our social experience of contemporary news leaves them frayed, worn. The horizon of the external world, which we use to position ourselves, orient ourselves, define ourselves, seems similarly frayed, unfamiliar, and what thus emerges as a new terrain in history mirrors what is personally destabilizing at the level of society.

Part of this process is due to the fact that one of the key ways news is shared is through posting opinions that that one disagrees with — a piece of writing, most often an opinion column, becomes a kind of bouncing ball people on Twitter kick around in a showy demonstration of both the wrongness of the quoted piece and the rightness and goodness of the person doing the critiquing. This kind of criticism is inevitable, and healthy — but it also has the perverse effect of calcifying the division between differing world views, bolstering the coherence of an opposing viewpoint in the very act of tearing it down. To be on social media is thus to be exposed to constant epistemological jockeying over what is true. What, after all, is a rigorous condemnation of a right-wing columnist but an affirmation of another version of truth?

Yet, this very process also unfortunately reveals the arbitrary and affective relation to structures of truth — that how we orient a relation to the world is as much about feeling and belief as it is information or what is true. In the Trump era of news, what characterizes so much of partisan division is less disagreement than disbelief: Beyond the tough takedown, or some abstracted notion of “reasonable dialogue,” it becomes impossible to imagine why anyone would hold the opposing view.

It is perhaps better to think of our current situation as less information overload than affect overload: not just an excess of data, but of opinion and emotion

If we have, post-Foucault and Thomas Kuhn, become comfortable with knowledge as constituted by systems and regimes of power, perhaps we are yet to fully grapple with how feeling and loyalty also determine a relation to truth. A particular emotional investment in an understanding of the world is either affirmed or threatened by news, and immersing oneself in the feed is to be always exposed to threat. The simultaneous reception of news and its moral significance turns each piece of information into something that may jeopardize a coherent relationship between the self and the world. A stable understanding of how the world works and one’s relation to it is always on the edge of being upended.

In the face of so many contrasting opinions — even simply the noise of those we agree with — we have to perform our way out of the quagmire, forever re-instantiating a belief system through its very iteration. Home is threatened, and it requires defense, fortification. This encourages a pressure to share not as a way to spread information but as self-expression — in part, a desire to be seen, recognized, affirmed. As a Guardian  article by Claire Wardle and Hossein Derakhshan argued, the performative dimension of social media and so-called “fake news” are inextricable such that “what we choose to ‘like’ or follow is part of our identity, an indication of our social class and status, and most frequently our political persuasion.”

But more than a conspicuous marker of class or identity — as we display our taste in film or food — news forms the crucial nexus between a performed identity and social context in which that identity makes sense. Socially mediated news is thus not a way of informing oneself or connecting to others or even just a mode of performativity, but rather a way in which to stabilize a relation between an idealized representation of the self and a specific ideological framing of the world. The self itself is an avatar of what it wishes it to be, and the same is true on social media. The defensive practice of producing an ongoing interpretation of the news is a process of making the self as a product of ideology. Each performed reaction reaffirms not just a political ideal, but an idealized version of the self. This is an affective process of loyalty and belonging, a reaffirmation of identity over and against its subsumption by a flood of news that threatens it. Put another way, socially mediated news is a self-making process through the public display of a moral orientation to the state of things.

If this practice is inevitable, however — how else might we become ourselves than by becoming ourselves? — the ratcheted-up state of news and political discourse makes the affective dimension of self-making exhausting. Because both the world and the self appear to be constantly under attack, what one is attempting to perform into existence extends beyond the self; it is, of course, the idealized world. But if the desire to make the world a better place is normal, in the face of so much going wrong, it exceeds our individual power. There is a gap, an unsettling inadequacy. We can amass followers, even effect real change, but there is a frustrating sense of futility nonetheless, and the performative consumption of news only exacerbates things.

In a context of a flood of disturbing news, the anxious response emerges not only from arguments over what is true, and not only the constant meta-arguments over how to determine truth, but the multiplying guarantors of authority that structure the affective relation to knowledge. Truth always operates in relation to a center that secures the structure of the system — God in religion, objective truth in scientific discourse, and so on. The guarantor of an interpretation of news, however, is the coherence of an ideology — and it is coherence more than anything else that is threatened by both the pace and frequency of news. The same affective jolt that produces news as an affective overload has a detrimental effect on the solidity of a world view: minor attacks on an ideological perspective are quickly dismissed; daily assaults are less easily put aside, and persistent, performative effort is required to shore up our views. There is the affective flood, and then the flood of the anxious response in return. In both cases, the risk of drowning remains the same.

There is the affective flood, and then the flood of the anxious response. In both cases, the risk of drowning remains the same

We usually think about our political positions as products of contemplation, but something about social news suggests ideological orientation simmers on a level below conscious thought: in basic feelings about the way the world should be. Humans comprehend the world through equal parts faith and knowledge, and once faith is broken down, knowledge becomes impossible. To publicly reassert the truth of particular sorts of news, posting links to stories with the caption “here is the real story,” is a method of prioritizing one structure of truth over another. But the act of the social media post conjoined with the link is, in essence, a moral outcry for the way things should be, rather than a statement of how things actually are — a demonstration of the practice of truth-in-its-ideal rather than an expression of truth per se. The careful curation we each practice of what to post, how to frame it, and which kinds of reaction to seek suggest that the manner in which social news induces performativity can also be read as a defensive mechanism. In some sense, this is merely the concept of the filter bubble, reframed, but in the terms of a psychological reaction to a set of mediated social conditions, not merely an effect of either media structures or personal weakness.

There is an inevitable moralizing aspect to the performative reaction to socially mediated news, which makes sense given that the structure of news reflects a moral stance on the world: The choice of what leads in a television broadcast, or the size of a newspaper headline, or the urgency and frequency with which a social media news soundbite is repeated all evince ethical and ideological framing. But in the arena of social media, moralizing becomes an existential necessity in order to participate in the space. You have to cast judgement on the news lest you be swallowed by a nihilistic torrent of amoral data. It has the perverse effect of producing the self in the image of what one resists.

Judgement is of course necessary. As many have pointed out, in the face of a kind of neo-fascism emerging in North America, detached observation is crucial. The persistent moral outrage on social media, the positioning of the news to understand it in historical terms, and the exhausted attempts to keep up pressure are themselves forms of activism, moves meant to galvanize and energize. There is not only defensive performativity on social media; there is politics, too. But it seems worth considering that their interrelation may function differently than we may assume. If our performative production of self through the consumption of news is a way of defending the self, it may in fact calcify ideological division as it exhausts us — in effect, we end up calcifying the self.

At root is the question of what socially mediated news is supposed to do — for those who report on news, those who comment on it, and those of us who read and link to it. The endless meta-debates about whether it is better to try convincing opponents or forcefully condemn them takes on a darker tone when we consider that we may be damaging ourselves in the process. It seems at least worth asking whose interest is served by our ceaseless outrage.

This essay is part of a collection of essays on the theme of TOO MUCH NEWS. Also from this week, Elisa Gabbert on consuming news as a narrative, and Nathan Jurgenson on the false pieties of presidential press coverage.

Navneet Alang is a technology and culture writer based in Toronto. His writing has most recently appeared in the Atlantic, New Republic, BuzzFeed, and the Globe and Mail.