Despite the persistence of the stereotype of Americans as aggressively ignorant, soma-gobbling political neophytes who couldn’t name a supreme court justice with a lifetime supply of Carl’s Jr. on the line, a good number of us still aim to be civically-minded. A 2013 pew research study found that 48% of American adults directly took part in a civic activity over the past year. The same study also found that we want to use the new digital tools we’ve been given to engage in the political process. 66% of social networking site users surveyed took part in some kind of political activity on a social networking platform. Political activity on social networking sites, according to the poll, grew significantly between 2008 and 2012.
Consumption of political information is crucial to civic engagement, online and offline. A different pew poll, conducted in 2016, confirmed a common-sense assumption about those who are civically engaged: they’re far more likely to consume local news. Other studies, including this one, have found that seeking news information through social media networks is a positive predictor of social capital and civic engagement. This makes sense: consuming political news media helps us be informed participants in the political process, makes us aware of measures we want to advocate for or against and helps us track developments.
What stops people from acquiring and using the information they need to engage in the political process? Educational attainment or geographic location may exclude some from civic life, as their access to information or their ability to make use of that information may be limited. Even as social platforms open up both new information streams and new ways to participate in social action, it’s worth considering whether the nature of modern media like social networks themselves may be keeping some Americans out of civic life.
Americans with anxiety disorders or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) are one group that modern information platforms could be failing to accommodate.
That is to say: certain aspects of the experience of consuming news on certain platforms could make it prohibitive to people with anxiety — at least, more prohibitive than it could be. For someone suffering from Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD) or specific phobias pertaining to politics or international affairs, a piece of coverage about a decision made by the Trump Administration could be full of triggers. For someone with PTSD, stories about the Syrian conflict or college rape statistics could be similarly fraught. It would be difficult for these folks to navigate those reports as they’re presented in their normal fashion.
This is not an insignificant consideration: 3.3 million americans suffer from an anxiety disorder. 7.8% of Americans will experience PTSD at some point in their lifetimes. Just as many buildings are required to make certain accommodations for persons with physical disabilities, it’s worth considering how information outlets should make themselves accessible to people with anxiety.
As a news platform, social media does not lend itself well to anxiety. The issue lies in the emotionality of posts. When you follow a news organization on Facebook, the outlet’s page can flood your feed with dozens of posts each day. These posts, which link to articles, are designed to ensnare a scroller, to make them stop and follow the link. The caption, which either sums up or directly quotes the article and is placed above the featured photo without context, is emotional by design. Example: an article about the impending breakup of a large section of the antarctic ice shelf could be captioned, “this is not good.”
Added to sanctioned, scheduled posts by the official pages of media outlets are reposts of articles by close friends. Appended to these posts are your friends’ own captions. “This would be nothing short of the downfall of American democracy,” your aunt might say above a linked New York times article about the nomination of Jeff Sessions to head up the justice department.
As the 2013 Pew study says, political activity on social media is growing incredibly quickly. Today. these political posts don’t drift across your feed every now and then. They come in a torrent, and for someone who deals with anxiety, this may be enough to keep them off of the platform altogether. Cutting out social media has its benefits for mental health, but scrolling through one’s Twitter and Facebook feeds is one of the easiest ways to quickly access a distilled version of political developments. What are socially conscious folks who can’t deal with that kind of stimulus to do?
The news is often inherently frightening, and the process of information-gathering for the purpose of engaging in civic life will be fraught with triggers no matter what. It’s worth asking, however, whether there exists a way to reduce enough triggers from the process of news consumption for people with anxiety or PTSD to feel as though they can access their information more easily.