By Ali A. Jenabzadeh

Iranians under attack by "Bad News Virus"

March 10, 2020 - 12:5

TEHRAN - Sadly, 1398 (mid-2019 to early-2020) was a hard year for Iranians; different incidents from the very beginning and now, coronavirus. But our people have been under attack by a much more powerful force: the bad news. During recent months, domestic and foreign media have been broadcasting black and white news about these events at a staggering pace.

 Iranian society begins its day with bad news which every one of them individually can be a huge shock, but it appears we are getting used to confronting bad news daily.

 This phenomenon is analyzable only through inter-disciplinary studies within humanities and our academic circles seem to be ignoring to discuss it. Even most academicians and intellectuals of the country are falling into the same trap. They not only intake bad news but some of them also account for providing such news. As bad news broadcasting inflates, the political controversy around it escalates. 

The elites, instead of informing the society of the psychosocial menaces such a trend imposes, are provoking concerns about sometimes unnecessary issues themselves. The media, in this campaign, has also taken sides with bad news without rethinking the harmful impacts of such an approach on the psyche of citizens.

Today, those involved in keeping themselves updated with news, have an insatiable appetite for the bad news. Sad headlines, misleading revelations, journalistic tumults and bad news about strange misfortunes are still favorable to them. Press readers, TV watchers and users of social media, totally unmindful of the risks, have exposed themselves to a brand new virus by improper consumption of the bad news to the extent that even if scientific studies precisely remind them of the hazards such a trend bears, they may suspect there is a conspiracy to keep them from knowing the truth. 

This is a completely wrong assumption. The truth is many media activists and those who extract a catastrophe out of merely a piece of bad news, are practically destroying the nervous system of their societies, only to entertain themselves and mainly to earn money and fame.

The bad news which has occupied the top position among other domestic and foreign news today is rooted deep and old in "events" pages of newspapers. News about crimes, treasons and dreadful deaths with different causes are being publicized every day more revolting than before.

 Despite recent changes in form and mater, events pages of papers and pop-magazines in Iran have never given a break to the brains of Iranians for the last several years. The roaring flood of bad news has now turned to a very serious threat here in Iran. 

So, it is true to say the real contagious virus which has prevailed over our society long ago and accounts as being the most fundamental menace to the mental well-being of citizens is the "bad news virus"! This virus directly targets the sense of confidence and safety within the public and that is why specialists are constantly emphasizing the perils of social panic caused by coronavirus rather than the virus itself. The bad news virus convinces people that they are always imperiled by grave dangers. Addiction to bad news is so severe among some people that renders their lives unbearable if they would not start their days with reading bad news in event pages of the press.

 The Digestion Pace of the Bad News

As American writer Rolf Dobelli points out in "The Art of Thinking Clearly", during recent decades "man has found out that improper diet comprises many dangers for life and yields various diseases like stroke and diabetes. However, most of us do not realize that news for the brain is like sugar for the body! Digesting news is as easy for the brain as digesting sugar is for the body."

Sugar can be absorbed very easily in the body and yet, it is harmful. Media feeds our brains with quite small pieces of news. These pieces are so tiny that if you consider them individually they will cause no worries and do not need much thinking for absorption. This is exactly why we never feel satiety when consuming news. The counter side of this condition can be found in reading books and articles. Reading and digesting books and long articles needs thinking. The propositions and news press give you, resemble colorful candies for the brain. As Dobelli puts it, "today, in dealing with data and news, we have reached the same place as we did 20 years ago about dealing with the foods."

The bad news is absorbed far faster than other kinds of news and leaves a deep effect in one's subconscious. The main reason for this pace is the possibility of identification with those involved in the incident. The media knows well about this. For example, imagine the story of a car that falls into a deep valley while passing a bridge because the bridge collapses. In this instance, the media focuses on issues that attract your attention like the type of car, people inside it, where they were coming from, where they were heading to, what they have been through while falling the valley (if any of them survives) and things like this because you tend to put yourself on their shoes. None of these issues is the main subject. The main subject in this story is the structural strength of the bridge, the danger which was long hidden inside that bridge and irresponsibly disregarded by authorities and might also be hidden in many other bridges. But issues like this are not attractive to the media.

The news media broadcasts about certain aspects of incidents draw a map from dangers sneaking and hiding around us but the selective taste of the media and their particular angle in viewing incidents, make us walk through dangers of life while holding a misguiding map in hand and having no sense about what are the real risks of life. Things media highlights for us are not real dangers of life (for example, news about terrorism is propagated all over the world daily but we don't hear much news about chronic stress.)

 News Consumptionism: What is RELEVANT?

Among enthusiasts of bad news, no one pays much attention to the important question of what is the real benefit of the tendency to consume bad news? If you ask any of them to point only 1 out of 10.000 pieces of news they have read in recent years that has helped them to make a better decision about a serious issue in their lives, none can. Indeed, as Alain de Botton argues in "The Difficulties of Consuming News" (Huffington Post), consuming news is irrelevant to you and "we are the first generation to search for information irrelevant to our lives. For many, it is a hard task to realize what is relevant to them and what is not. On the contrary, they easily understand what is NEW and what is not". And this is how media stimulates you: by giving you what's new rather than relevant.

The battle between being relevant and being new is the substantial conflict of our age. This is a war the media embarked against mankind. Media organizations, by inducing the sense that they are providing you with new information, try to foist these pieces of news as a competitive advantage in your life. They try to convince you that not knowing such news puts you off life's pace because despite being irrelevant, they are new. Therefore, most people feel anxious once they fall short of new information because, in their minds, it means falling behind life.

The Virus of Bad News

There are numerous physical and mental diseases incorporated with persistent exposure to bad news. Bad news stimulates the limbic system (an interwoven system of nerves and networks) in the body severely. Exposure to bad news and horrible stories unleashes a flood of cortisol inside your body. This weakens your defensive mechanism and ceases the discharge of somatotropin (human growth hormone). In other words, your body stumbles into chronic stress. Extra cortisol in the body causes the digestive disorder, body growth cessation, anxiety and vulnerability against viruses. Other side effects of constant exposure to bad news are panic, violence, and reduction of sensibility. A 2012 research conducted by a group of psychologists proved that, in case of exposure to bad news, women are much more at the risk of chronic stress than men and such news will leave a more lasting and deeper effect on them because of their good memory.

Another bad effect of exposure to bad news is cognitive errors. A cognitive error happens once a person is incapable of thinking thoroughly and making the right decision. Various factors are incorporating cognitive errors from which, the most important factor is "confirmation bias". Confirmation bias is the tendency to search for, interpret, favor, and recall information in a way that confirms or strengthens one's prior personal beliefs or hypotheses. Once an individual is convinced that the improvement of relationships with others depends on their confirmation of one's behaviors and personality, the confirmation bias is empowered. In fact, as the American business magnate and philanthropist Warren Buffet puts it, "what man can do best is interpreting new data and information. Man can do this interpretation in a way that the primary conclusion of new data and information is left intact."

This means we can interpret information in a way that our primary conclusions which have long been seated in our brains about that information would not change a bit. News, as a whole, intensifies this error. Such a process will end in hyper-self-esteem and pushes us towards making unwise decisions and misjudgment of our opportunities. It also reinforces another built-in mental disorder called "the narrative bias". In sum, as a result of this mental condition, our brain believes whatever APPEARS RATIONAL is right, although it might be incorrect or even fictional.

The Vulnerability of the Perception and Focus Power

Exposure to news, especially bad ones, is also harmful to the thinking process. Thinking needs focus and focus needs an uninterrupted and non-intersected period that is not disturbed or disrupted by anything. Such a focus is too vulnerable. The pieces of news are deliberately designed to cut through the chain of thoughts and attract your attention instantly. Therefore, hearing or watching the news, because of the constant disturbance of the thinking process, turns people into superficial and shallow thinkers.
News also negatively impacts memory. The structure of the brain consists of two types of memories: long-term memory which is almost endless and short-term or active memory which has a limited capacity to contain data. To move from short-term to long-term memory, data should pass through a gate in the brain and the only way to pass through this gate is concentration and focus. If something would intrude on your concentration, you cannot understand or perceive data. As Dobelli concludes, "by disturbing the process of focusing, news weakens one's perceptive and cognitive power."

Things are even more dreadful about online news. As the number of hyperlinks increases in a text, your perception and cognition power decreases because once a link appears, your brain has to choose between clicking or not clicking. This generates a lack of focus. News is a system intentionally developed to rip the chain of thoughts apart.

Who Benefits?

Every society needs journalism but the world is far away from ideal utopian journalism. A journalist, by looking at issues from the right angle and with the right purpose, can make a positive change within the society. Investigative journalism has always been functional in societies because it informs the public of the facts. But the facts a journalist attempts to publicize should be useful for the society, not disturbing or confusing. Everybody knows how dangerous coronavirus is. But broadcasting news about this virus in the way we are doing now is of no benefit for the society other than ceaseless anxiety and pessimism towards others.

The owners of certain foreign news agencies and their domestic partners benefit the most from turbulence and instability in Iran, be it social or psychological. So yes, coronavirus is important, but we may lose the war to the panic and instability this virus can create. The most essential precautionary measure to take in any stage of any social crisis is to avoid hyper-exposure to the bad news of any kind. This is a long-term but yet achievable goal.

Leave a Comment

1 + 11 =