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Is Ignorance of Current Events Really Bliss?
Reflections on politics, social media, internet discourse, and New Twitter from a news junkie that (temporarily) logged off
“You look noticeably more relaxed,” my friend said ten days into my now-annual news and social media break. And I was.
This is the third year I willfully stopped my daily experience of reading, writing, and posting about current events for two weeks—when’s the last time you didn’t check any social network or news outlet for a full day, let alone a week?—and while it always leaves me feeling less stressed, the effect is larger this time.
The news is heavy, but it has been for years, so that’s not it. Mostly, I think it’s changes at Twitter, and I worry how that’s affecting others, especially regular users with influence offline.
Habit, Addiction, and Time
If you go online a lot and suddenly stop, it’s striking how much time there is. That’s true of any hobby (or addiction), but especially with the internet. We carry it everywhere, there are so many options, and it cries for our attention, both mentally—Did anyone react to my post? Is someone awaiting my response? What’s the latest in that ongoing drama?—and physically, with beeps, buzzes, alerts. Much of the 21st century economy is built on notifications and likes.
Removing that frees up mental capacity. You should try it. It’s not just thinking less about internet drama, but also not reaching for instant stimulus in moments of quiet or boredom. To let your mind go unstimulated, like we did before smartphones. Not the full Thoreau, just relatively more isolated. If you closely follow politics, that means less time thinking nationally and globally, freeing up more for family, community, self.
As with previous breaks, I was more present with my family, no longer saying “in a minute, just let me finish this thought.” I read and watched fiction, followed the NBA playoffs, listened to more music—in particular when I would’ve put on a political podcast—and did a lot of yard work. (4 Non Blondes voice: “And I mulch. Oh my God did I mulch”).
Family, stories, athletic competition, and cultivating the land—some of the most fundamentally human things there are.
This time, I happened to get endings. Shows I missed when they aired (Mr. Robot, the Americans), current shows (Barry, Succession), and a book series (Mistborn era 2). I liked them all to varying degrees, but loved the Americans and recommend it widely. The spy stuff is thrilling, but more than anything, it’s about a marriage. Great final season, one of the best finales ever, and an interesting show to watch in 2023 as Russia bombs Ukraine, rather than 2013-2018 when it aired. For example, some scenes were shot on location in Moscow. When will that happen again?
I wondered if binging a show about Cold War espionage violated my politics break, but my wife and I were already watching, and it was quickly apparent that I’m temporarily escaping current events and discourse, not history. We might lament the past, but we don’t worry about it (except how it impacts the present and future).
Did I Miss Anything?
I timed it well this year, skipping the debt ceiling showdown, where politicians and pundits compete to blame the other party for something easily avoidable that virtually no one wants. Seems like it worked out. I’m sure there are wrinkles and power dynamics with long-term implications, but I don’t think I missed much by skipping the drama, and not bearing witness to the process or talking about it.
I can see why the business community’s attitude towards debt ceiling standoffs—and much of the public’s attitude towards day-to-day DC business—is “eh, they’ll work it out,” getting annoyed only when they don’t. As if politicians’ job is to take care of this stuff so people can ignore it (at least between elections).
That’s not the most democratic attitude, but it is a capitalist and republican one, outsourcing the work of government to dedicated individuals, and valuing results more than process. There’s probably something American about it too, with the length and intensity of US presidential campaigns leaving many desperate for a break.
I also didn’t see Ron DeSantis flubbing his presidential announcement, and would’ve enjoyed the mockery. His campaign had the bright idea to do it on Twitter in conversation with Elon Musk and Musk’s business partner / fellow Russia apologist David Sacks. The first 20-25 minutes was marred by glitches and garbled audio. Once Musk and Sacks got it working, they made the discussion more about themselves, Twitter, and their out-of-touch-rich-guy fixations (such as ESG investing) than about DeSantis. If you have any familiarity with Musk/Sacks and how they’ve run Twitter, that isn’t surprising.
It’s safe to assume I skipped some culture warring, which I didn’t miss at all. If anything, the respite makes me more sympathetic to those most targeted by it (eg trans people) who can’t escape culture war toxicity by logging off.
One different thing about this year’s break: the war in Ukraine. I knew in advance that such a big global event—one I follow closely out of professional and personal interest, with the potential to change dramatically in days—could pull me out of exile. And it did.
A Chicago-based radio show invited me to explain recent drone attacks in Russia. It was a little over a week into my break, too far removed to know what happened but not far enough to use it as my cue to dive back in, and I considered declining (which I rarely do). But the topic was too much in my wheelhouse.
I’m pleased to say I checked back in to catch up on the war, did the interview, and checked back out. I saw some other headlines that might interest me, but didn’t click on them. And while tempted to publicly comment, I didn’t. It turns out my relationship with the news isn’t like an alcoholic or a gambling addict, where I can’t do a little without doing a lot. While the human suffering and global stakes of the Ukraine war still weighed on me—that receded as I stopped seeing constant updates, but never went away—the feeling I go on this news break to escape didn’t return.
Which suggests the problem isn’t the news itself, as negative as that can be. It’s discourse. Especially Twitter.
That place is toxic. I’m not breaking new ground here—both regarding the website’s negative qualities and how Elon Musk made it worse—but still, it’s remarkable how noticeable it is when stepping away, especially with my two previous breaks as reference points.
Among the changes since Musk took over in October 2022:
Deliberately promoting falsehoods, bigotry, and conspiracy theories.
Degrading the reliability of information on the network.
Elevating liars, dullards, and boors over the factual, knowledgeable, and clever by promoting content from paying customers while creating such an unappealing brand that aggrieved right wing culture warriors and Elon Musk fanboys are just about the only ones paying.
Basic technical problems, from an increase in small glitches to the embarrassment of bad audio in a hyped presidential campaign announcement.
And all that encourages good, interesting, insightful people to leave, or at least spend less time on the site, which in turn makes it worse. But many appear to be staying, at least for now.
As I argued in a 2019 essay called “Maybe Twitter *Is* Real Life,” the website has outsized influence because influential people in politics and media spend a lot of time on it. Most are aware, intellectually, that Twitter is not nationally representative. But it’s nearly impossible to participate regularly without thinking it’s saying something about politics, culture, left and right, and what the most passionate think matters today.
Getting too caught up in Twitter may have harmed Democrats’ electoral prospects as they catered to loud parts of the online left with esoteric social justice concepts and jargon. Ignoring most Twitter drama likely helped Joe Biden get elected president. Overweighting it may be harming Republicans’ chances as they cater to the online right. Fixating on CRT, DEI, “pronouns,” and other things recognizable to regular denizens of Political Twitter and few people off it has weighed down Florida governor Ron DeSantis’ quest for the White House, manifesting to regular Americans as unpopular book bans and fights with Disney.
As Twitter has gotten more and more toxic, what’s that doing to the media and political figures on it? Not just as a main source of information and gauge of what people believe, but emotionally. Psychologically. If they’re blasting their brains with this stuff every day, they likely have a distorted sense of public opinion. And they’re probably associating negative feelings with politics and news (even more than usual), which affects how they think and talk about it.
What’s that doing to everything else?
Better In than Out?
Writing about my first news break two years ago, I concluded: “Maybe it’d be better if social media didn’t exist. But it does. Given that, I’d rather be in than out.” I think I still feel that way. But I’m more conflicted about it.
Posting on Twitter now means that I’m creating content for Elon Musk for free. If Twitter goes into bankruptcy due to big debt service payments and cratered revenue, forcing Musk to sell, I think that’d be a positive. So if anyone logs on to look for something I’ve written, or spends more time on the site engaging with me, even a little, I’m helping prop up a toxic enterprise.
I know my output is a drop in a bucket. But a bucket of water is just millions of drops. And since we’re talking about human beings, there’s a network effect. People are there because of the people there. If enough leave, it’ll cross a threshold where many decide they don’t feel like being there anymore. In that sense, David Roth’s analogy to a gigantic house party with a wide variety of rooms is apt.
But only up to a point.
I said above that returning to my break after that radio interview showed this wasn’t like alcoholism, where one can’t do it a little without doing it a lot, but I’m not sure that’s right. It was more like resuming sobriety after a relapse (albeit a deliberate, positive one). In that case, doing it a little would mean reading news but not discussing it online. Or consuming and discoursing, but only in snippets. And that I don’t think I can do.
If I consume news, I’ll want to discuss it. To comment, analyze, joke, and see what others think. Talking politics on social media might sometimes make me distracted, exhausted, appalled, or annoyed, but it also exposes me to other perspectives, and ideas I didn’t have (both good and bad). Engaging in discourse improves my arguments, and sometimes prompts ideas for articles.
I am also, admittedly, somewhat stuck. I want real-time updates and international perspectives on the war in Ukraine, protests in Iran, and other events. Currently, there’s no good alternative for that.
I want my writing to be read, for both personal and professional reasons. Twitter is a primary source of traffic for both me and Arc Digital. It’s how most people who’ve invited me to speak found me.
I’ve tried some alternatives—Mastodon didn’t click for me, Post is going nowhere, BlueSky’s functionality has potential, but who knows if it can scale up—but there’s a lot less engagement, and they’re overwhelmingly American. (There are those network effects again). It’s not a coincidence that “maybe it’s for the best if Twitter dies” takes tend to come from established figures, such as New York Times columnist Ezra Klein, who would have a big platform regardless, but would see less criticism.
Participation v. Bliss
Ignorance can be bliss, it’s true, but for me it soon feels like wimping out, missing out, abdicating responsibility. It feels like quitting.
As long as Twitter is influential, leaving is effectively ceding ground. I don’t fault anyone who does—out of principle, out of frustration, or boredom, for mental health, or anything else—but I also don’t want politicians, media, business, or the public more influenced by lies, bigotry, and conspiracy theories than they already are, and I’m in position to contribute to countering that.
I’m a straight white man—I’d say Jewish is more off-white, but in the simplified American sense, close enough—which means I can speak up in defense of targeted groups without the torrent of hatred members of those groups get. I get antisemitic stuff sometimes, and when I say things like “banning a sweet, innocuous book like ‘And Tango Makes Three’ is wrong and obviously driven by bigotry,” I’ll get called a “pedophile” or a “groomer.” Thanks to New Twitter’s pay-to-play policy, I have to wade through replies like that before seeing any others. But due to some combination of personality type, decades of interneting, experience with online poker and video games (where some people say the vilest things if they lose), high school improv, and growing up with the name “Grossman,” I have a thick skin.
I don’t think I’m impacting policy or culture, at least not on my own, but maybe someone who feels besieged sees my comment and feels a bit better.
In some areas (eg war), I know what I’m talking about—which includes admitting the limits of my knowledge—and I like doing what academia calls “public engagement” more than most professors. In particular, I think the Ukraine war will shape the future of the world, and it’s important for people to understand the stakes. I’m comfortable engaging with both good faith disagreement on US/NATO support for Ukraine and with figures elevated by the change in Twitter ownership, such as David Sacks, who try to distort the historical record and current events, pushing the US to change its stance on Ukraine to, basically, “just give Putin what he wants.”
As inaccuracies and hatred have flourished on New Twitter, I’ve corrected, criticized, and mocked them more. Those are often my most popular posts, indicating an audience still there that likes it.
To people who believe in truth, pushing back on this stuff can feel repetitive, tedious, dull. But the liars and conspiracy theorists appear inexhaustible. In this “post-truth” political moment, fueled by the internet, those who value truth—or other core values many took for granted, such as equality and democracy—have a responsibility to get over it and repeat themselves. You won’t convince liars and bigots, of course, but it’s not for them. It’s for everyone else.
I might not be big, I might be a lot poorer and therefore a lot less influential than people like Musk and Sacks, but I’m not alone.
So for now at least, I’m sticking around. To borrow a line from Office Space’s Michael Bolton, “Why should I change, he’s the one who sucks.”