Once upon a time, there was a wild pig and a sea cow. The two were best friends who enjoyed racing against each other. One day, the sea cow got injured and could not race any longer. So the wild pig carried him down to the sea where they could race forever, one on land and the other in the water. If you were born into the hunter-gatherer Agta community in the Philippines, you would have grown up listening to this story. And indeed no matter where you grew up in the world, most of us heard stories that echoed sentiments like this.
While they may seem like mere fables on the surface, there’s a lot to learn from them. Things like friendship, cooperation and equality. In the past, stories like these permeated our culture from childhood to old age. But the world has changed a lot since our hunter-gatherer days. Stories that teach us about our sense of community are now limited to children’s fables and no longer circulate through our culture as we get older.
While in the past the job of passing on necessary life skills, history and information was a collective effort, today, all of that power has been given to commercial media. In the words of George Gerbner, “Commercial media has eclipsed religion, art, oral traditions and the family as the great storytelling engine of our time. And whoever tells the stories of culture gets to govern human behavior.”
And therein lies the biggest problem with commercial storytelling. Twitter, YouTube, TikTok, Facebook, all the different news apps and websites, how many times do we check the news on our phones every day? In the past, it took weeks, months or even years to hear bad news from the other side of the world. But today, we have everything at our fingertips. Wars, riots, chaos, scandals, the news feels inescapable.
It’s like we’re trapped in a constant reel of negative information on all platforms and from every news outlet. If you strip it down to its roots, the message behind it all is always the same. One that plays on our emotions and instills fear in our hearts warning us against a world filled with people who want to hurt us, ideologies that threaten ours and unexpected events that are meant to keep us on high alert.
But is the world really as bad as mass media wants us to believe, or are we suffering from mean world syndrome? In the 1970s, Dr. George Gerbner first coined the term “mean world syndrome ” while conducting research on the effects of violent-related content on our view of the world.
His findings showed that a heavy diet of violence, whether through entertainment or the news, can lead to a sort of cognitive bias that makes us perceive the world as more dangerous than it actually is. What is most interesting about Gerbner’s research is that it doesn’t matter whether we know the content we are consuming is factual like a news report, or fictional like a movie, the effect is the same.
When we are constantly bombarded with negative information, we begin to develop a worldview that is highly skeptical, suspicious and pessimistic. As part of this study, Gerbner estimated that the average American child will have watched over 8,000 murders on television before the age of 12. Consider the fact that Gerbner conducted this research in the 1970s when the media’s influence and its reach were substantially smaller, and you can imagine just how bad it must have gotten.
How many murders, both real and fictional, do you think a child would have read, seen or heard about in the media before the age of 12? 8,000? Or eight million? If that was the only problem with the media, then perhaps it won’t be that horrible. After all, if bad things are happening, they need to be reported, right? Well, yes. But Gerbner said something while testifying before a U.S. congressional subcommittee in 1981 that will send chills down your spine: “Fearful people are more dependent, more easily manipulated and controlled, more susceptible to deceptively simple, strong, tough and hardline measures.”
Could it be that the media is designed to serve people the worst news to instill fear in us so we can be more easily controlled by the powers that be? This point becomes even more plausible when you consider the fact that 90% of the media in the United States is controlled by just six corporations. This means that roughly 232 media executives are calling the shots on the vast majority of the news being presented to Americans, which is then passed on across the globe.
Let’s say the situation isn’t as sinister as that and we aren’t being subversively controlled by some criminal masterminds. At the very least, CNN, Fox and all the other outlets want one thing, our attention. And some of them will do anything to get it. People are more likely to pay attention to and remember negatives. Media outlets know this, which is why you will find more negative news than positive news in your feeds. It’s polarizing, engaging and keeps us glued to our screens, which in turn results in more revenue for advertisers who are literally paying for our attention.
And once we start paying attention, the algorithms of social media take over and all of a sudden we are constantly being fed news that confirms our beliefs and further solidifies our already skewed worldviews. It’s no secret that controversial content, the content that triggers an emotional response, is the content that performs best, gets shared most and circulates longest. So whether we like it or not, we become bombarded with an endless scroll of polarizing content that only manages to make us even more skeptical about the world around us and suspicious of anyone who does not happen to share the exact same beliefs.
This kind of reporting and these kinds of stories that we propagate throughout our society end up dividing us instead of bringing us together like the stories of old did. The sad reality is that whether the world is getting worse or not, the media will almost always make us think that it is, simply because it’s good for business. The truth, which should be an unbiased representation of facts, is no longer at the core of news reporting. The story has become much more important, and stories that elicit negative emotions often get more eyeballs, reactions and ad revenue.
As a result, the problems that are constantly depicted in movies, news outlets and on social media are relentlessly overstated to the point where we might feel that it’s hopeless to even do anything about them. What’s worse is that this constant exposure to negative information that is relentlessly pushed on us by obsessive algorithms can confuse the brain such that it becomes almost impossible to differentiate between exciting fact and thrilling fiction.
A study conducted by three MIT scholars in 2018 found that false news spreads on Twitter substantially faster, farther and deeper than the truth. The research also found that this misinformation wasn’t spread through bots, but by actual human users, like you and I, retweeting. Just like these algorithms, our brains recognize that the most polarizing information, whether true or not, is the information that will go viral and elicit the most emotional response from the public. And so we hit share or quote in hopes of getting that viral tweet without first verifying if the information we’re spreading is accurate.
Another reason why it seems like the world is substantially worse than what we see in front of us is that the news talks about things that did happen, and not things that didn’t. We don’t hear about wars that never started due to successful peace talks, or shootings that were prevented through proper policing. We barely hear when unemployment rates go down, and when the economy is experiencing a turn for the better.
Because again, it’s just not as exciting as bad news. Sadly, as long as terrible things keep happening on the face of this planet, there will always be enough negative reports to fill the news, especially with smartphones now allowing people to become amateur reporters and crime investigators. The mean world syndrome speaks directly to our most innate fears which then trigger our fight-or-flight instinct. When we watch a reporter covering a warzone, a shooting in a residential area or a terrorist threat, our body naturally becomes flooded with hormones and chemicals designed to keep us on full alert in order to save us from the mean and bad world.
While these survival characteristics were essential in our hunter-gatherer days, today all they manage to do is lead to anxiety, stress and even trauma. But the world isn’t as bad as we think it is, only the stories are. This is why to combat mean world syndrome, we have to take back control of how we are thinking, feeling and reacting to the constant stream of negative or violent news being depicted all around us.
The truth is the world today is much better than it has ever been. Don’t get me wrong, humanity is far from perfect. There are still conflicts in many places around the world, human rights issues we need to tackle, climate change problems we need to fix. But the world has never been as good as it currently is, at least for most of us. Advancements in healthcare and technology have increased our lifespans, decreased mortality rates and improved our living standards.
We haven’t witnessed any world wars for decades, we’ve grown more tolerant of each other and more accepting of our differences. Violence has been steadily on the decline since 1946, there have been fewer famine deaths in the past decade than at any other time in human history, and extreme poverty has been declining literally by the second. Yes, we face harsh realities on a personal and global scale every single day, but when tragedy, crime and war are presented as the norm and not the outliers, it’s only natural for us to feel angry and afraid.
We have to choose our information sources carefully and not let the obsessive algorithms of social media dominate our perception of the world. We have to be conscious of our approach to news and entertainment and challenge the way we think. The next time you’re scrolling through your feed and find a disturbing news report, ask yourself: Is this fact or fiction? What real evidence is there of this occurrence? What is the context? Or am I just being manipulated so that I develop certain feelings of fear and suspicion?
If you find your social media platforms serving you the same kind of content, be conscious of this, and make sure you diversify your newsfeed to include positivity to balance out the negativity. At the end of the day, we are a storytelling species, and if we’ve learned anything from our history, it’s that the narrative we share with one another is the most important thing.
Just like in our hunter-gatherer days, the tales we are telling now have a great influence in shaping our culture and our people. It might be time we go back to telling stories like the wild pig and the sea cow. Maybe if we do, we can cultivate the values that truly make us human, like caring for one another, being compassionate and giving people the benefit of the doubt.
The world is not as mean as the media wants you to believe. It’s time we stopped letting them lie to us that it is.