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How the Media Manipulates Us to Feel Anxious and Angry…and 6 Ways to Stop It

Last night, I was really taken aback by the state of social media. In the wake of COVID-19 and vaccinations and mandates, I saw actual comments saying things like, “Send all the unvaccinated to a camp away from the rest of us. It’s their choice to be there,” and “It’s not their right to eat at a restaurant with the rest of us,” and “Good! Fire them for not complying! I wish more companies would do this!” Countless people piled likes and loves on each of those comments.

I read headlines from reputable news sources that were so clearly clickbait intended to incite anger that it made me laugh out loud…until I realized most commenters weren’t aware of the manipulation. And I watched the comments of those not even arguing, simply bringing up sincere concerns, disappear before my eyes.

Whether you believe that social media censors for good or evil purposes, the fact is that this is how the media manipulates us to feel anxious and angry. This is how they turn us from a kind and caring human into one stereotyping half of the country and wishing them dead. Some of us are literally wishing other human beings dead, all due to their personal opinions, experiences, concerns, and resulting decisions.

Why the media wants us to feel anxious and angry

The fact is that anxious people are on social media more often. Psychology Today notes that “anxious people tend to gravitate to social media as a form of escape from their worries.” Once there, what they see on social media only increases their anxiety, driving them back to social media again. And more time spent on social media means more ads viewed and, ultimately, more money for the social media company.

And why would they want you to feel angry? Because angry people can’t let it go.

Someone who’s not angry will usually assume an ignorant comment comes from an ignorant person and that arguing with them would be a waste of time. They sigh for the state of humanity and close the app.

But an angry person? They can’t rest until they’ve put the other person in their place, either through snarky logic or straight-up name-calling. They reply to the comment, then again to the replies to their reply, and on and on as social media giants make more money.

How the media manipulates the truth to make us feel anxious and angry

They use misleading headlines.

Try this one on for size – “Official Warns Texas Kids Have to ‘Wait for Another Child to Die’ With ICU Beds at Capacity.” Those darn Texans, am I right? (…as I write from Texas.)

First of all, Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins’s quote was taken out of context. He did say those words but was referring to children in one county in Texas, not all of Texas. His full statement advised that children’s ICU beds for 100 miles had been at full capacity for 24 hours, so children in need of ICU beds were being airlifted to nearby cities.

Frankly, I grew up in a small town where that was common. You went to the local hospital for mild to moderate health issues, then were flown to the closest major city for more serious problems.

Now…that’s certainly not an ideal situation! It’s heartbreaking news, no matter how you slice it. But…can you see what they did there?

  1. They expanded one county’s story to “Texas.”
  2. They took a few poorly chosen words out of context from a much longer statement.
  3. They told you, very incorrectly, that Texas children have no option to live but to wait for other children to die.
  4. Side note: Why is dying the only way that children can leave an ICU bed? They’ll also leave those beds by recovering!

They play to your emotions.

Let’s take a look at this headline – “Inside a San Antonio pediatric hospital, children battle for breath. Parents cry.” If you actually read this article, it’s quite short. It notes that pediatric cases of COVID are increasing “just like on the adult side.”

The child in the photo fighting the COVID test swab? He was at the hospital for seizures caused by a rare brain condition. The swab came back negative, a preliminary test now to enter hospital care.

And the “parents cry” in the headline? This was taken from a one-sentence mention in the article – “The emergency room was full of children coughing behind their masks and worried parents in tears.”

Again…this is a terrible situation! I’ve cried reading stories of lives lost, especially those of children. And I’ve pictured myself in those situations.

I’ve imagined my own daughter in one of those beds; it’s kept me up many nights. And that’s exactly the goal of this headline.

They want you to see this sweet young boy’s face, battling COVID (he’s not), and to read “parents cry” and imagine yourself there. Remember: Anxious people will spend more time on social media.

They use black-and-white, all-or-nothing thinking…and they want you to, as well!

The media plays to an us versus them mentality. It tells you that everything wrong with the world? Well, you can blame that on the other party!

Because obviously, every Democrat is excited for a communist future, demanding your papers to enter grocery stores and receiving everything from the government. And you know all Republicans are fierce Trump supporters, stocking up guns in their secret, underground panic rooms. Or…are they?

Sure, some people are sitting at those extremes. However, the majority are somewhere in the middle. But taking a balanced approach and giving fair consideration to both sides doesn’t sell ad space.

So instead, they make accusations and tell you who to hate. After all, anger will keep you arguing in the comments section longer.

They filter opposing points of view.

Here’s something veeeeery interesting I’ve noticed lately. I stumbled across a post titled, “San Francisco Will Require Full Vaccination For People Entering Indoor Public Spaces.” I was surprised to see that the post had only received likes and loves because really…you have to know a decent number of people are opposed to that!

But when I clicked into comments, then clicked the reaction button, I saw a different story. The post had also received some angry, laughing, and wow reactions.

Now those might not have been included because there were more likes and loves than other reactions. However, this narrowing of reactions likely leads many people to believe they’re on an island by themselves for disagreeing with the majority. This only further intensifies our anxiety and anger.

They incite fear.

All of these actions add up to accomplish the media’s biggest feat – inciting crippling, keep-you-up-at-night fear. By focusing on the worst and scariest aspects of any event, and by always pitting one side against the other and pretending like the middle doesn’t exist, they can guarantee that you’ll keep checking in with them to stay up to date. It turns out anxiety and anger are extremely profitable.

What we can do about it

These realities might make you feel as if you need to delete your social media accounts altogether. And for many, that might be the best solution! But there are a few steps you can take if you’d like to remain on social media, minus the anxiety, anger, and ugly comment wars.

Remember who’s footing the bill.

Do you know why social media is free to you? Because big companies with even bigger agendas are paying millions to influence you there. As the saying goes, “If you’re not paying for the product, you are the product.”

The CEOs of social and other media companies didn’t create this product to help you stay in touch with your friends or keep up on reputable news. They created it to make money off of you. Don’t let that slip your mind before you go off on a fellow human being in a comment thread.

Keep a lookout for black-and-white and other distorted thinking.

Remember that almost no issues are truly black-and-white. Real life is much grayer, with most people and circumstances falling in between the extremes highlighted on social media.

For example, your co-worker might disagree with you on a hot topic but might share nearly all of your other beliefs. At the very least, they’re likely far from the extremist their hot topic opinion might lead you to assume.

Remember that you don’t know the entire story of anyone but yourself.

Let’s talk about vaccinations, for example. You don’t know another person’s entire health history, family history, prior experience with vaccinations, or what their personal doctor might have recommended (nor is it your business).

You don’t know what a family member of theirs might have personally experienced that has shaped their opinion…or their fears. You don’t know where they’re at in their mental health game, especially in the middle of a global pandemic.

Sure, you might be able to better understand if they would explain those circumstances to you. But many people don’t care to share every detail of their life and health with others. 

They don’t want their “friends” to demand they justify their decisions. A true friend assumes the best of you, not the worst.

And strangers on the internet trying to pick fights? They don’t deserve a thing at all.

Imagine the person upsetting you on social media is someone you know personally.

I live across the street from a double amputee, Purple Heart recipient, Vietnam vet. Bobby is one of the kindest and happiest people I’ve ever known.

He counsels other disabled veterans, offers to help mow our lawn when my husband is sick, and is always the first person my six-year-old asks to attend her birthday parties. And…he has very different political views than me.

When I see political disagreements on Facebook, I try to picture Bobby on the other end rather than some nameless, faceless, terrible human being. The fact is that the person disagreeing is likely much more like Bobby than a strictly terrible person. And when I’m picturing Bobby on the other end, I’ll certainly be speaking to him with kindness, respect, and love. (Seriously…someone give Bobby more medals!!)

Only discuss heated topics in person.

Tone and intention are almost always lost in text. Without our faces and body language to tell the other half of our story, the recipient will usually assume the worst of us.

I know people who have lost life-long friends over controversial things they’ve posted and the heated text debates that have followed. They lost years of love and connection with that person.

And for what? Because they voted for different presidential candidates?

I believe that had those conversations taken place in person, they would have gone in a very different direction. And I believe our loved ones deserve the kinder, more thoughtful direction that face-to-face interactions bring.

And internet trolls? Half of them are bots or hired trolls working hard to make you angry. Or they’re real people who are bored…or broken…or, let’s face it, just enjoy hurting others. That’s why it’s best to avoid reading the comments at all.

Use anxiety and anger as your cue to log off.

The second you feel those emotions bubbling up inside of you, you can rest assured it’ll all go downhill from there. Before you know it, it’ll be 3:00 AM and you’ll be wide awake in bed, running through worst-case scenarios in your head. So stop while you’re still ahead.

Yes, social media uses misleading, emotionally charged headlines and distorted thinking to bring out the worst in you. But now you know how to recognize their tactics and humanize the comments that used to make you see red.

Be kind. Assume the best of others, especially those you know in real life. Please don’t lose sight of anyone’s humanity…it’s all any of us have most days. Friend, we’re so much more than moneymakers for social media giants.

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