I Quit Left-Wing Media For A Week & Here's What Happened

It’s February: perhaps the most disappointing month of the year. The month where we relent on all the totally unachievable things we’d planned to accomplish, all the resolutions we’d proudly forced our friends to listen to over that 18th glass of Pinot as the New Year chimed in. “This year I’m staying totally woke” I proclaimed at 5am, smashed in my kitchen, standing too close to someone’s face.
Determined to stick to this resolution, I started by spending way too much money on subscriptions to loads of great journalistic outlets: New Statesman, New Left Review, The Guardian, London Review of Books. I signed up to the newsletters of countless online websites, followed and began to stalk specific journalists on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram. This was going well: finally, my unhealthy obsession with watching re-runs of Gossip Girl had been replaced by a useful self-edification process. One where I could actually engage in online and IRL conversations about politics in a deeper way than by quoting headlines I’d read on articles shared on Facebook, as if they were my opinions.
But after a month, I decided to do what any self-respecting Gossip Girl fan missing my daily dose of Liz Hurley being the worst actor ever in season five would do, and quit the left-wing media. For a week.
I have always been politically engaged, more specifically looking at issues through a queer lens, but since casting my net wider at the start of the year I had been feeling more rounded, more awake, more like Katy Perry circa her new song (what a banger!). But staying up-to-date was proving to be a time-consuming commitment, too. I was clocking reading times of two to three hours a day, spiralling into holes about Trump, terror, and whether we should be showering daily.
In order to quit left-wing media I first had to define what that meant: everything from The Guardian, to The Atlantic, to Refinery29 was in my no-go zone. I had to quit Facebook, Instagram and Twitter, too. I won’t bore anyone with more chat about our ‘self-contained echo chambers’ but I only follow news outlets who sit on the left side of the track, so even seeing a headline would count as a contamination of my media-free brain. I could google things but had to avoid anything ‘newsy’ in order to shield myself from headlines. I couldn’t listen to certain music, or watch certain films and TV shows either, to avoid their pushing of any left-wing-style views.
At the beginning of the week I was pretty happy to divert all of my focus from ‘staying woke’ to returning to Gossip Girl. A TV show that deifies the rich, racist elite of American society – all of whom are friends with the Trumps in the show – was just the antidote I needed. I realised on the Monday and Tuesday that since I subscribed to Facebook a decade ago, those two days were genuinely the first two days since I created my profile that I hadn’t logged on. I am one of those people who gets a lot of my news from Facebook, from my friend list littered with activists from all over the world, or my girls from home who adore FeMail. In the week that followed I didn’t necessarily feel any less connected to that world, but I didn’t feel very ‘cleansed’ either. I feel like a social media detox is a fallacy; you just have to approach it all with a kind of ‘Well that’s clearly a filter’ mindset (easier said than done, I know).
Over a week my routine changed. Instead of waking up, making coffee, and reading the news, I would wake up and instantly resume an episode of Gossip Girl on my phone — I replaced my news apps with Netflix. Every journey I went on over the week saw me in a constant stream of data consumption trying to catch my fill of Blair and Nate, Dan, Georgina. There wasn’t a Trump tweet to be seen.

I realised that people take you more seriously if you add a tidbit to a conversation about the contemporary schooling system, how shitty Trump is, or something else smart, funny, and agreeable.

I got a little less interesting in conversation. On Saturday night I went to a party and all I could do was talk about how I wanted to start a Gossip Girl-style blog about London’s bourgeois youth, or the fact I’d re-remembered the genius story of #susanalbumparty (google it). Not only could I not discuss current events, I also found myself genuinely less confident in engaging in conversation about them. What I did realise is that there’s certainly a major cultural cachet in being able to reel off opinions aided by left-wing journos, and that people will take you more seriously if you can add a tidbit to a conversation about the contemporary schooling system, how shitty Trump is, or something else smart, funny and agreeable. But that’s not rocket science: it’s an incredibly privileged thing to be able to pick, choose and assess news and its sources critically, and then talk about it.
After a week I felt less engaged – in fact, totally unengaged – which was genuinely quite disempowering. I felt like I was aware that there was a whole plethora of issues being reported on, and a subsequent guilt that it was my privilege to look away. I wanted to know if quitting the media made others feel guilty, too. I decided to connect with some people who choose actively to avoid any form of news or media, to see if a long-term abstinence was any different.
“I avoid the news because I get obsessed by it and it is easy to see the world as utterly bleak,” confessed Ally. “It was March 2014, flight MH370 had disappeared. I spent days on end on the satellite images trying to find it. I got really freaked out. That year I also started CBT for my anxiety disorder. I decided to effectively ban myself from reading the free papers on the tube and unsubscribed from BBC breaking news updates, etc. I still avoid it as a self-preservation thing and I am happy with my decision.”
Unlike Ally, by the Friday, Saturday and Sunday I was feeling so out of the loop (perhaps with a smidgen of hangover guilt, too) that I decided to find my news somewhere else. I went to Fox, The Sun and the Daily Mail to see if I could use my critical faculties to discern the main story from the nefarious persuasive techniques used by these outlets. But four hours later I found myself watching a video of Kellyanne Conway and actually starting to believe her hype. Perhaps it’s because her oddly smudged eyeliner is kind of hypnotic, or because I had partially lost my critical eye for a news story, but I had to slam the laptop shut. For someone whose whole schtick is being ‘right on’, it took a week away from that world for me to become susceptible to indoctrination from the Trump administration itself. Imagine if these were the only outlets you had?
Lois, a once-avid Guardian fan from Liverpool, confessed there are many reasons she avoids the media. “I’m a sensitive person and can have a strong emotional reaction to violent or inhumane events, particularly if they are reported in a dramatic fashion. I think science reporting is particularly biased in favour of patriarchy/neoliberalism. There is a heavily negative interpretation of current events and a dearth of hope that I think is distinctly disturbing, plus a lack of coverage of overarching issues such as oil/weapon interests fuelling wars. As a philosopher I find much mainstream reporting to be full of fallacies and hence think critical thinking needs to be taught compulsorily to unpick misinformation from the media.”

I spoke to people who only read Reddit, or Tumblr, because they feel the authenticity of reportage is far more reliable, and feel safer knowing they can choose what topics they see.

Lois is right: exercising critical caution when looking at anything published anywhere is a must (except this article, this is 100% #notalternativefactsIpromise). I spoke to people who only read Reddit, or Tumblr, because they feel the authenticity of reportage is far more reliable, and feel safer knowing they can choose what topics they see. I found one person who has never used the internet, and doesn't read anything but fantasy fiction novels, but they declined to comment. Other people I spoke with said that they couldn’t cope with knowing so much but not knowing how to do anything about it. Three people from my hometown in Lancaster contacted me separately to say they felt demonised as working-class people; one said she feels like she’s always being talked about in the third person by left-wing media outlets.
I was surprised by just how many people had come forward to offer their reasons for avoiding media, especially the news. Turns out, there’s loads of research that advises us to stay away from the news, detailing specifically that the news is actually bad for our physical, as well as mental, health. Apparently the adrenaline that comes with reading the news releases loads of cortisol, which deregulates the immune system, and puts the body into a state of chronic stress; this is bad for digestion, stops hair growth (omg news makes you bald!), and makes you more susceptible to infections. The nature of news is also addictive, and contributes to a severely decreased attention span, too.
Turns out what I’d planned as a semi-interesting social experiment to discern whether I could disconnect from my echo chamber by ignoring it, or finding an alternative, is actually a fairly usual thing. In the age of staying woke, we should remember that to do so takes time, privilege, and can often be to the detriment of our mental health. The balance between feeling empowered to speak up about current affairs and protecting yourself must be kept in check. I don’t think giving up media is for me, but one thing I will take from the week is to treat breaking and instant news with a little more caution than before. What’s true is that no matter how engaged one is, in order to get on with your daily life you have to be able to disengage, too, and there’s a slight problem. Staying woke by reading loads allows me to look good in conversation, but in today’s climate it’s not how much we know, it’s about how we act on what we know that’s important.

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