How the news took over reality

It’s easy to assume that the reason you spend so much time thinking about the news is simply that the news is so crazy right now. Yet the news has often been crazy. What it hasn’t been is ubiquitous: from its earliest beginnings, until a few decades ago, almost by definition, the news was a dispatch from elsewhere, a world you visited briefly before returning to your own. For centuries, it was accessible only to a small elite; even in the era of mass media, news rarely occupied more than an hour a day of an educated citizen’s attention.

The profound experiential shift we have recently experienced is not merely down to the fact that the news is now available around the clock; CNN pioneered that, way back in 1980. Instead, it arises from the much newer feeling of actively participating in it, thanks to the interactivity of social media. If you are, say, angry about Brexit, it is possible to be angry about Brexit almost all of the time: to encounter new and enraging facts about Brexit, and opportunities to vent about Brexit, in ways that would have been unthinkable as recently as the mid-2000s. If you had fulminated then to your family and colleagues as even respected peers, novelists and philosophers now routinely fulminate on Twitter, you’d have alienated everyone you knew.

One crucial difference is that raging on Facebook, or sharing posts or voting in online polls, feels like doing something – an intervention that might, in however minuscule a way, change the outcome of the story. This sense of agency may largely be an illusion – one that serves the interests of the social media platforms to which it helps addict us – but it is undeniably powerful. And it extends even to those who themselves never comment or post. The sheer fact of being able to click, in accordance with your interests, through a bottomless supply of updates, commentary, jokes and analysis, feels like a form of participation in the news, utterly unlike passively consuming the same headlines repeated through the day on CNN or the BBC.