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I have been involved in writing a book about the news. Or, rather, a book about the bad influence the news and us news consumers have on each other. It became a book with important conclusions: that you should skip the news. To be happier. To spare yourself from the toxic pessimism and the misleading simplifications that lie behind the black headlines. News fast, to put it simply. To feel better.
The problem was that I didn't really believe it myself.
You have most likely heard about news fasting. Those who talk about it usually mean that you should put blinders on and avoid exposing yourself to what is troublesome and difficult in the world. Choosing the joy and cat videos over the horrors of war, so to speak.
I don't believe in that kind of news fasting. I am convinced that being human includes doing your best to understand what is going on in the world and society, and to be able to participate and make the world better, you have to challenge yourself and stay up to date even with the dark sides. The point was that Tobias Wahlqvist, the book's main author, claimed that this was about something else: not about isolating oneself or ceasing to be curious about the world. Not to stop engaging in injustice. On the contrary, he said – stepping out of the feed is what you need to have the time and energy to focus on real sources of knowledge, where you control the direction yourself and get a better picture of how everything is connected.
In the book SKIPPA NYHETERNA (SKIP THE NEWS), the news is revealed as a wolf in sheep's clothing: morbid entertainment but disguised as information, which gives us an inauthentic and fragmented view of the world and withholds many of the events that matter most. The focus on the hyper-current causes most reports to stare out into a fog where nothing appears, and before it dissipates they rush on somewhere else. The news appeals to our worst instincts, the way we consume it is a lead sink for our well-being - and we can never get enough.
I bought it.
But still, I read the news. Nevertheless, I remained on Twitter, got swept up in the micro-speculations surrounding today's gossip, and wrote threads about what is probably really going on in Dagestan. Admittedly, in the book, we collected an impressive array of evidence that the news, in practice, only shows us a fragmentary and rather irrelevant picture of the world, which gives us little help in predicting developments or making better decisions. Admittedly, there seemed to be good evidence that the fierce debating in the news and the cacophony of alarm and worry stress us into a million pieces.
But still, I couldn't shake the feeling that it didn't really concern me. For me, it was still important to follow the formation of the government, the electricity crisis, developments in Ukraine, the tensions in Central Asia, Trump's classified documents, inflation, the protests in Iran...? You want to see how it goes. And the soul trembles at the uncertainty of the void.
Live as you learn
But somewhere, of course, you still want to live as you learn. When SKIPPA NYHETERNA launched, the challenge was to abstain from the news for a month to see for yourself how it affects you. There were no more excuses. Fair enough, it was a hypothesis I actually believed in, it was worth trying, and of course, I had the feeling that it probably cost some time to keep up with everything. It wouldn't hurt to free up some time. And perhaps it would contribute to better sleep if you didn't have to scroll through the feed the last thing you did in the evening?
So I accepted the challenge. I set up some simple rules for myself - but which would prove to have a great effect. All news apps had to go. TV and radio news, newspapers, and other places where news is available as well. And all social media, which for me have been the most central sources of news. I allowed myself a couple of well-defined exceptions in advance: two minutes every day to scan the news headlines on teletext, and a quarter of an hour a couple of times a month to scan a blog about Ukraine. Otherwise, I traveled into the news shadow. The dark side of the moon.
Already noticed on the first evening how others around me were absorbed in their phones and not me; I felt more present and less controlled, and it felt like my thoughts were allowed to fly a little more freely.
After just a few days, it became natural to avoid the news. My thumb initially wanted to find the Twitter icon on the screen, but I steeled myself and opened Duolingo instead. I managed to stick to the planned rules, refrained from doomsday scrolling, and after a while actually used less of my info search windows than I had made room for. It gradually became easier than usual to keep the common thread in thoughts and actions. Even shorter windows of time became the time that mattered and became useful, instead of being lost in aimless scrolling.
Read a book? Sure, why not...
I freed up what in the end felt like eons of time and put it more towards things I want to do and feel good about: I read books I definitely wouldn't have read otherwise, learned a lot of Ukrainian, took more spontaneous social initiatives, and established habits that previously felt unattainable to keep going, such as exercise. Projects that had been lying dormant for a long time were suddenly getting done. My mobile usage continuously dropped to a steady, low level. Eventually, it even hit me that it felt more like a vacation than during vacation, even though I was working as usual. Probably thanks to a heightened sense of meaning in what I put my time into.
I already understood before that I would save some time, but I am surprised by how much positive difference I also experienced in mood, ability to concentrate, and lowered thresholds to deal with things. It now feels like I got off a rollercoaster I didn't really understand I was riding and took back control of my time and my focus.
I noticed how I completed trains of thought in a different way and completed tasks with unbroken focus - and it was nice. Adversity didn't encounter me as much, maybe because I was more often one step ahead. I even felt nicer, like I got deeper into the conversations - even if I got to glean material from books I'd read rather than from the social media chatter of the day. Sleep improved, and I found myself dreaming more vividly at night.
Slower pace of information
I kept a diary during the time, and perhaps the most telling of the outcome was when, after finishing the fast, I read my note from the third day: then I was severely tormented by my ignorance of what had happened since the last time in Ukraine, and my reaction now in retrospect is “after only three days? Nothing of importance happens in three days, what a senseless rush for information". So apparently I've found my way back to a slower pace of information.
Feeling better and calmer is all well and good. But is it worth it if you lose sight of the outside world? Well, the fact is that I have almost not felt uninformed at all, but what I have cut away I basically experience to be noise, speculation, the quickly forgotten details, and storms in water glasses on social media. I've clearly kept up in the conversations with others, and it seems relevant events found their way to me anyway. Was told, for example, that the formation of the government had been completed. Skipped the news about it, but looked up and read the Tidöavtal text in the original, and felt fully informed without having to take part in the stressed tone in the media. Like I cheated the system. As Tobias usually says: "if something important happens, you'll know anyway."
If anything, it feels like I rather distinguish the big features better when most of the noise is reduced. It struck me that the enduring processes behind the headlines are often much slower than the short news cycles that usually revolve around speculation. Case in point: the ongoing uprising in Iran, which I followed on a micro-level just before the fast, escalated during the month in a few steps—strikes, mass arrests, increasing media repression—but reading daily reports would hardly have given a better understanding but instead obscured that progression in a jumble of concerns, rumors, and details. It seems that I, who didn't dilute my focused news consumption with that noise, somehow have a clearer picture of what actually happened this month than if I had waded around knee-deep in the news feed.
What is the lesson?
So what's the lesson here? Tobias's call to action when he announced the news fast in October was that everyone may not have to skip the news entirely, but that everyone has something to learn about themselves by trying to do so. I will definitely sign off on that.
It is probably very individual how deep the news machinery has sunk its claws into people. Some have Twitter as their poison. Others click on Aftonbladet every two hours. Some have healthy behaviors from the start and some scroll deeper into the darkness than what's good for them. I think the most rewarding thing about my news fast was that a larger part of my time was directed to things that I have control over, and that really affect me and my everyday life. It's tickling to stand in the bow and spy, but that's not where you steer from. And you don't get much wiser.
Scanning certain defined sources during well-defined (and narrow) time windows felt like a good way to keep control of consumption. Instead of being tossed around in my mind here and there to the ever-new hot spots that the algorithms and newsrooms point out, in a scrolling depth that never ends, I got to follow my own thoughts where they took me. So much in the world is getting better, but it's easy to lose sight of that when the collective anxieties of an entire world are wired out before one's eyes.
Sure, after a while I tried to get back on Twitter when the month ended, but it felt more like going back down into Plato's cave after escaping it. The negativism was startling, and the fluffiness of the content felt stressful and uncomfortable. I will continue to skip the news. To get a more sober view of the world and get better at making it better.