In the 1970s, communications professor George Gerbner propounded the cultivation theory that analyzed the effects of heavy television viewing on individuals. Mean world syndrome, one of the effects of increased exposure to television media suggested that heavy viewers could perceive the world to be manifold meaner and more dangerous than it really is. But in today’s digital age, is the syndrome still evident?
Today information, controversy, and crimes are all over social media. One can’t help but get attracted to it, it’s inevitable. The continuous reporting of public school shootings in the US has become a cause of worry for many American parents. According to psychology experts, we slavishly engage via social media when big events are unfolding because humans are biologically hardwired to try and understand and control our environment. "We continually monitor events and ask, 'Does it have to do with me, am I in danger?'" says Pamela Rutledge, director of the Media Psychology Research Centre in Newport Beach, Calif.
When individuals inevitably ingest such emotionally pessimistic stories over long durations, it can lead to mental fatigue, heightened stress, depression, and ultimately a shift in the perception of reality. This later came to be known as the ‘Mean world syndrome’ i.e. a cognitive bias where mass media viewers develop unrealistic world views due to continued exposure to violent, negative imagery or commentary. In June 2014, Facebook drew heavy criticism for revealing an "emotional contagion" experiment it had conducted on about 700,000 users. The website reduced the number of positive posts some users saw, which resulted in those people producing fewer upbeat and more negative expressions. Several other experiments have also confirmed the influence of mass social networks on individuals’ psychological perceptions, outlooks, and attitudes.
The ‘Mean world syndrome’ although when first propounded primarily focused on the effects of heavy television viewing; in today’s digital age, the syndrome has gained all the more momentum. With more mass communication networks becoming junctions of discussion, debate, and dissemination, not to forget exponentially increasing screen times, social media greatly influences our perception of reality.
Twenty-four-hour reporting, unnecessary sensationalization, and emphasis on crime stories, visuals of radically charged riots, hate crimes, heated debates all contribute to the manifestation of the mean world syndrome. Who can forget the deadly covid pandemic when visuals of countless dead bodies, stampedes of laborers crowding to board buses, and ever-increasing statistics of the infected dominated all mass media platforms? News channels especially played a pivotal role in fear-mongering with their emotionally charged reportage. This all resulted in a mass panic response, with many unnecessarily hoarding essential commodities, the rise of egoism, xenophobia, and many believing in every news item seen on social media. Many were fearful to step out of their houses even when cases had relatively subsided in the country. This can be correlated to the 1990s, in the US, when, although both violent and property crime decreased steadily, (According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, the overall violent crime rate fell 74% between 1993 and 2019) Americans’ perceived levels of crime in the country went up. The overall decrease in crime that began during the 1990s did not lead to Americans feeling safer. In fact, the opposite happened. Gallup conducted annual polls about perceived levels of crime beginning in 1993. In 20 out of 24 of those polls, at least 60% of adults in the U.S. said that crime was on the rise at the national level from the year before. This increase over time is inversely correlated with actual crime rates.
Moreover, the Mean world syndrome incites higher levels of stress and anxiety in those who shared similar traumatic experiences as the ones they saw on their mobile phones or television. This can also be attributed to the lack of disclaimers/trigger warnings on sensitive content shared on social media (while many popular social media handles do use them, the masses are generally indifferent to their need)
The effects of the mean-world syndrome are countless. Besides invoking higher levels of stress, anxiety, and depression, Mean world syndrome contributes to minority communities getting unfairly associated with rampant crime; residents fleeing those communities; residents elsewhere won’t go there; thus, those communities see diminishing social and economic gains. Politicians use fear to win votes. Gun companies do the same to sell more weapons. Consequently, citizens feel the need to buy. Anxiety abounds. Social media also plays an influential role. AL.com’s John Archibald researched this during his year as a Nieman Fellow at Harvard University. “(Social media) algorithms that keep popular crime news in news feeds for long and recurring periods of time contribute to the culture of fear and polarization,” he said. “…The viral nature of crime news and the fact that algorithms often re-post old crime stories in feeds gives an outsized perception of the amount of crime that occurs nationally.”
Additionally, individuals that have been exposed to episodes of violent crime, and/or negative content on mass media from a tender age are more likely to emulate problematic behaviors and ultimately indulge in violent crimes. In short, violence breeds violence. And when this happens, violence becomes inevitable and dangerously normalized. Violence becomes increasingly perceived to be normal, natural, and acceptable in society. This de-sensitizing effect tends to largely impact victims of violence who are deprived of any empathy from a society that is so riddled with violence that it normalizes it.
However, combating Mean world syndrome is hardly anything simple. The biggest barrier to combatting it is that violence sells. People love action, they adore the notion of ‘the hero’ beating up the villain in the most gruesome of ways. Killing your enemies in video games is seen as the biggest accomplishment. Exaggerated pieces on violence in news media, however, tend to be more detrimental to individuals since we naturally perceive news media to be a reflection of our reality. As a result of such violence in news media, people may start believing that violence in the world is much more prevalent than it is. Hence, ethical principles, rules, and regulations are essential in mitigating the impact of the mean world syndrome. Although the elimination of violence from media is not entirely possible, greater awareness can help us distinguish between fact and fiction. In the era of Digitalization where one can so easily record, share, and transmit information, one needs to be all the more conscious and responsible for their actions, thereby helping us to see the world the way it really is rather than through the glorified, sensationalized specs of the media.
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