News

Is Social Media a Public Health Risk?

The amount of information the average American sees on a daily basis can feel cumbersome. – Courtesy photo

Are we suffering from ‘TMINO’ (too much info news overload)?

By Terry Miller

Five things are certain in life: birth, death, change, social media and of course email.

Each day, I’m knackered beyond understanding after examining hundreds of news websites, Facebook alerts and good old fashioned emails – it’s only 9:30 in the morning.

I’ve been reading more “news” than ever but what have I learned? Perhaps basic headlines and maybe a few “names in the news” might have piqued my interest. But did I grasp the “big picture” or did I just add a few million clicks to someone’s digital portfolio enough so to make them appear at the top of a Google search.

Those of us fossils who have been in the newspaper business for 30-40 years or more have seen profound changes in recent years: shrinking newsroom budgets in addition to layoffs, buyouts, and in many cases complete shuttering of newspapers’ print operations.

Additionally, journalists have been facing an onslaught of increasingly dangerous intimidations, inspired in part, by the current administration’s fear and loathing of news organizations it deems as “the enemy of the people” or “fake news.” A lot of this nasty and unjustified rhetoric is coming our way via social media, Twitter and Facebook to name the top two offenders.

This fear-mongering and unfortunate portrayal of reporters as the enemy isn’t anything new, actually. Remember back in the 1950s and McCarthyism? History is repeating itself.

The House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) was created i­­n 1938 to investigate ‘disloyalty and subversive activities’ on the part of private citizens, public employees, and those organizations suspected of having communist ties. HUAC’s controversial tactics contributed to the fear, distrust and repression that existed during the anticommunist hysteria of the 1950s.

Critics claim that HUAC’s tactics amounted to a “witch hunt” that trampled on citizens’ rights and ruined their careers and reputations. These critics argued that most people who were called before the committee had broken no laws, but instead were targeted for their political beliefs or for exercising their very right to voice that freedom of speech. Supporters of the committee, on the other hand, believed that its efforts were justified “given the grave threat to U.S. security posed by communism.”

The film industry investigations reached their peak with the events surrounding the Hollywood Ten, a group of writers and directors who were called to testify in October 1947, refused to cooperate with the investigation and used their HUAC appearances to denounce the committee’s tactics. All were cited for contempt of Congress and sentenced to prison terms, in addition to being blacklisted from working in Hollywood.

Senator Joseph R. McCarthy was a little-known junior senator from Wisconsin until February 1950 when he claimed to possess a list of 205 card-carrying Communists employed in the U.S. Department of State.

From that very moment Senator McCarthy became an intrepid champion in opposition to communism in the early 1950s, a period that has been commonly referred to as the “Red Scare.”

One of the most notorious men from that era is Roy Cohn, a man whose influence spans several decades on hot button issues, Republican politicians and LGBT history. Cohn was a prosecutor in the Rosenberg spy trial, chief counsel to Senator Joseph McCarthy, a close friend to Nancy Reagan and a personal lawyer for Donald Trump.

Trumpwas one of many prominent clients during Cohn’s career, including Nancy Reagan, the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of New York, and suspected Mafia bosses Carmine Galante and “Fat Tony” Salerno.

Cohn was a closeted gay man who helped eradicate suspected gay and lesbian employees from the government. Cohn died from AIDS-related complications in 1986. Although President Reagan was famously slow to take action during the initial AIDS epidemic, he helped Cohn secure an experimental treatment after his diagnosis. As with the Lavender Scare, Reagan’s assistance was an instance in which Cohn’s personal politics and connections protected or benefited him as a gay man, but not LGBT people as a group.

Shortly before his death in 1986, Cohn was disbarred as a lawyer for “dishonesty, fraud, deceit, and misrepresentation.” The charges included a visit he made to the dying multimillionaire Lewis Rosenstiel at a hospital while Rosenstiel was semi-comatose. “Cohn held Rosenstiel’s hand to sign a document naming Cohn a co-executor of Rosenstiel’s will after falsely telling him that the document dealt with his divorce,” The Washington Postreported at the time. Author Becky Little noted that “Cohn is remembered as a major, and unethical, player in national Republican politics.”

In 1973, Cohn was at ‘Le Club’—a hidey-hole for the one percent on New York’s Manhattan Island —when a man turned to him and asked his advice about Justice Department allegations that his real estate company had discriminated against black tenants. That man was future Republican President Donald Trump, and Cohn advised, “Tell them to go to hell.”

Soon afterward, Cohn started working with Trump as his personal lawyer. Cohn served as a guru to the businessman, helping him to circumnavigate the world of New York’s influential traders. Cohn also notoriously introduced Trump to the political schemer Roger Stone, a self-proclaimed “dirty trickster” who advised his presidential campaign in 2016.

– Courtesy illustration

It’s a bit of a rude awaking for those of us who have devoted our lives to the Titanic of print journalism – the newspaper – to see these changes but alas we must amend or sink into oblivion. The digital iceberg is very much on our radar.

Recently, in the New Yorker, I read a superb piece by Michael Luo describing this very pressing issue we all face. How much information is too much and why the obsession with so called “influencers?”

“In 2008, the Columbia Journalism Review published an article with the headline ‘Overload!,’ which examined news fatigue in ‘an age of too much information,’ aka TMI.

When ‘Overload!’ was published, BlackBerrys still dominated the smartphone market, push notifications hadn’t yet to come to the iPhone, retweets weren’t built into Twitter, and BuzzFeed News did not even exist and social media’s massive power was but  a mere twinkle in Zuckerberg’s eye.Looking back, the idea of suffering from information overload in 2008 seems almost quaint. Now, more than a decade later, a fresh reckoning seems to be upon us,” Luo said.

“I actually think that social media poses a public health risk to everybody. There are amplified impacts for young people, particularly children under the age of 3, with screen time, but I think it has a lot of effects on older people. I think it has effects on everybody: increased isolation, depression, anxiety, addiction, escapism,” freshman congresswoman Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D) stated  in an interview with Yahoo News’ Skullduggery Podcast on Sunday, April 14.

“Media outlets have been reduced to fighting over a shrinking share of our attention online; as Facebook, Google, and other tech platforms have come to monopolize our digital lives,” explained Luo.

If developments, in the Cohn era, were played out today on social media, the outrage and disgust for such comments would have spread like wildfire. The advent of instant communication may even have changed history at that point. It most certainly portends to do that now.

With President Trump’s love of Twitter, one can only imagine what the consequences of Cohn’s influence might have been during that time. Perhaps he and Trump could be considered “influencers.” Hypocritical hyperbole hit rock bottom then but in many ways it hasn’t changed a bit, it’s just in a different form: social media.

April 18, 2019

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Terry Miller


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