How To Stay Sane When Fake News Is Taking Over Your News Feed (According To A Psychologist)

Photo: Crystal Sing-Giles

A year ago, life seemed much less complicated. Most days I felt that the world moved according to a relatively predictable—albeit chaotic—rhythm. The media provided what I believed to be reasonably accurate news flavored with partisan spin. I knew which way was up. Then everything changed.

In the summer of 2016, my sense of certainty evaporated like rainwater off hot pavement. Maelstroms of fake news stories burst my complacency bubble, hurling me into an abyss of confusion. Though a seismic shake-up may have been long overdue, the assault on the truth rattled me.

Uncertainty is uncomfortable—sometimes painfully so. Since last summer, I’ve shifted from feeling confident in the veracity of the information I consume to experiencing intense suspicion about people's motives and the authenticity of their statements. I’m periodically plagued by bouts of insomnia and gripped by anxiety. I’ve felt the urge to rant and the impulse to hide. Neither option seems very satisfying.

Throughout all of this, though, I have held on to the belief that if you look hard enough, you’ll eventually find a silver lining. My eureka moment came at 3 a.m. one Monday while my unsleeping eyes focused on my blinking bedside clock. I realized I was still in control, and I had all the tools I needed to hold on to my sense of security and authenticity despite the nebulous swirl of uncertainty around me. Here are my three best tips for staying sane in an often fake world:

1. Take a beat.

When the world feels like it’s spinning out of control and it’s difficult to get my bearings, I've learned not to lean into the anxiety. Instead, I take a moment to stop, breathe, and reconnect with myself. That means turning off all electronics—TV, phone, laptop. Two minutes off the hamster wheel can make a world of difference.

But I'm human. I can be embarrassingly undisciplined about this practice. So, I have an app on my phone that reminds me to stop, breathe, and reattach myself to the present. If your life is anything like mine, the thought of sitting still and doing nothing seems either unrealistic or self-indulgent. But the alternative is burnout. If I don’t care for myself, I won't be able to do any of the things I want to do. Committing to taking a few moments off the grid a few times a day is well worth it.

Just so you know, "stopping" doesn’t necessarily mean sitting in lotus pose on a beach while you gaze at a sunset. If that works for you, great. Personally, I live nowhere near a beach. I like to walk my dog (without my smartphone), meditate, putter in my garden, play an instrument, or do nothing at all. It doesn’t matter what you do or don’t do. It’s taking a timeout that counts.

Photo: Nabi Tang

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2. Hone your filter.

It's crucial to learn how to filter the barrage of information constantly assaulting us. I can’t step out my door without running into neighbors, friends, colleagues, and even strangers. Don’t get me wrong—I like most of them—but there seems to be a prevailing angst that often corrupts our interactions. We exchange stressful ideas like cold viruses. Before we know it, we’ve all caught the angst disease and walk away from interactions that should energize us feeling more depleted than ever. Being mindful and aware of what I put in and what I take from those interactions is my best hope for not being overcome by them.

In the Information Age, we can't really avoid the internet, and it's pretty tough to avoid social media, too. As a writer, I know I can’t avoid either. Research is my medium, and the internet is my hammer and chisel. But with the pop-ups, advertisements, and world-weary status updates all over my feed, five minutes is enough to send me over the cliff into the vortex of online news or to make me want to toss my laptop out the window. This is another moment for taking a beat to stop, breathe, and then filter, filter, filter. We’re not obligated to consume toxic content. We always have the choice.

3. Stay informed using sources you trust.

So often reality seems to be defined by the loudest voice or the highest bidder, and it can be tough to separate the truth from the noise.

In fact, recent articles in Time, the Washington Post, the Guardian, and a truly disturbing piece of investigative journalism into massive media manipulation by Roger Sollenberger in Paste, provide ample evidence that the "truth" is now a fuzzy mess.

If you don’t have the time to wade through the dense information detailed in the articles above, here's the upshot. Reality is for sale. Those with a lot of money and power can flood Google and other search engines with tidal waves of distortions, half-truths, and flat-out lies to sway public opinion. Ultimately, you choose which direction to sway (or what to filter out).

According to the Paste article, Google, internet bots, and fake news sites are being used as weapons to shape public opinion. Online spin doctoring is a global phenomenon. People, governments, and corporations are enacting master plans to manipulate the truth to serve political and economic interests. Am I paranoid? No. Should you be terrified? Well, perhaps. "Reality" as you knew it may no longer exist.

My solution is to stick to sources I trust. Being a researcher, I’m good at turning over rocks, mining various sources until I have a complete picture. While that may take more time than you’re willing to devote, DO take the time to find sources that you can rely on for information—people, media, or otherwise. Then do your best to ignore the sites, bots, trolls, and everyone else who floods your brain cells with distress and confusion.

I’m not suggesting that you only take in opinions that you agree with. Considering alternative perspectives is an essential part of being a wise consumer. What I am advocating is that you don’t waste your time and energy on garbage. If it looks like a crock and smells like a crock, it is most likely just that—a crock!

Each of us needs to wake up and deal with what is before us. While it may seem easier, and far less anxiety-provoking, to paint the elephant in the room as a friendly, rainbow-colored pachyderm, the truth is he has colossal tusks and is out to rip our worldview to shreds. So pay attention.

The best thing that I can do for myself, and this world, is to be clear about what I stand for. That means taking time each day to stop, breathe, unplug, filter out the junk that isn’t worth my time and energy, and stick to the people and sources that I trust. Give it a try.

Want more insights on how to level up your life? Check out your July horoscope, then find out why holding on to past relationships is the worst thing you can do for yourself.

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