The average American watches 30 hours of television or recorded programing each week. He or she spends 16 hours of the week dedicated exclusively to social media. Add these numbers to the hours spent listening to radio, downloaded music, YouTube, and other forms of communication, and Americans spend a whopping 85 hours a week consuming media.
I’m not a mathematician (check my math), but looking at these numbers, it appears that we are using half of each year – literally – absorbing information. And much of this information is slanted, partial, and unequivocally weaponized. Disinformation. Bots. Trolls. Fake news. These words now find common use in the American lexicon.
While the dissemination of so much propaganda is more epidemic and sinister than ever, it is nothing new. Most communication is, and always has been, biased. It is not “fair and balanced.” It has an angle, and is working that angle to a razor-sharp edge.
This can have a negative, destructive effect by scapegoating entire groups of people, inciting fear, sowing discord, or pitching neighbors against each other. But it can also be positive and helpful: “Buckle your seatbelt. Don’t text and drive. We are better together.”
By word, image, and action, these different messages are intended to make the reader, listener, or watcher believe or behave a certain way: “Think like this. Buy that. Follow this path. Do that.” It can be subtle or dramatic, but it always there, grinding away for hearts and minds.
Thus, media acts as a pharmaceutical. It has the power to help and heal, producing wholeness. And of course, it has the power to harm and destroy, resulting in ruin. The type and dosage that one persistently consumes, will have a dramatic impact, and as noted above, our current dosage is massive in scope and reach.
Maybe this is why Thomas Merton quipped, “Monastics, hippies, and poets are deliberately irrelevant.” His point being, a purposeful, seeking, spiritual person must unplug from the noise. He or she must disconnect from the surrounding chaos in order to connect with self, spirit, and God. In the words of the Apostle Paul, “Do not be conformed to the behavior and customs of this world, but be transformed by renewing your mind.”
There can be no renewal of the mind when we attend a church, mosque, or synagogue for a single hour on a weekend, while simultaneously being discipled by 30 hours of weekly cable news programming. Nor will a weekly, spiritual pep-talk, or a ten-minute morning devotion of positive propaganda, overcome the voracious, intentional, algorithmically designed agenda that vies for your soul.
My counsel is to regularly turn off and tune out. Silence the television. Put away the iPhone. Disable all those notifications. And take a good dose of healthiness by “fixing your thoughts on what is true, honorable, right, pure, lovely, and admirable. Think about things that are excellent and worthy of praise.” You may be less informed as a result, but it could save your soul.