The Age of Doom
Social media has convinced us that everything is awful all the time
Will Stancil, over the last few months, has found himself as the main character of a long running fight on Twitter. He is in a Sisyphean struggle to convince people that the US economy - where virtually all economic indicators are strong, are trending in a positive direction, and are significantly better than peer countries - is in fact a good economy. And people are furious that he believes the economy is good. He gets dozens of incandescently irate replies to each post, berating him for this belief.
But he’s not wrong. The US economy is doing great by any objective measure right now. The unemployment rate is at historic lows. Job growth is strong. Real GDP and real wages1 are growing. And the fastest growth is happening at the lower end of incomes, which means inequality is shrinking. The stock market is up. Inflation, which admittedly has been high for several years, is now back down near the target of 2%. You can keep looking for a ‘but actually’ statistic that looks bad, but unless you reach for something obscure and weird you’re not going to find it. Things are just good!
If you look at the chart below, not only is everything doing pretty great, it’s also all moved in a positive direction from 2019 (with the pre-COVID economy as the fair comparison point).
And yet virtually nobody believes this. The Federal Reserve’s consumer sentiment tracker shows that confidence in the economy has fallen off a cliff. Sentiment is as low as it was in the depths of the Great Recession in 2009. Polling shows that people are even more pessimistic today than they were in August 2020, when huge chunks of the economy were literally shut down because of the pandemic.
Everything is great, but nobody believes it. What the hell is going on here?
The Ubiquity of Doom
This isn’t just a story about how people view the economy.
Let’s think about climate change. It’s a serious problem, and we have a lot of work to do in order to mitigate the harms that it will cause. But for a huge number of young people climate change isn’t an issue that’s serious but solvable - it’s the end of human civilization. According a survey from The Lancet, more than half of young people think ‘humanity is doomed’ due to climate change. The leaders of the young climate movement are posting videos titled Advice To Young People As They Face Annihilation.
Climate science does not support the idea that humanity is doomed or facing ‘annihilation’. But many people, especially young people, believe it anyway.
Or consider the broader fight for civil rights. Viewed over the timespan of decades, LGBT rights and rights for racial minorities have made tremendous progress. You could certainly argue there’s more work to do, but it seems undeniable that things have improved compared to previous generations.
Which makes posts like this one confusing:
The context, briefly: Katya is a famous drag queen who voices pro-Palestinian positions on social media. In response, people have pointed out that gay people/drag queens are systematically killed in Gaza.
Without stepping into that particular fight - it’s very curious that Katya’s response isn’t to defend Gaza, but to insist that everywhere else is also terrible. What about Medford, Malden, or Marlborough Massachusetts? Well, I would gently point out that Massachusetts has an openly lesbian governor. Gay people can get married in Massachusetts, LGBT people have full civil rights, and there are a multitude of state laws specifically aimed at protecting those rights.
Whatever you think of the larger Israeli/Palestinian conflict, LGBT people in Gaza are not similarly protected. But Katya believes it’s a valid comparison, and seems maximally negative on the state of LGBT status in America.
There more you look, the more you will see this everywhere. Perceptions of race relations are at the lowest point in decades, and people think racism is getting worse, not better from generation to generation. Satisfaction with women’s treatment in society is also at a multi-decade low, despite the gender wage gap narrowing during that time. Even when crime goes down, people seem to believe it’s getting worse.
As a society, we’re in our Doom Era. We’re disaster-pilled and fear-maxxing. We’re convinced that everything sucks, everything is getting worse, we’re all screwed, and the whole world is headed for economic collapse before we all die. Why?
Social Media Doom Loops
To get postmodern for a second: many of the things we believe are socially constructed.
‘Socially constructed’ is a fancy way of saying that you believe of a lot of things you haven’t directly verified because someone or something you trust told you so. If Wikipedia says the capital of Slovenia is Ljubljana2, you’ll believe it despite the fact that ‘Ljubljana’ looks like a ChatGPT hallucination and you weren’t even sure Slovenia was a real country an hour ago. You’ve never been to Ljubljana to verify, but you believe it anyways. For most things, this is fine.
But many of our beliefs are socially constructed from less reliable sources. And that’s where the trouble begins.
It’s not exactly groundbreaking to point out that social media is chock-full of misinformation. While mainstream media often gets a bad rap (sometimes deservedly so), they don’t come anywhere close to the level of outright nonsense and insanity you find on social media. Imagine someone at the New York Times trying to claim that gay people are treated equivalently in Gaza and Massachusetts. That wouldn’t make it past a fact-checker, but even if it did there would immediately be a scandal where people got reprimanded or fired.
On social media, that doesn’t happen. Katya’s post was liked by more than 140,000 people and seen by more than ten million, and will only make her more famous and give her a bigger platform. The incentives on social media are such that facts rarely matter.
Subscribe to Infinite Scroll for more analysis of what’s happening on the social internet
Generations ago, there were only three television channels and your city had two or three major newspapers. Censorship was heavy and editorial control was extremely tight. The media - whether television, movies, newspapers, books or radio - was controlled by a set of elite gatekeepers. These organizations cared a lot about their prestige, and had fairly stringent quality control. They weren’t perfect, but there was a genuine effort to focus on truth, hard facts and clear analysis. Their incentives were to get things right.
That landscape changed over time. Television got more and more channels. Technology got better, and independent publishing got easier. The internet revolutionized media. If you fast-forward to today we live in a world where anyone can costlessly publish anything to millions of strangers all over the world. There are no gatekeepers and no quality control. And the incentives aren’t for truth, but for virality and emotional impact.
That’s why misinformation flourishes so easily on social media. Facts take time to research and verify. They often require careful analysis to understand. And honest reporting can be frustratingly nuanced, lacking any sort of definitive narrative. False information can be made up in an instant. It’s easy to understand, because there’s rarely any nuance. It tells a clear story about what you should believe. And because of that, misinformation can be terrifyingly viral. Repeat the mantra: A lie can make it halfway around the world while the truth is still tying its shoes.
That social media landscape is where most beliefs about the economy and the world are socially constructed today - especially for young people. Teens get the news from social media far more than from the mainstream media, and research shows that they’re more likely to get ‘informed’ by what influencers and their friends are posting than traditional sources. The number of people who say they get news from TikTok is skyrocketing.
And what kind of views are they hearing from those friends and influencers? That the world is doomed. That the economy is terrible. That gay people are treated the same in Massachusetts are they are in Gaza. Katya isn’t a silly example picked from nowhere - she has more than a million followers. She, in a very real way, acts as the front page of the New York Times for a lot of her fans.
The Politics of Social Media Doom
The corollary of ‘Lies are more viral than truth’ is ‘Bad news is more viral than good news’. There’s a reason they call it doomscrolling instead of joyscrolling.
This has always been the case in media to some extent. ‘If it bleeds it leads’ has been a staple of news coverage for generations, and even prestigious newspapers aren’t immune to the phenomenon. But those institutions also had the incentive to be factually correct about what they were reporting - they could emphasize the negative, but they couldn’t very well make it up entirely.3 Getting things wrong would be at minimum embarrassing and at worst a scandal that got you fired.
On social media, the incentives are reversed. Virality is everything, and you tell me which of these messages is more inherently viral:
“The planet is fucking burning. Greed has destroyed our ecosystems and ruined the future. Everything’s collapsing and you want to pretend it’s not. We need a revolution and not some chickenshit tax policy change.”
“Climate change is a serious problem and will hurt many people. But if we invest in the right tech, tax carbon, cooperate, and act quickly, we can limit the damage and there’s no reason to think the world will end.”
The second quote is accurate, fair, and will get maybe seven likes as the first quote gets shared by hundreds of celebrities who comment ‘So true’. It’s more emotionally resonant, even though it’s not as accurate.
This tendency towards the negative is especially pronounced in politics. If you’ve been reading this blog you know that the social internet structurally encourages extremism. And one of the core characteristics of extreme political views is that they need to portray the current world as unbearable. Nobody shows up to revolutions when things are going well - it’s only when everything is terrible that extreme views flourish.
The leftist version of this bemoans the state of the world, saying that capitalism and racism and bigotry have made the world a horrifying and unlivable place (and so we need a socialist revolution). The rightist version says that immigrants and crime and degeneracy have pushed society to the brink of collapse (and so we need a fascist strongman). Both groups gain from exaggerating the negative in society and denying that anything good exists.
They’ve even tailored their methods of speech and their aesthetics in service of spreading doom. Progressive speech has evolved into an almost parodic form of therapy-speak, where everything is discussed through lenses of trauma, oppression and victimization. Ugh, Capitalism, they repeatedly exclaim. Conservatives, meanwhile, are obsessed with the past in everything from architectural aesthetics to family structure. They promote an idyllic view of history where everyone was happy and everything was pure - before modernity, foreigners and immorality ruined the world. The one thing these groups agree on is the terrible state of society - just from entirely opposite directions.
This blog, all things considered, is pretty small and unimportant. I don’t know if this essay will get any traction, but a prediction if it does: there will be furious reactions from these camps online. Those reactions will be heavy on emotion and light on any specific factual disagreement. People really don’t like having their worldviews popped, and that’s what is required if we’re going to break through social media doom loops.
There are a few people doggedly fighting the good fight. Will Stancil, through his sheer tenacity and refusal to shut up, may be single-handedly forcing people to acknowledge the economy is actually pretty good. There are niches where positive-vibes influencers can share graphs about how poverty is falling or clean energy is booming. But these influencers aren’t shared as widely as the ones proclaiming that everything is terrible, and we can see in the data that people are getting more and more negative over time.
Maybe this is just a structural part of how social media works. If I knew how to ensure that positive news goes as viral as negative news, I’d be screaming it from the rooftops. But I’m not sure there is a way. Society is going to keep shifting further from mainstream news and more towards social media. The share of people getting news from Tiktok influencers is only going to increase. And the incentives to go viral will ensure that doom narratives continue to flourish.
Even if we can’t stop it, we should at least notice the patterns. We’re in the age of doom, where even if everything is great nobody’s happy.
Which means adjusted for inflation
Pronounced loo-blee-ah-nuh. Fun!
Tabloids and the yellow press could just make it up entirely, mainstream newspapers and television programs couldn’t - but diving into the history of tabloids is a bit outside the scope here.