Simeon Stylites was a holy man and ascetic who lived for thirty-seven years on a small platform atop a fifty-foot pillar. How did he end up there? After achieving fame among Christians for his feat of abstention from food and water for the forty days of Lent, Simeon tried to hide from pilgrims by fleeing into the Sheik Barakat Mountains. When they found him, he realized that he could not just put horizontal space between himself and the world; he had to remove himself by moving upward, away from it.
It is only fitting that Simeon’s pillar was in Aleppo, the Syrian city that was at the center of the Syrian Civil war from 2012 to 2016. When questioned about the troubles in Syria, former Presidential Candidate Gary Johnson asked an MSNBC interviewer, “What is Aleppo?” a question that prompted virulent criticism from talking heads about Johnson’s ignorance of foreign policy and of the news in general.
Despite how much criticism Johnson endured for his ignorance of current events, he’s not the only one who doesn’t know what’s going on: A shocking seventy-three percent of millennials do not follow the news regularly, according to a study conducted by the Pew Research Center. When Hurricane Harvey hit Houston, many millennials only read about it on their Facebook news sidebar or heard about it from their parents. A millennial blogger with the handle OG Sweetboi wrote in Medium:
Focusing only on the mainstream news platforms not only makes me more susceptible to agendas and brain wash, and a toxic daily dose of negativity that I feel I can do little about. Another reason I do not pay much attention to the news is because usually, if the topic is huge, I will find out about it. Whether at work, home, at the front of newspapers I glance at, through mutual friends, or maybe advertised somewhere.
This distrust and retreat from the mainstream media is common. Nevertheless, the supposition that if a story is big enough, everyone will hear about it simply isn’t true anymore because of how millennials use social media.
Can millennials defend this disconnection from the news? Or if they can’t defend it, can they at least explain it?
Social media outlets like Twitter and Facebook combine news and entertainment into an incessant buzz of phone vibrations and notifications. And social media doesn’t distinguish between what’s important and what’s not. The trending column on Facebook recently placed the news of North Korea’s successful nuclear test alongside the news that Kate Middleton, the Duchess of Cambridge, is pregnant with her third royal child. When Facebook users look at the headlines, they become the arbiters of their own knowledge. If a headline is too political or simply not entertaining, users can simply move on to the next one.
As well, Netflix’s growing popularity among millennials has severed them from cable television and the constant news coverage of disasters like 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina, whose images are seared into the minds of those who saw them. If the news is depressing, there are countless movies and television shows to binge-watch instead. Similarly, Twitter places the comments of prominent politicians alongside World Star Hip Hop videos and celebrity feuds. If CNN has a breaking news headline, users can shut their eyes for three seconds and simply refresh the page for more entertainment.
This merging of entertainment with news comes at a time of growing mistrust in the media. According to Pew, in 2010, four out of ten millennials believed that the national news media had a positive impact, but by 2016, only twenty-seven percent of millennials believed this. This distrust, combined with the growth of so many alternative forms of entertainment, leaves far too many young people ignorant of what’s going on in the world.
Millennials cannot afford to act like Stylites and remove themselves from the world’s events. Though it is prudent to be selective about what one consumes in the news media, total disengagement isn’t really a viable option, especially when it is justified by claims that all news is really “fake news.”
Hurricane Harvey should serve as a reminder to millennials that whatever their doubts about the news media, it can serve as an important source of information about our fellow human beings—people who can and do often need our help, as the citizens of Houston do now (and the people of Florida who are facing the wrath of Hurricane Irma likely will soon). Social media might be an efficient way to stay in touch with your friends (and humblebrag about your latest vacation), but it’s no substitute for becoming educated about what’s going on in the world. So read a newspaper; pick up a book; listen to a thoughtful podcast about the issues. Don’t just scroll through your Facebook feed and think that you’re informed.
Image: By John Henderson from Seattle, USA (20101013-00016JBH-Edit-Edit.jpg) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons