The Internet Is a Toxic Hellscape—But We Can Fix It

This is an argument against nihilism.

It begins with me lying on the floor of my office before class. I’ve brought in an old yoga mat and two one-pound packages of rice, which I’ve wrapped in a canvas Trader Joe’s bag and placed on my chest. I’m taking slow breaths, preparing myself under my makeshift weighted blanket to have yet another overwhelming conversation with students about this unit’s topic, “Information Disorder, or, the Mess We’re In.”

“Mess” is an understatement. We’re barely a month into 2020, and there have already been too many contenders for its most dear-god moment. The White House tweeting a “first snow of the year!” picture on an unseasonably, unnervingly warm winter’s day. Facebook banning misleading manipulated media except in cases of satire, parody, or when a video is edited to omit or change the order of words: a policy best described as a slice of Swiss cheese that’s mostly holes. Donald Trump’s defense lawyers showcasing a bizarre-o world curio cabinet of alternative impeachment facts.

These stories aren’t standalones; they emerge from much deeper problems. A White House that consistently swipes left on basic facts. An attention-economy hellscape in which the largest social platform in the world has all but thrown a prom for manipulators and bigots. A far-right propaganda machine built atop a gaslight factory.

Even more distressingly, none of this is reflective of a broken media ecosystem. It reflects, instead, a media ecosystem that’s working exactly as designed.

The consequences are not abstractions, and they’re not restricted to a handful of researchers or critics. They are sweeping and systemic. And discussions of this information landscape are always just a click away from discussions of the mental health of citizens who are forced to wade through the deluge. Unsure where to look or whom to trust, many question whether paying attention is even worth their time—an outcome that plays right into manipulators’ hands. Flood the zone with shit and people will run away screaming. That’s how you kill a democracy.

All the chaos, all the confusion, all the gloomy foreboding is what prompted me to bring my self-care props to campus. I needed them.

This is new for me. I’ve worked in the academic field of what I variously call “the hell” or “everything that’s terrible” since 2008, when I began researching subcultural trolls on and around 4chan. The issues I identified way back then—particularly the amplification feedback loops that exist between media manipulators and mainstream journalists—are the same ones I talk about in class in 2020. I have a strong stomach for chaos and confusion and foreboding. And yet I’m struggling.

As an example, my work has long required me to speak with reporters about online harassment, manipulation, and harm. No reporter has ever called me for happy reasons; for the past 10 years, they’ve only been in touch when something bad has happened. When someone has been attacked or endangered; when a vulnerable group has been targeted; when hoaxes and falsehoods rage. These conversations were distressing, but I handled it OK. That was my job.

Now when I talk to reporters—and I still talk to reporters constantly—I have panic attacks. They creep up well before the call begins, and last the entire interview. My heart races and I start to sweat. I get shaky and lightheaded. My stomach churns. (Just writing about it now is triggering the symptoms.) The reporter is almost always right there with me, each of us absorbing the other’s anxiety.

By the end of the call, we end up in the same familiar place: bone-deep weariness as we are confronted, once more, with the enormity of the challenges before us, and with the smallness we feel in the face of them. Either one of us will make a joke like, “Well, it was great talking to you,” and we both laugh the laugh that’s actually crying; or else the reporter apologizes for having to talk under such terrible circumstances, and then we both go quiet because what more is there to say. After the call ends, it can take me hours to bounce back, sometimes the whole day. I’ll randomly burst into tears, and there’s a strange feeling of detachment that lingers, like my body isn’t really where I am. I measure the intensity of the call in terms of how many yogas with Adrienne it takes me before I’m able to reintegrate.

It’s worse—no, weirder—in my classroom. During lectures and class discussions, I have the same intense stress responses as I do with journalists—with the added pressure to create an inclusive space for all students across race, gender identity, ability, and, yes, ideology. This means finding a balance between encouraging students to express themselves and not allowing the speech of some to silence or dehumanize others—an especially critical task given the recent racist attacks on Syracuse University’s campus. It’s easy enough to enact a no-Nazis rule; my university, like most, prohibits outright harassment and discrimination. It’s the in-between stuff—the far-right euphemism, the radicalization that doesn’t realize it’s been radicalized, the provocation for provocation’s sake—that poses the greatest challenge. Or at least it could, making the mere threat of these things its own classroom stressor.

I tiptoe along the line between cultivating free expression and foregrounding social justice all semester, my worries unfolding in real time as I scan my students’ responses to discussions of asymmetric polarization, institutional gaslighting, MAGA conspiracy theories, and myriad other political flashpoints. Am I doing all I can to affirm my students of color? Am I doing all I can to meet my white students where they are? Do my liberal students feel seen and heard? Do my conservative students? Am I editorializing too much? Am I editorializing enough? By the time class is over, I’m often shaken. Sometimes I feel like I’ve been hit by a bus.

There’s a flip side to all that anxiety, however; the story doesn’t end on a scene of me splayed out on my office floor, covered in bags of rice. That’s just the opening shot. Because, guess what: The same things that give me panic, that quite literally lay me out, also give me hope. They’re the same things that inspire me to open my eyes, stand up, and tell nihilism to go fuck itself.

Journalists’ anxiety, for example, and all the ways it feeds into my own, is reassuring too. Last year, I identified that anxiety as the most heartening trend of 2019. The emotional distress caused by so much anxiety is difficult, of course, and I’m sorry for it. But its presence speaks to the news media’s willingness—finally—to take seriously the questions that have been waived off for far too long. When I first started this work, the reporters I spoke to—and certainly their editors—were resistant to the idea that their reporting played any role whatsoever in amplifying and incentivizing harm online. (It did.) The pervasive assumption, instead, was that light would disinfect the ugliness, that all we needed to do to correct mis- and disinformation was to say more facts about it.

These tenets of journalism remain entrenched in subtle and explicit ways across many newsrooms. Some reporters will never let them go. But I’ve found that more and more people, at more and more publications, have been willing to look around, see all the devastation, and ask: If everything we believe about journalism is true, then why has none of it been working? The healthy response to this question is anxiety; paradigms hurt when they shift.

Here I’m reminded of something an undergrad philosophy professor at Humboldt State University once said. (I decided to become a philosophy major because of him.) Speaking to all the assumptions we’d be challenging in the class—about truth, about the mind, about existence—he explained that any student who started seeing a therapist during the semester would be given an automatic A in the course. For years I thought he was joking.

I don’t make this bargain with my own students. For one thing, I wouldn’t want them to think that I was joking. For another, I wouldn’t want to suggest that the kind of anxiety I’m describing is something in need of fixing, something negative, an albatross cursing your ship. The kind of anxiety I’m describing is the north star guiding ships onward. At least it can be, when the worry itself is reframed and harnessed toward the common good. Because what is it, other than an awareness of consequence and connection? What is it, other than the recognition that things should be different? There is no yearning for a better world when there are no guiding stars. They are a necessary precondition for meaningful change. That’s what gets left out of almost every story about anxiety in the Trump era. It’s the shadow side of hope.


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Nihilism feeds into that shadow side, obscuring the stars with thick, gloomy clouds. It keeps conversations small by keeping visibility low. Lol nothing matters is a trick of those clouds. The more you zoom out above them, the more you’re able to see how this connects with that, and how that is embedded within this. Seeing those connections—and how your own actions fit within the firmament—obliterates the notion that nothing matters. So much matters, to so many people. The result of that awareness is that your heart aches in new ways. But it also grows in new ways, fortified by the knowledge that we are, truly, in this together.

Zooming above the clouds here means asking enormous questions. One of the most pressing is why so many people are just now getting around to addressing these concerns. Black women in particular have been raising the alarm about the threats posed by mis- and disinformation for years, and years, and years. For just as long, most journalists and technologists and everyday people have not been looking—because they haven’t needed to. They could crane their necks so the only stars they saw were the white ones. That perspective needs to be interrogated, not merely for what it shows about diversity within journalism and the technology sector, but also as a personal inventory of what so many missed. Here’s my entry.

Other questions loom just as large. It’s easy to make all kinds of faith-based assumptions about the value of unfettered speech, the inherent rationality of the marketplace of ideas, and the pro-democratic outcomes of capitalism—provided that those systems have always worked for you. The higher up you go, the clearer it becomes that these ideals aren’t solutions to information disorder. They’re causes of it.

Asking these kinds of questions isn’t enough to change the information ecosystem. But we can’t change the information ecosystem until we start asking them—and the clock is ticking. It’s not just a countdown to Tuesday, November 3, 2020. That storm has already made landfall, and will continue strengthening as election primaries collide with (even more) targeted information warfare. Wherever we find ourselves on November 4, 2020, those waves will continue crashing. This column, called Information Ecology, will explore the structural changes necessary for weathering future storms, as well as what each of us can do in our own networks to start helping right now. The name reflects environmentalist Barry Commoner’s assertion that everything in nature is connected to everything else. The same rule holds online: Big things and small things are fundamentally entwined. Journalism, algorithms, bad actors, influencers, the everyday actions of everyday folks—each feeds into and is fed by all the rest. There are no wholly separate things.

How we stay healthy—or perhaps more ambitiously, how we become healthy in such a densely interconnected landscape—will be a recurring conversation. (It’s something I’m certainly working on in my own life.) Information disorder is a mental health issue as much as a civic participation issue. We must remain resolved in the face of great uncertainty, follow our north star, and avoid easy retreat into the numbing embrace of nihilism, along with its cousins, irony and cynicism. That comes at a cost: A primary task in the fight against information disorder is finding better ways to bear that cost, both individually and collectively. Democracy depends on it.

We stand beneath a vast, mysterious sky. Are there easy answers to any of this? No. Will the journey be perilous? Yes. Can we make it? Unknown, but we owe it to each other to try. We owe it to each other to heed Clarissa Estés’ call not to lose heart in shadowy times like these. “Look out over the prow,” Estés writes. “There are millions of boats of righteous souls on the waters with you.” The task isn’t to fix the entire world all at once; that isn’t possible. Nor is it possible to avoid the crashing waves. At times there will be troughs. At times there will be freefall. Meaningful change is still possible, Estés says, as “an accumulation of acts, adding, adding to, adding more, continuing.” We invite it when we stretch out to mend the part of the world within our reach. We invite it when we do what small, calm things we can to shine light from our own decks, and draw strength from the lights of others. Most important of all, we invite it when we cast our eyes starward and keep going. For Estés, this comes with an existential reminder. “When a great ship is in harbor and moored, it is safe, there can be no doubt,” she concedes. “But that is not what great ships are built for.”

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