These days the fastest way to get the latest news is to check what’s trending. As it becomes more common to get updated this way, it also makes it harder to accurately assess what’s really important and worthy of our attention because trends only represent that moment in time.
The side effects of trending news include thinking the wrong things are important and mental fatigue
It’s tempting to track minute by minute news telling us what’s happening in the world and while that can be useful, we’re likely to be reading the initial, gut reaction to an event without all the facts available so early on in a news cycle. Even when we know that’s the case, it’s very easy for the brain to be tricked into placing an over emphasis on certain trends when the list is presented before them. As a quick experiment I compared the top 20 trends displayed to me on twitter to the top 20 news stories on Google. Only 6 of the trending twitter stories were related to real news stories and to add more blurriness, the 3rd top trending was only 1200 tweets compared to the 4th that had 23,000 tweets. The trending list wasn’t really a good representation of real trending news and maybe it’s designed that way — it’s a reflection of what people are talking about mixed with what the platform calculates as being interesting trends for you. But when you find yourself checking in a spare minute, it’s easy to ignore all those details. It’s not hard to build a skewed perspective on what is really important in the world.
Being fooling into believing importance via trends could not only be diverting our attention in the wrong places, it can take an emotional toll too as we experience a greater rate of reactions when following a trending news story. Living through the lifecycle of a trend means new facts come to light swinging the consensus (and our feelings) in opposite directions in the same time it takes to refresh the page. We could feel ourselves affected by every high and low at a faster pace until a mental fatigue begins to set in.
To improve we need more detail, viewing options and a lot more curation
Is there anything we can do to feed our desire of knowing what’s going on as it happens but also protecting ourselves from the bad information and mental toll trending can bring? Stopping access to trends feels like a step back in our progress. Besides that, knowing information as it happens can be crucial in some circumstances and we can’t change the fact that people will always want to seek the latest news. But are there improvements we could make to the way trending news is implemented today?
One thing we could do is provide people with more details than we do right now. By giving more information to the user and showing it prominently, we give them the ability to put it into perspective quickly. The small print is sometimes there if you really look for it but in a time constrained moment it’s easy to scan past the detail that the trend is for a specific location or is actually low in volume relatively. Making the source of the trend more obvious should be a simple addition.
We could also provide an easy option to view non personalized trends. For example, when creating a brand new twitter account without history and contacts, you will soon discover that the trend list is different from other established accounts. Making sure the user knows and can quickly access the ‘vanilla’ trends from those personalized for them, can give the user a different perspective in one click. Having more information to hand at the moment a trending list is shown, can at least offer some protection from our fast thinking, biased brains.
Finally we need more curation. We do it now but it doesn’t appear to be enough. We need more humans checking, more machine learning that’s trained by experts as opposed to the masses (relying on the masses can lead to groupthink and bias), and faster reaction by the platforms displaying the trends. Why not use journalists or qualified researchers i.e. experts, to train machine learning models that can select the most trusted news trends? Then let the user know that’s what they’re viewing.
By giving more information (and therefore power) back to users, we can go some way to solving the issues that are arising from our ever increasing appetite for breaking news.