The internet is almost without a doubt the single most important invention of the last thirty years. People are interconnected to a degree scarcely imaginable a century ago, the time it takes to contact someone across an ocean is no longer than it takes to reach somebody down the street. Additionally, news travels faster than ever before. Where an individual in the 1940s had to rely on newsreels and newspaper stories for foreign news—typically weeks out of date by the time the average citizen could obtain the stories—one nowadays simply needs to type a few key words into any search engine and the news of the world is before them. With such increased availability of news, one would imagine that Americans would be more informed as ever; regrettably, this is not the case.
It is often said that Americans have short attention-spans and the increased proliferation of news outlets has only exacerbated the problem. I am not just talking about political news, but also entertainment news. The American people are not only gluttons for food, but gluttons for information as well. But the typical American obtains a shallow pool of information rather than the deep pool which should be preferred.
For a span of roughly six weeks, beginning in early March 2012, social media was abuzz with the “Kony 2012” movement. This was embodied by countless “likes”, “shares”, “retweets”, “reblogs”, and just about every other form of passing some story on through Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, and Reddit. Self-righteous individuals all across America believed that they were now “informed” on the goings on in the African continent and that by sharing the Kony 2012 video they were making a difference.
However it is doubtful that even fifty-percent of those individuals could find Uganda on a map, let alone possess even a shred of understanding regarding the Ugandan crisis. Watching a short video and passing it along satiated the American attention-span in a way which actually reading news reports from Uganda could never do; although this supposes that most people even watched the thirty-minute video. It is likely that even this was too much of a time commitment for most people, meaning they simply passed along the Kony 2012 tagline without even comprehending what it meant.
The Kony 2012 incident is not atypical, although by some estimates it is a nobler response than other cases of American disregard for complex news stories. A good example is more recent than Kony, it in fact has been in the news (the New York Times at least) every day for the past week. I refer to the garment factory fires in Karachi, Pakistan and in Dhaka, Bangladesh.
These two fires, only the latest in a string of deadly factory fires, make the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, which virtually created factory safety standards in America, look like a burning trash can. Over three hundred people died in Karachi with another hundred and fifteen dying in Dhaka. In fact, since 2006, over five hundred Bangladeshis have died from factory fires. Where is the outrage for the Bangladeshis and Pakistanis? One could be tempted to argue that Americans simply do not care about brown-people dying, but the Kony case shows that such a simple assertion is not necessarily true.
Most Americans are likely unaware of these fires, but the cause of this ignorance is not easily discovered. It has features similar to Kony and yet has not received a tenth of the attention on social media which that pathetic campaign garnered. Just as the atrocities behind the Kony video were easily avoidable, so too were the fires. None of the factories employed even the most basic fire prevention safeguards which are present in Western factories. Additionally, the factory fire incidents should, in theory, be more vital to bleeding-heart, wannabe internet activists in America because the clothes made by these factories are sold in American Wal-Mart, Gap, and H&M stores. While by no means am I denying the severity of the children soldier issue, but if you are wearing a Wal-Mart, Gap, or H&M article of clothing right now, there is a fair chance the individual who made that item is dead.
One would think, for the reasons stated above, that the factory fires would have as much, if not more, of an internet, social media presence as Kony did, and yet this is not the case. But why? While the Kony campaign had a tangible video, it is unlikely most of the “sharers” on Facebook and Twitter actually took the time to watch it. Instead, I blame the subject matter itself. War is a much more tangible wrong than the societal exploitation of developing nations employed by Western corporations. But this of course raises another problem: the issue of America’s near boundless war in the Middle East.
The war in Iraq is over, as most people likely know. The war in Afghanistan is drawing to a close, but that does not mean it is over. Lacking a television, I cannot know how much air time such stories receive, but I can be certain of the coverage certain stories receive on the internet. No more than three days ago, an American doctor was captured by extremists an Afghanistan. A Navy SEAL team was sent in to rescue him and they succeeded, but at the cost of the life of an American serviceman. This story received little coverage on Yahoo, the New York Times, and FoxNews.com.
Additionally, drone strikes have become so commonplace that they barely register on the collective consciousness of the American people. The amount of times I have heard fellow students discussing news and saying “Oh, I only read the headline” is mindbogglingly high. This suggests a few things. One, that the individual assumes he or she knows the body material of the story, which in a case such as a drone strike is the more likely explanation. Drone strikes and the news reports covering them are often brief, with simply a short description of the target and a list of known (or believed) casualties. The other is that the attention-span does not wish to be bothered to read an entire article.
The most probable culprit behind this shortening of the attention-span is in fact the vast array of coverage the internet provides which should be making more informed individuals, not less informed ones. The portion of individuals who only read headlines can create a pool of knowledge which is miles long; although the natural defect is that headline-knowledge is inherently limited. Thus the pool, which may be miles long, is never more than a few inches deep. Those who actually read the news articles, however, develop a pool which is much deeper and richer with information, and often does not necessarily suffer in terms of scope. However, the vast array of coverage the internet grants us is not only limiting our knowledge due to headline-reading, but also due to distractions. Who can be bothered to read about how the fiscal ditch will increase the tax burden on the middle class when they can read about who Lindsey Lohan is whoring herself out to these days?
Entertainment news, even if one reads every word of the article, adds drops to the knowledge pool. Even the longest of features on George Clooney’s new mansion is such shallow knowledge that one would benefit more from reading the nutritional information on a bottle of water. This is not to say that one should never consume entertainment news; simply that it should be taken in at a much smaller volume than exhibited by most people.
The internet is a blessing. The whole world is calling out, waiting to be heard and understood; too bad nobody is listening.