News avoidance is a global phenomenon that affects millions of people around the world. Despite their conscious refusal to consume media content, many argue that the most important news still finds them. Researchers at the HSE Laboratory for Studies in Economic Sociology have studied how people perceive the ‘news-finds-me’ effect. The results of the study were published in the Bulletin of Moscow University.
The number of people avoiding the news is increasing all over the world. In Russia, almost 41% of the population can be considered ‘avoiders’. While many people do not consume news either due to a preference for entertainment content or a lack of time, there are those who deliberately restrict their viewing. Some do this to avoid information overload, while others want to protect themselves from content that causes negative emotions in order to maintain their emotional well-being.
Most scientists believe that it is almost impossible to isolate oneself from the news in the modern world. The spread of social media has created a ‘news-finds-me’ effect. Without consuming news content purposefully, people nevertheless encounter it online or when communicating with others.
Anastasia Kazun, Senior Research Fellow at the Laboratory for Studies in Economic Sociology, conducted a qualitative study to find out how people perceive the ‘news-finds-me’ effect. Together with HSE students, she collected and analysed 44 interviews with people who avoid news. The youngest participant was 18 years old, while the oldest was 81 years old. There were more young people and women among the respondents, as previous studies have shown that avoiding news is more typical for them.
We didn’t ask the participants direct questions about whether they experience situations when the news finds them. Therefore, all conclusions are made on the basis of answers to questions about the reasons and experience of refusing news, its impact on social relations, the assessment of informants’ awareness of the agenda and competence in political and economic issues, as well as factors that allow them to feel informed.
The ‘news-finds-me’ concept is used primarily to describe casual consumption of news online, but the researcher managed to identify a wider range of news sources for people who deliberately avoid them: offline social contacts, online social contacts, forced consumption of traditional media and recommendation algorithms.
Getting news from family members, friends, colleagues and acquaintances is perceived by some respondents as an inevitability. While you can try to isolate yourself from media content, avoiding discussions of the news with loved ones is interpreted as a threat to the relationship. At the same time, discussions of current events in the social environment seem to be a sufficient source of information. This makes it less relevant to return to the active consumption of news.
In many ways, this is also true for online communication. However, unlike face-to-face communication, social media allows you to ignore some messages without fear of damaging social relationships.
Avoiding news on social media is complicated by unpredictable content posted by friends and acquaintances, while users are not yet able to filter by topics and news. At the same time, a complete refusal to use social networks may be too radical and impractical for those whose work or studies require active online communication. News also gets into users' feeds via bloggers and news or advertising aggregators.
People who avoid news still encounter it thanks to a variety of complementary sources of information. Due to the variety of channels through which news spreads, the recipient will almost inevitably learn about it, at least superficially.
The “news-finds-me” effect makes the rejection of information content more comfortable, because it makes people feel that they remain aware of the main events. Fears of missing something important are greatly reduced, and since the news is always there, regardless of our intention to see it, there is no need to search and scrutinise it yourself.
As a result, content that finds people online is perceived as the most significant. Recipients have a feeling that algorithms and subscriptions on social media isolate them from unnecessary and unreliable information, since the content is broadcast by someone from their social environment. A conscious reduction of news consumption or its total rejection significantly saves people's emotional, time and cognitive resources. In addition, the ‘news-finds-me’ effect legitimises their avoidance, reducing the sense of guilt for not keeping up with the news sufficiently.
However, there are also negative assessments of this effect. For some people, the news is extremely traumatic and they would like to reduce their consumption to a minimum. When the news finds them, they are unable to successfully avoid such negative content.
The respondents were particularly critical of the inability to control information flows. Separate social networks and information resources allow them to manage the content that they receive. However, recommendation algorithms and friend networks are outside their control. Viewing a piece of interesting news leads to a recommendation of a large number of messages with similar content, which may not be sought after but will continue to ‘haunt’ the user.
Thus, the role of the ‘news-finds-me’ effect is mixed. Some people who avoid news may evaluate it positively, since accidental consumption of information allows them to maintain a certain level of awareness without making an effort to do so, and legitimises their refusal to intentionally watch the news, while others experience stress due to the inability to completely protect themselves from traumatic content.
People who avoid news are aware of the impossibility of completely isolating themselves from information about current events. They may not feel uninformed, because they believe that the most important news will find them. However, when people encounter news by accident, they may not get the full picture of events. Sometimes it's just rumours or news with “clickbait” headlines that can be misleading. Plus, this way of obtaining information does not allow users to critically approach sources, so people find it easier to believe fake news. Simply put, such “random” news is often incomplete or distorted. More research is needed to understand how much this affects how we perceive the world. Taking into account the fact that more and more people are trying to avoid news, this issue is becoming really relevant.