Dave Pell has been writing about news, technology, and media since 1999. He writes NextDraft, a newsletter offering a quick and entertaining look at the day’s most fascinating news. He has been investing in and advising startups since the earliest days of the internet, and is a graduate of both UC Berkeley and the Harvard Graduate School of Education.
Below, Dave shares 5 key insights from his new book, Please Scream Inside Your Heart: Breaking News and Nervous Breakdowns in the Year that Wouldn’t End. Listen to the audio version—read by Dave himself—in the Next Big Idea App.
1. You are not Batman.
I have to start with a confession: I’m a news addict. I compulsively check the news almost every waking hour. Each morning when I wake up, I open up 75 news sites, and from that tsunami of incoming information, I pluck out the 10 most fascinating news items of the day. I write up my version of those news stories with links to the full versions, put it all into a newsletter, and send it out to about 130,000 subscribers. I’ve been doing this for years—and I’ve been news-obsessed since long before then.
What I discovered in 2020 is that I wasn’t the only one who had this obsession. As the news became something that was everywhere—from the Black Lives Matter marchers taking to the streets, to the pandemic, to the lead-up to the craziest election of my lifetime—everybody was becoming more like me in the worst possible way. Friends of mine that had had no interest in the news for decades were as obsessed as I was in 2020. And I realized that people’s relationship with the news had gotten out of hand.
I like to remind people that the first job of a media company is to convince you of the inherent value of media. Yes, news is worth knowing, and some stories are required to make you part of a well-informed republic. But the idea that you have to be sitting in front of your computer or television and watching 24-hour news, getting moment-by-moment updates with stories that have nothing to do with your day-to-day life, is a marketing invention that is not necessarily to your benefit.
“Those news notifications can wait. Some of it can wait until later, and like many things on the internet, a lot of it can wait until never.”
The media has recently hammered Facebook, but what they’re hammering Facebook for is the same thing that the news media has been doing to us for the last several years: trying to get our engagement, keep our engagement, and keep us coming back to their sites. Yes, news is more important than many other forms of entertainment, but remember that in World War II, we beat fascism with just one newspaper landing on our stoop a day—and I think we can do it again without being online 24/7.
Do we start by turning off the news completely? No, let’s just start with baby steps. For example, turn off your news notifications. There’s absolutely no reason to get notifications of events taking place around the world while you’re at your kid’s soccer game, in line at the bank, or waiting for your coffee. If there’s a mudslide in Peru, or Joe Manchin said something in the Senate, or a shooting took place 2,500 miles away, you don’t need to be notified of it immediately. In fact, you don’t need to be notified of anything that’s more than about 18 feet from where you are right now. You’re not Batman—you won’t see the Bat Signal and then go make a difference in these stories. And even Batman only covered Gotham, while news notifications are asking you to cover the world.
So those news notifications can wait. Some of it can wait until later, and like many things on the internet, a lot of it can wait until never.
2. The first victims of a lie are those who believe it.
The morning after Donald Trump defeated Hillary Clinton in the 2016 presidential election, my mom called me. She was upset, and so was I—but after we discussed our disappointment, my mom said something important: “Donald Trump won the election fair and square, and he deserves the chance to lead.” It was similar to what Hillary Clinton said in her concession speech.
But what if she didn’t? What if Hillary had argued that the election was stolen, and so did Barack Obama, John Kerry, Joe Biden, Kamala Harris, and more? What if every news organization you trusted, every voice you listened to, from Rachel Maddow to Lawrence O’Donnell, agreed that the election had been stolen, and that you had to fight for a valid election result?
“It’s worth considering, how would it be different if everybody we trusted told us the election had been stolen?”
A couple of days after the 2016 election, I was in a room with a bunch of people like me, liberal Democrats who were upset with the result. We talked about different ways that we could resist, legal avenues we could use to keep Trump’s movement from taking over certain laws that we really cared about. And then after a few minutes, somebody brought up the idea of the electors. Maybe certain electors could be convinced to vote differently from the people in their districts, differently from the people they represented.
Well, I argued that that would be crazy, because we would be overthrowing an election. We would be overthrowing democracy. After all, he won fair and square. And of course, over time, everybody in the room agreed with that position, and we moved on. But again, what if that idea was supported by every single politician we trusted?
That’s basically what’s happened in the GOP following the Trump-Biden election. Is there a chance that anybody in that room might fight with everything they had to protect their democracy, as they were told by their leaders to do? Is there a chance that anybody in that room would have ended up on the steps of the Capitol, when things got out of hand on January 6th? I’m not giving any excuses for the people who committed the insurrection and desecrated our Capitol—but it’s worth considering, how would it be different if everybody we trusted told us the election had been stolen? Because that’s basically what happened.
3. Why lies travel faster than the truth.
In the earliest days of the internet, I was building sites and investing in startups, and back then, we believed that we were building something good. Yes, people talked about making billions of dollars, but we were also convinced that we were creating a tool that would make it difficult for genocidal maniacs or evil-doers to get away with things, because now there would be transparency. In a way, the internet would become this global truth machine.
Well, we couldn’t have been more wrong. Why were we so wrong? Why did we end up building the exact opposite of what we thought we were building?
There are two key reasons for that, and one is simple: We forgot that there would be people on the other side of the freedom and truth aisle who were trying to push lies and hate, and use the internet as a tool to gain control of others. We didn’t consider that they were also planning on ways to use these same tools for evil purposes.
“Reality is a problem when you’re trying to go viral.”
But there’s something else that happened, something we’ve learned all too well in the last few years: On the internet, lies travel much faster than the truth. Why is that? Well, reality is a huge disadvantage on social media. When you are trying to tell the truth, you’re limited to a certain set of facts. But when you’re creating a lie, you can test your message over and over with thousands of people, hone that message and create the exact thing that people want to hear—a message that feels good to receive because it feeds your confirmation bias, and a message that feels like something you want to share, because it’s going to get a lot of likes.
The most clear example that we saw in the Trump years was birtherism. Donald Trump tried a ton of different messages on Twitter. Just like the rest of us, he was trying to see which kind of tweet and which kind of message would catch on, to get those sweet hits of dopamine. So he tested thousands of tweets, and the one that caught on was the one that questioned Barack Obama’s birth certificate. He didn’t care about that issue in particular—it’s just the message that caught on. Then he honed it and kept pushing it and pushing it. That’s the way lies work on the internet; when you’re unbridled by any sense of reality or truth, you can create the perfect message. In fact, reality is a problem when you’re trying to go viral.
4. Why your hate is counterproductive—and where it might be coming from.
I’ve never hated anybody as much as I hate the caricature of a Trump voter that I see in the media, and I’m guessing that the feeling is mutual. How did we get to this point where we don’t just have different opinions, but we actually hate each other? Well, the key to it all is that we’re separate in so many ways. During the pandemic, a mirror was held up to America’s many divides. We are divided like never before economically. We’re divided geographically. We’re divided in terms of the news we consume, the shows we watch, and the music we listen to. In almost every area, we have very little overlap with one another.
When you have a void like that, it’s easy for people to use political messaging to create caricatures of the other side. And why wouldn’t you believe it, when you don’t have an alternate view to cling onto? Usually, historically, that alternate view would be that you actually know people from the other side. Many years ago, I coached a little league team with a guy who was a sheriff, a Trump voter, who was always armed, and had completely different political opinions than mine—which he thought were completely naïve, because I didn’t see what he saw out on the streets of our town. But when we were actually interacting or coaching the team, none of these issues came up, because there are so many more things that normal human beings have in common. Politics is simply not worth living for—and it’s certainly not worth dying for.
“Politics is simply not worth living for—and it’s certainly not worth dying for.”
Back then, what we focused on in our relationship was coaching the team, winning games, making sure other coaches didn’t get one up on us, and giving our kids a great experience. Kids, sports, community—the actual things that bond people. But today, those bonds are missing because there’s much less overlap. Today, most of the kids in my neighborhood who have money play travel ball, and the kids who don’t play little league at home. The parents who are wealthy take their kids to one field, and the parents who aren’t take their kids to another. We are separated on so many levels, and that’s a huge advantage for somebody who wants you to hate the other side, because it’s much easier to motivate people with fear and hate than it is to convince them that your policy ideas are good.
All this time we’ve been screaming at each other—but we’re really screaming into a void. We’re just screaming at ourselves. Until we actually interact, these false versions of one another will continue to dominate.
5. We’re running out of witnesses.
In 2015, my dad, while watching Trump’s speeches in the lead-up to the election, told me, “This guy sounds a lot like Hitler did when I was a kid. And everyone used to laugh at Hitler too—they thought he was a big joke.” Now if I said something like that, most people would roll their eyes and say, “Oh, it’s another hysterical liberal snowflake comparing Trump to Hitler.” But my dad was about as far from a liberal snowflake as you can get. He grew up in a town called Biała Podlaska in Poland, and he was one of the only people in his town—and the only member of his family—to survive the Holocaust.
At one point, he was in one of two ghettos that were being combined, because so many people had been killed or shipped away. His brother told him about the combination of the ghettos, and told him to hide in a barn, and at midnight, to knock on the wall, and they’d connect and escape. So my dad hid in the barn, and at one point, a soldier came in searching for people, but he didn’t find him since he hid under a bale of hay. At midnight, my dad knocked on the wall… But his brother wasn’t there. At that moment, he knew he’d be the only member of his family to survive.
He crawled on his hands and knees, through mud and shit, into the Polish forest in the middle of winter, where he had to survive on his own for months. Eventually he got a gun, and he became a fighter—shooting people, blowing up trains, and fighting in the war. So when my dad says, “This guy sounds a lot like Hitler,” I listen.
The problem is, we’re running out of people who know what they’re looking at when they see it. In 2020, we saw America slide toward authoritarianism, and we saw the big lie taking over. But there were fewer and fewer people that took it as seriously as they should, because most people simply hadn’t seen this before. My dad was one of the last survivors of the Holocaust, and there’s a line that we all say: “Never forget.” But it’s not enough to never forget—we also have to channel the messages and warnings that came from people like my dad, who had been there and seen that.
One day, right before the pandemic and quarantine really hit, my dad and I were going to lunch. And for about the 50th time in 2020, he was complaining that people weren’t out in the streets, when the democracy they loved was being taken from them or being tarnished by Donald Trump. I said I didn’t think people in my generation thought what happened to him could ever happen here. My dad stopped and looked at me, and he said, “Do you think when I was a kid, we thought it could happen there?”
To listen to the audio version read by author Dave Pell, download the Next Big Idea App today: