Sensationalism in the Present Era- A Blight On Social Evolution

Sensationalism dies quickly, but the fear is long-lived.

Agatha Christie could not have been closer to the truth with that one sentence. 

From the days of the Spanish-American war caused by sensationalism in 1898, where outlets dressed up a sunken American ship as a dastardly Spanish plot, to a gory illustration proclaiming “Ebola is coming” in the present. They say that change is the only constant in our lives, but it seems like we can add sensationalism to that list too.

But first, what exactly is sensationalism? 

It is essentially a means of exaggerating details or even lying in the news, to gain more viewers and maintain a reader or watcher’s interest, but at the cost of accuracy. 

I strongly believe that it is immoral to lie for the sake of personal gain, especially when it comes to something as sensitive as news. So, this article will be about Sensationalism In The Present Era- A Blight On Social Evolution.

Throughout the course of this article, I will highlight the major reason for resorting to sensationalism, various issues associated with it, at the micro level in the form of fear mongering and misinformation harming individuals, and at the macro level in the form of harming movements for social change. Finally, I will provide multiple practical solutions that can help curb such a problem effectively. 

News outlets insist on following a tailored approach to high viewership through cheap tricks. After all, in the status quo, media houses garner profits simply based on the number of views they get on their channels and websites. To maintain viewership, simple facts cannot suffice. Exaggerated puns, comics, buzzwords, search engine optimization, outright lies – all of these are utilized in a cold and calculated manner to achieve the desired goal. 

The sad part is that sensationalism is actually effective, because it capitalizes on something called the negativity quirk- a psychological phenomenon stating that we are more likely to be drawn in by and retain negative feelings and facts, than positive. As a result, sensationalism too becomes inherently negative, since the end goal of the media houses, as stated earlier, is maximizing viewers and clicks. For example, when the City Reporter, a Russian news outlet, attempted to showcase only positive news for the day, they immediately lost 2/3rds of their viewership.

Fear mongering is an extremely common tactic branching from the same- a study by Jakob Jensen et. al. found that breast cancer received immense media attention, about 300% more than an underrepresented prostate cancer, which led to the public viewing breast cancer as far more common than it actually was. This in turn led to unnecessary fears of breast cancer, and a gross underestimation of prostate cancer because only other ‘popular’ cancer types are spoken of.

Keeping this in mind, we need to understand that one who reports and sensationalizes a recent incident first will make immense profits. Every subsequent reporting will make lesser profits, assuming similar levels of information since the incident is too recent for an in-depth and unique analysis. Thus, there is always a push to be the early bird, to get the juiciest worm there ever was. Media houses sacrifice accuracy for profits and views. Consider the “Covington Catholic Boys” incident, where students were doxxed and harassed because CNN falsely accused them of harassing Indigenous protesters in Washington D.C. CNN based this information on one video without doing any further research, merely to gain more views. The truth only came out when other news outlets found false information in the story, after some research given the passage of time.

Sarvjeet Singh Bedi was an innocent man who was accused of harassing a woman on the street- though there was absolutely no evidence, he was publicly shamed by the media. He lost his job, and was labeled the ‘Demon of New Delhi’. Thankfully, he was acquitted by the court. 

But this is in itself extremely troubling- why should the lives of innocent men and women be destroyed by an incessant and malevolent corporate greed?

However, once we think a little deeper, we realize that sensationalism also has chilling macro-level consequences, in the form of hurting movements for social change. 

In multiple countries, there is a divisive political climate. Either you’re with us, or against us. There is no in-between. This means that logically, movements for social change should be carried out in a manner that allows for natural civil discourse, especially in an increasingly polarized world where the slightest of differences can ignite a passionate debate. To ensure that the detractors of a movement don’t immediately dismiss a movement because of prior biases, and actually attempt to critically think into understanding the logic behind it, activism must take place in a ‘moderate’ way. Read my article on “A Brief Criticism Of Humanity’s Role in Social Change” for a deeper explanation.

Consider the Black Lives Matter, or BLM movement. The protests broke out due to unjust police brutality that resulted in the death of an innocent black man. The media did cover these protests, yes- but they focused on a mere 0.1% of protests that turned into riots, showing pictures of burning buildings and looted stores but the vast majority of peaceful protests were more or less ignored.

Reporting like this leaned into fear mongering, but it also led to viewers applying the actions of outliers to a more general whole. As a result, the progress of the BLM movements was impeded. The general public became less and less open to accepting change. Sensationalism was actively harmful for the movement owing to its contribution to creating further divisions. For example, Fox News, an outlet with a primarily right-wing audience, reported the BLM protests as riots, or lootings, as much as 3x more often than other outlets. This led and will continue to lead to the creation of an echo chamber- those who were for some reason already susceptible to disagreeing with anti-racism protests, even if not anti-racism as a whole, have their beliefs further reinforced by the same cycle of misinformed and biased coverage. Some of their negative beliefs will take a turn for the worse, as they become more open to accepting the more ‘extremist’ elements on their side of the political spectrum. Case in point: QAnon.

In fact, a study by Daniell Kilgo from the University of Indiana found that media outlets in the USA provided anti-racism protests with less than 25% of legitimizing coverage. This is obviously detrimental.

Another example of generalization- the Media Council of Kenya found that Kenyan journalists had partially contributed to the unfortunately dominant idea that people of Somali descent 

were potential terrorists. 

Generalizations are particularly prevalent with respect to terrorist attacks carried out by people who happen to be Islamic- media reportings lack nuance and thus, media biases translate to public biases as well. For example, a study found that 90% of sources used to talk about Islam in a major Spanish newspaper were western, and only 4% highlighted Islam in a positive light. This has been directly correlated with a tragic 106% increase in Islamophobia between 2015 and 2016 in Spain, making social progress infinitely harder.

Tackling islamophobia, racism, terrorism- all of this becomes nigh impossible in a world as tainted by sensationalism as it is right now. Clearly, activism as a whole is impeded by sensationalist news because it leads to generalizations, exacerbates political and societal divisions, and leads to fear-mongering. There is a dire need for a solution that allows us to attack the problem at its core. Unfortunately, rather than exterminating sensationalism, we can, at best, mitigate. This is because we must understand that humans are incentive based creatures, and thus the same applies, by extension, to media outlets. The only possible incentive for a media house to continue reporting is profits- and sensationalism is quite literally a gold mine for them. We can, however, provide them with monetary and ethical incentives to consider other paths, and hence minimize sensationalist reporting.

Firstly, we need to provide incentives to the common people to fact-check. Similar to how tech companies like Google and Amazon pay those who find bugs in the system, governments must set up monetary incentives for citizens to report erroneous reporting. Private fact checking organizations already exist, but they need to be encouraged further.

Secondly, we need to implement a system analogous to peer reviewing for news outlets. Analytical articles must be fact checked by a politically diverse body of experts before being published if they relate to sensitive topics such as terrorism. Yet, to ensure that awareness of an issue reaches the public, the facts of the situation can be reported in a manner similar to what the outlet ‘Roca News’ does- purely objective reporting presented in an appealing format that allows for consumers to stay engaged, yet not be affected by biases. This will be harder to implement for news channels owing to the various deadlines they face- however, AI and technology can serve as a powerful and fast means of achieving the desired ends. Yes, debates may erupt and carrying this particular step out might prove impractical given the absolutely mind-boggling number of articles that are put out on a daily basis. Still, some change, particularly for media houses with larger outreach, will go a long way in setting a global precedent.

Thirdly, 24/7 news needs to be abolished. A repetitive drawl of the same news over and over again can create an echo chamber which kills room for debate, and leads to increasingly flamboyant claims and presentations to maintain interest throughout the day.

Finally, we need to move away from the view-based model prevalent in the status quo. We need to encourage subscriptions- a study on news channels in India found that only 30% of the revenue of a news channel was derived from subscriptions. This figure needs to go up, and government subsidies to companies must come into play to facilitate the transition. The government can cover subscription costs for the poor, which will be particularly helpful in developing nations and thus help maintain or even improve accessibility.

The media serves as a watchdog, yes, but who is watching the watchdogs? Perhaps more than a press-crushing Big Brother from 1984, we need to fear a press that implodes as it is consumed by its own avarice.


Before moving into any substantive arguments, I feel like it is important to clarify one thing- the meaning of activism, and social change.

Activism: The policy of campaigning to bring about sociopolitical change. It is commonly associated with progressives though I believe that the definition can be extended to anyone who fulfills the ‘criteria’. Thus, activism isn’t restricted to any one group or substrata of society- though there is a FAR stronger relation between progressiveness and activism, by virtue of the definition itself. By talking about contemporary activism, I will primarily talk about the modern approach to activism (performative or otherwise).

Now, what exactly is social change? Self-explanatory, but it means bringing about tangible changes in society at, at the very least, a meso-level: more than micro, but less than macro. This means that picking up the trash, though admirable, wouldn’t qualify as the social change I’m talking about, while motivating your entire community to do so, effectively, does.

Of course, by stating where they went wrong, I mean to criticize a few aspects of those pushing for reform that can still be fixed. Social movements are not wholly wrong but they are not as efficient at accomplishing their goal as they could be if they adopt a plan of action in recognition of the following maxims that I propose- 

  1. Humans are, on an average, inherently selfish
  2. The egotistical nature of humanity prevents large scale action in the status quo

Moving onto the article itself:

A world filled to a larger extent with humans as noble as the initial activists would undoubtedly be better than the one we have right now. Unfortunately, that world is nothing short of a utopia- simply because humans, on an average, are inherently selfish (maxim 1).

Two main strands of analysis to pick up here. The first one sets the ground for the second, since my arguments are centered around the fact that humans are selfish, on an average, due to a number of reasons. This leads into the fact that this very selfishness and egoistic nature renders the current method of activism ineffective- the main matter of the article Still, I’d highly suggest reading everything, and not just skipping the first point, considering it is highly interesting (see? Here is a perfect example of the human ego).

  1. Why exactly are humans selfish?

 There are a number of reasons for this, the chief one being the survival instinct of our species. This essentially means that a human is primarily going to focus on securing a means of living for himself, and those he holds dear. These are the two ‘stakeholders’ an average human will consider, in 99% of cases. This isn’t to say that humans who devote themselves to the service of a greater good don’t exist. But, in general, people act for themselves. 

Though I digress a bit, a common criticism of this idea is that if humans did act only for themselves and their loved ones, anarchy would exist at a global scale. This is an inherently flawed argument, simply because if you look at it prudently, a human knows that, say, theft would bring him instant gratification but in the long-term, he is going to lose out on a sustainable means of living because he will be rotting in jail. That is precisely why there is such a strong correlation between the inability to think in the long-term and committing crimes. Moreover, no human is going to state or truly know why they aren’t committing crimes considering if they are proficient enough, they can get away with anything and live ‘the easy life’.

The answer is either a fear of the consequences, or a moral compass, or maybe even a combination of both. At this point, the answer is completely unclear, and a vast majority of the population won’t know the answer themselves. Even if they do, why would they say anything except ‘It’s because I have a moral compass’, considering most other answers lead to them being shunned in society?. To conclude, it is clear that humans are in fact selfish, hence lending my first maxim its objective nature.

Coming back to the main point- I am not trying to say that theft or murder is justifiable solely because we are biologically geared to work in our own favour. Instead, it is hard to fight against an evolutionary instinct. If humans didn’t have this very instinct, it is likely that we wouldn’t even be the dominant species on this planet. And what is wrong with prioritizing oneself over others? If you look at it, won’t allowing room for yourself to breathe create more feasible opportunities to help others in the future? I believe that intent is irrelevant if there is a negligible tendency of the intent to affect any outcomes in the future (hard to quantify, of course, but it works in this case).

This relates to the philosophical theory of consequentialism, which states that the intent is inconsequential (hah). I don’t agree entirely with the definition since the intent can lead to potential problems in the future and implies other issues. For example, I may save someone from slipping right now because I believe doing so gives me ‘social brownie points’- whether I did it out of a desire to help or a desire to gain is irrelevant. However, decisions don’t exist in a vacuum. This tendency to take advantage of others could signify problems in my usual behaviour and being awarded by society now could lead to me being more manipulative in the future. However,  I will not expand on this further, since it is outside of the context of this article. Whether I help others to help or to improve opportunities for help in the future is irrelevant since there is no way for my intent to truly influence my decision making in this case.

Additionally, inherent selfishness also implies an egocentric approach to life in general, on an average (I repeat these last two words time and again to stress on the statistical tendency and not absolute existence of the aforementioned issues). This ego is a primary cause of people on the internet being unable to simply ‘walk away’ from an argument. How could they ever concede to the imaginary demon they are fighting?! That’s as good as saying they are right!!! (sarcasm, in case it wasn’t clear)

Moving on, it is clear that humans are selfish, biologically and/or subconsciously, as stated earlier too. Why does this affect activism and social change, though? Aren’t these two things completely unrelated? Well, not at all. In fact, there may be a closer relation between the two than most would have you believe. This, in fact, leads directly into the next strand of analysis-

  1. Why does the selfish nature of humanity affect activism? Or, why does this egotistical nature prevent large scale action?


It wouldn’t be far-fetched to claim that most movements concerning social issues that use the internet as a platform rely heavily on the following two ‘foundations’:

  1. An aggressive blame-game
  2. Sensationalism and, by extension, fear-mongering

And both are completely ineffective at achieving true impact. In this article, I’ll focus on (a) and (b) though there may be more.

Why exactly are these ‘tools’ inefficient beyond compare? I will be taking each, case by case. 

First of all, the absolute uselessness of the aggressive blame-game. Why exactly is it a terrible idea?

Because 99.99999999999999% of people have too large an ego to handle criticism. Can you imagine constantly being told that everything you do is wrong, and that you’re a morally reprehensible individual for doing whatever it is that you do? Constantly having abuses hurled at you and constantly being verbally demeaned? 

This isn’t to say that the so-called victim is in the right or anything. The decision rests too much on the context which is, for obvious reasons, impossible to consider at a large scale.

At the same time, I’ve always wondered- what do ad hominems accomplish? Do they do anything except lead to further negativity, and satisfy the ego of the critic? 

The answer is a resounding NO. No sane human is going to seriously listen to and agree with the very thing that seeks to destroy them, enough if they subconsciously know they are wrong. 

For example:

Mr. X wakes up and checks his Twitter feed, surprised to find out that he’s a ‘victim’ (the quotations around victim will be clarified later) of cancel culture due to his controversial belief that capitalism is ideal. 

Will cancel culture and being demonized lead to Mr. X changing his opinion overnight? Will potentially being doxxed (having your real life information leaked on the internet) cause him to right his wrongs?

The answer is, unsurprisingly, NO. 

I strongly maintain that the final goal of any movement advocating for true change in society is to…well, achieve that change. And no matter how right you are, no matter how high your moral ground is, no matter how much you disagree with the other side (barring a few obvious exceptions, of course), shouting incoherently and rambling does absolutely nothing. 

Thus, X could be saying something as wrong as ‘People die. Big deal. Capitalism helps me be rich so I prefer it.’, and condemning him beyond a point, though morally right, has no prudential basis- NO MATTER HOW WRONG HE ACTUALLY IS. Again, the goal of any movement should be to achieve tangible change and looking at an issue through a myopic lens is, to put it lightly, a questionable move. Mr. X might be very resistant to change, and might just hate you for trying to change his beliefs, leading you to feel like you’re just hitting a wall with your head over and over again with no actual results. Yet, the marginal benefit lies in the model I propose simply because the same problems lie in the world we have right now- but the world I propose has that slight chance of a better outcome. 

Economics considers something truly efficient if it is the best possible solution. If there is another alternative that’s even 0.000000001% better, your old model is inefficient. And I strongly maintain that what I propose is a blend of practicality, sustainability, and prudence. 

Take the case of Daryl Davis- a black man who convinced 200 members of the infamous Ku Klux Klan to reform and turn onto the ‘right path’. How did he do it? He spoke to them with love and affection. That’s all. 

It might be utopian to assume that all conflicts can be solved through peace and love- and it definitely is utopian. But at the same time, coming back to the point about economic efficiency, a world that is significantly better off at the grassroots level is better than a world with conflict all around.

It is important to note that using the blame-game strategy is different when concerning, say, corporates breaking the law for profits and thus harming the environment- but again, it costs little to nothing to take a moment to think and choose your words carefully. This is an important skill that an unfortunate number of people are bereft of.

Moving onto the second foundation- sensationalism.

I have always said that polarization is the death of any reasonable society, and that is precisely where movements pertaining to social issues in general are heading today, particularly on social media. This actually extends to both ends of the political spectrum. People seem to be hellbent on tearing each other to bits, which contributes to a very unhealthy ‘they vs us’ mentality. Tying it into the first foundation, sensationalism combined with aggressiveness has just one outcome- reinforcement of the aforementioned mentality, and a stronger distrust of anyone who disagrees. Rabindranath Tagore mentioned that he wishes for a society where ‘the world has not been broken up into fragments by narrow domestic walls’. Sensationalizing each and every thing, be it a criticism of a political leader or another issue, leads to the creation of a mountain when the issue is a molehill. Aggressively pointing fingers at everyone and blaming the supporters of that political leader for every issue under the sun is a flawed thought process. It leads to the creations of echo chambers wherein there is no room for natural civil discourse in society- the only discourse present is an emotionally charged one with no room for discussion, only constant glorification and support from ‘your side’, and condemnation from ‘the rest’. There is no space for neutrality either; it is always ‘either you’re with us or you hate us’. Again, both ends of the sociopolitical spectrum on the internet have this exact problem with them.

Fear-mongering takes place on an absolutely massive scale. Take the example of the oxygen shortage crisis in India. There is absolutely no doubt it was a tragedy that could have been prevented with better planning and foresight. Yet, at the same time, there was no need for multiple posts on the internet to make it sound like India had fallen into absolute anarchy and that there was no hope for us. 

A somber ‘doom befalls us’ tone seemed to be omnipresent. I too am critical of GOI’s handling of the second wave, and the lack of care of the populace about the crisis. But making it sound as if there was no hope benefited absolutely no one. Except the poster, of course, who would have gained a massive amount of views. 

All the post did was make the people who already had this attitude agree and move on- but the ones who didn’t agree ENTIRELY (like me) were put off by the post. Most average people will simply be less susceptible to change if they are consistently exposed to posts that rely on sensationalism and fear-mongering go down the same path and have the same consequences. Sensationalized news is also highly susceptible to manipulation and fake news, simply due to the volatile nature of sensationalism, leading to the spread of misinformation which is harmful for obvious reasons.

Many say that sensationalism is necessary to reach out to larger audiences. And yes, controversies and hyperboles reach out to a larger audience. But is there any point to merely reaching out? All activist movements aim at making change, so obviously there is a drastic need to make an impact as well- an impact that causes us to take a step back, and reevaluate our stance. As established previously, humans have a tendency to distrust anyone who disagrees with them too much. Logically, the impact of sensationalism in inspiring change amongst those who don’t already agree with you is minimal. And what is the point of a movement as stagnant as one built upon hearsay and exaggeration? Is there truly an impact if you can’t inspire the masses? What is the benefit of simply reinforcing the beliefs of those who are more than convinced by you?

Such a problem plagues society at large, and is the reason for large-scale inefficiency. An analogy: Politicians take very few steps for active change because by doing so, they will be taking a risky step outside the sociopolitical echo chamber they have built for their supporters, and into a middle ground that contributes to society. Again, owing to the (by and large) selfish nature of humans, no politician will willingly jeopardize his own position of power and authority when he knows that:

  1. Taking that middle ground might destroy his votebank
  2. Taking that middle ground will also INITIALLY be criticized by his ‘opponents’ because of the us vs them mentality, even if they eventually come around


Again, this is an issue with looking at the world through a myopic lens and ignoring the absolute long-term benefits of something in favour of short-term gains. 

The same goes for social movements, leading to the state we have ended up in now, in the status quo. 

Another massive, closely interrelated and unfortunate problem with relying on controversy to fuel campaigns is being designated a social pariah and suffering from ostracization. 

I’m sure the example I’m about to give is definitely not a surprise- PETA. 

We all hear of the controversial campaigns they launch every now and then- objectification of women, insensitivity to the populace at large, and more, seem to be a common theme.

Look at this ad:

In what world is this supposed to be acceptable? I understand the intention of PETA- ‘motivating’ people to go vegetarian. To some extent, being vegetarian is better for the environment (of course, I won’t be dwelling into how it would break the supply chain if not executed properly on a large scale because that is beyond the context of this article). But the execution of that intention is beyond flawed. Even if I, with a power of -5 in both eyes, were to take my spectacles off, I’d be able to see the problems in their advertisements very clearly. What about this one:

It seems that PETA conveniently forgot that correlation isn’t causation- any study they cite is beyond baseless. More importantly, this too is EXTREMELY insensitive.

Sure, these campaigns went viral. Sure, millions saw these ads.

But was there any tangible impact?

Yes, there was. A strong impact…that led to PETA being designated the status of a cult of crazies. We all know the story of the ‘Boy Who Cried Wolf’. No one bothers to listen to something that may even hold an inkling of the truth, if all that they spout before were sensationalist lies. 

No one who wasn’t already a die-hard PETA fan magically became a vegan. It just made them the laughing stock of the internet.

This leads to my next point- extremism. 

Why is extremism looked upon in society as some sort of ideal to pursue, when it leads to the creation of the aforementioned echo chambers? It’s a classic case that proves the point: “The path to hell is paved with good intentions.” It’s a vicious cycle: someone on the internet says something, another group condemns them, they argue, everyone walks away- glad they have satisfied their egos and ‘shown ‘em good-for-nothings’. No real change takes place.

This is problematic. I understand the intrinsic need to satisfy one’s ego but no change is going to take place. It may sound like I am reiterating the same thing in different words, but that is simply to lay emphasis on the problems in activism today. 

Absolutely nothing at all can be achieved if we go on with what we have today. As someone who wishes to see true change in the world, and is willing to take that one extra step, it saddens me to see constant squabbles with no outcome. The only way forward is to address issues in a rational manner. No matter how right you are, no matter how much of a moral high ground you hold, being extremely rude is usually not the way to go. It is far too easy to destroy any semblance of acceptance growing in the ‘other side’ if you don’t take into account the true nature of humanity.