by Larry Magid

This post first appeared in the Mercury News

These days, it’s almost impossible to avoid distressing news, but there are ways to at least control your media diet and cut down on trolls, abusers, scam artists, and negativity on social media.

Controlling media is simple. Step away from your TV or computer. I used to watch a great deal of cable news and I still watch some, but I mostly avoid it these days because the constant reiteration of sad news triggers me in ways that just increase my fear and anxieties without providing me with actionable information.

I still go to lots of news sites during the day, watch one or two broadcast network news shows, and tip into cable programming, so I’m getting all the news I need without drowning in it.  I also try to tune into important briefings by my own governor and sometimes others and — if there is a White House briefing — I try to focus on what the experts — not the politicians — are saying. If the president says anything newsworthy, I’ll hear about it later.

I’m also trying to cut down on my consumption of talking heads on both the left and the right. The constant politicization of the COVID-19 crisis is not making us safer. That’s not to say there aren’t important stories about COVID-related policies and legislation, but I can form my own opinion without having to listen to each and every pundit from either or both sides of the aisle. And, to the extent I do listen to pundits, I try to balance them so as not to simply reinforce my own opinion. Cable news makes it too easy to live in an ideological bubble, which is not good for our democracy and our shared sense of reality.

Social media is even more of a mixed bag than mainstream media because — with a few exceptions — there are no gatekeepers. Anyone — regardless of what they know (or don’t know), how they think or how crazy or false their ideas and information may be, has a platform to share whatever they want. And this includes people or bots that have a political or financial incentive to misinform, manipulate or agitate people.

Fortunately, there are things you can do to control your social media experience, including blocking and reporting tools and ways to limit what you see.

The first tool is the same one I apply to mainstream media. Limit your exposure. It’s fine to spend a few minutes here and there on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram but — unless you’re a breaking news journalist or someone else who has a real need to be in constant touch, you don’t have to spend your entire day tuned into social media.

I know about “FOMO” (Fear of Missing Out), but most of us can probably benefit from missing out on at least a little bit of information now and then.

I do access Facebook and Twitter several times a day, but I’ve turned off all notifications. I don’t need to hear a beep or feel a buzz from my phone if someone I know has posted something — even if they’ve mentioned me. If it’s important, I’ll find it soon enough.

I also try to limit the number of people I follow on Twitter and my number of friends on Facebook, though, I admit I probably follow more than I should. The problem with following or friending too many people is that you drown in information that may not be relevant. Both services have ways to surface people that may be of higher interest, but you may still wind up a bit overwhelmed.

Facebook tools

Facebook allows you to prioritize who you want to hear from. If there is someone who’s posts are particularly important, you can make them a “close friend” and you can specify “see first” for their posts (you have more than one person on your “see first” list). If you want to hear less from them, you can make them an “acquaintance,” and if you don’t want to hear from them or share with them, you can unfriend them. You can also block them, which means they won’t see any of your posts — even public ones — and you can report them if you believe they have done something that violates Facebook’s community standards.

The way you configure your friend settings is slightly different on the web and mobile but both require you to go to the friend’s profile. On the web, you’ll see three bars at the bottom right of their profile picture. The first will probably say “Friends,” but if you click on it you can check Close Friends, Acquaintances, Add to another list or unfriend them. Clicking add to another list brings up several options, including Restricted, which means you can see their posts but they can only see your public information (a way to keep the boss from knowing your personal business).

The next bar to the right probably says “following” but if you click on that you can change it to See first, which almost guarantees you’ll see what the post.  The next bar is to send the person a message and to the right of that bar is three dots (specifying a menu). One of the menu items is Block and another allows you to report that person.  The person will not be notified of any action you take but they might be able to figure it out if they suddenly stop seeing your posts.

Instagram

Instagram has its own tools, including the ability to block, which will prevent that person from following you or seeing your content. Again, you start that process from the person’s profile where you can block or unblock a person. If you block someone, their likes and comments will be removed from your photos and videos but those comments and likes won’t be restored if you unblock them.

By default, Instagram posts are public, but you can make your account private so that only people you approve can see your posts. Start by clicking on your profile picture on the bottom right, then click the three-line menu in the top right and click on the settings gear at the bottom.

You can also report, block, or restrict a person from the menu on their profile. Restrict means to block their comments on your posts from being seen by anyone except them. That way they won’t know their comments have been blocked unless someone else tells them.

Instagram, last week, introduced a new feature that allows you to manage multiple unwanted interactions at once. You can block or restrict up to 25 accounts at once and you can also feature posts that have positive comments. I imagine that most users won’t need these mass management tools, but they’ll be very useful for influencers and people who are being “dogpiled” by a gang of bullies.

Finally, as another way to counter negativity with positivity, Instagram just introduced “Guides,” which is a way to encourage creators to share positive or informative content that can contribute to people’s well-being, especially in these trying times.

Twitter

Twitter has similar tools, including the ability to mute someone so they’re not blocked but you don’t see their tweets. They’re not notified and they can still see your tweets, but it’s a way to avoid someone who is annoying, but not threatening. You can mute, block, unfollow or report anyone by clicking on the down arrow to the right of any of their tweets. You can also hide replies to your tweets.

Twitter just announced that it’s testing (with a small group) a new feature that lets you control who can reply to a tweet. If this is implemented widely, it will allow users to have a conversation only with people they want to include.

There are other safety and privacy options for all of these services so, to learn more, check their help sections. Parents can also learn about keeping their kids safe on Instagram, Snapchat, TikTok and Roblox on ConnectSafley’s QuickGuides page.

Disclosure: Larry Magid is CEO of ConnectSafely.org, a non-profit internet safety organization that receives support from Facebook and other companies. He serves on both Twitter and Facebook’s safety advisory board