Perhaps it’s why I still have my hair.
As I watched a “major” security issue1 unfold a few years ago, I read the media reports seeming to claim the end of the world (or at least the internet) was upon us. I kept feeling like I was supposed to be panicking.
But I didn’t.
And neither the world nor the internet ended.
It’s not in my nature to panic. That’s just the kinda guy that I am. Panic may occasionally be called for, but usually it does more harm than good.
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I rarely panic, and neither should you
News stories regarding technology are often framed in the worst possible “world ending” way in order to get you to click through to view articles and their accompanying ads. While some items are genuinely important, it’s better to bring skepticism to bear first. Decisions made out of panic are rarely the right ones.
Yes, it was serious, but…
The issue was serious, don’t get me wrong. The potential for havoc was exceptionally high. In fact, I’ll even say we dodged a bullet.
But dodge it we did.
For this particular issue, server administrators had reason to be deeply concerned. Their systems were vulnerable, and the moment the news broke, their systems needed to be fixed ASAP.
As the owner of an affected server at the time, I did due diligence to ensure the servers under my control were not affected. It wasn’t panic by any means, but more of a simple “better look at this right away” kind of prioritization.
For everyone else, absolutely everything was out of your control. Aside from caution when moving forward after the bug had been publicized, there was absolutely nothing the average consumer could do. If there was damage, it had likely already been done.
More importantly, it appears that there wasn’t a lot of damage done. Servers were fixed quickly, and life moved on.
Panic and sensationalism feed the press
I use the term “press” very loosely here. At the time, you could find proclamations on the issue everywhere from individual blogs to major news media outlets.
And it all comes back to clicks.
When the story sounds sensational, more people will click through to read it. That page can then offer more eyeballs to the advertisers that sponsor it. As a result, there’s a powerful incentive to make headlines as sensational as possible, sometimes to the extreme.
It’s called “clickbait,” and nothing generates clicks like feigned end-of-the-world panic.
The result is that an exceptional amount of news reporting on just about any story needs to be viewed very, very skeptically. There are great, trustworthy sources out there. It’s just difficult to pick them out from all the noise.
Panic and sensationalism lead to bad decisions
In technology, and particular in personal computing and the internet, two themes appear consistently:
- Panic leads to a sense of extreme urgency.
- Extreme urgency leads to bad decisions.
I have seen people make some terrible decisions — like unnecessarily reformatting or even discarding computers, closing online accounts, and even stepping away from online activities completely — in a panicked and often ineffective response to some seemingly imminent threat.
There can be imminent and dangerous threats. But I have yet to see one that is so serious that you couldn’t take some time to calmly and rationally consider the ramifications.
My advice? Be aware, but be skeptical.
Realize that many “news” and other information-delivery vehicles have an incentive to make things seem worse than they may be, or perhaps to overstate the risk in one area based on the genuine risk in another.
It’s unfortunate, because the press has cried wolf so many times that we’re more likely to pass over a true attention-worthy story when one comes up.
When you see a story that seems serious and you’re wondering how it affects you, pause. Take a breath. Wait until the dust settles, or check in with your less panic-stricken and knowledgeable friends.
You may need to take action, but as with anything, you need to take the right action.
And reactions made out of panic are rarely right.
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