A guide to surviving the online apocalypse

When the world is in crisis, sometimes there's no better confidant than the internet. It's there to field questions you can't mutter aloud yet, like "How to survive a nuclear bomb?" or "When will humans go extinct?"

A guide to surviving the online apocalypse

When the world is in crisis, sometimes there's no better confidant than the internet. It's there to field questions you can't mutter aloud yet, like "How to survive a nuclear bomb?" or "When will humans go extinct?" It catches distressed queries such as "doomsday clock 2022," "WW3," "probability of nuclear war," and "potassium iodide." The quality of what it gives back to you is altogether another matter, but as the internet logs our every impulse, most obviously through search engines, it becomes a repository for our existential fears. 

There is no shortage of those anxieties today. Russia's invasion of Ukraine in February sent search terms related to nuclear war and World War III skyrocketing. And these sentiments found their way to social media, too, with the average user and geopolitical expert alike speculating about whether global armed conflict is imminent. These are scary times, but they have been for awhile. There's a reason why doomscrolling became a catchphrase for the extremely online a few years ago. We've been in a state of unyielding catastrophe since the COVID-19 pandemic began, and cascading crises like climate change disasters only make the uncertainty worse.  

Trying to make sense of what these events mean for our collective future typically drives us to seek more information. It's in our nature to scan our environment for useful data, and for threats. The discovery of provocative ideas can even give us a unique sense of pleasure. But on the internet, particularly on social media, the data often overwhelms and those perils can feel ever-present. A sense of doom can quickly become pervasive. 

To help you navigate the darkest timelines and cope with the dizzying emotions they elicit, Mashable asked experts how to cope with the doom that people encounter online. Their insights cover what to know about doomscrolling, how to assess different types of perceived threats and crises, and yes, how to live with the possibility of apocalypse and still find joy. 

Recently, several Russian military planes began making unexpected excursions toward the Ural Mountains, an area suspected of harboring bunkers designed to outlast nuclear war. Of course, open-source intelligence Twitter was on the case, and what began as "chatter" soon turned into a chorus of people speculating what the Russians were doing. The conversation that unfurled beneath these tweets vacillated from sober observation to justified worry to veiled predictions of armageddon. Cue the doomscrolling. 

By evening's end, one of the experts tracking the flights surmised that the "very visible drill" was designed to send a message to the United States: The Kremlin is prepared for nuclear escalation. Tom Nichols, an expert who specializes in U.S.-Russia relations and nuclear strategy, tried to soothe people's frayed nerves. To one follower who asked him, "Should I be worried yet?" he replied, "We’re a long way from anything that requires panic. I’ll be the first to let you know. ✌️"

This is the kind of reassurance users hope for when they doomscroll. If they can just find that one authoritative voice who can quiet the countless others dumping doubt and dread into their timeline, maybe life won't seem so bleak. Or they hunt for more information about an event or development, because thinking they know everything feels better than wondering if they don't know enough. But unexpected consequences can include stumbling across disinformation that heightens paranoia or blurs the lines between fact and propaganda.

Doomscrolling can be particularly tricky behavior to assess, says Dr. Benjamin Johnson, Ph.D., an editor of the journal of Media Psychology and assistant professor of advertising at the University of Florida. The concept emerged within the past few years as a pattern of media use documented by the extremely online. Some might argue it's just a different version of behaviors we know better, like fear of missing out or internet addiction. But when Johnson studied doomscrolling, the evidence suggested that it is a unique behavior. The results of the study, which Johnson co-authored, were published this month in Technology, Mind, and Behavior, a peer-reviewed journal from the American Psychological Association.