Dishonesty and the Attention Economy

The election of Trump is serving as a tipping point, causing many Americans to finally wonder if something has fundamentally changed in our civic life. How is this possible? My contention is that Trump took advantage of some changing conditions, but his win is actually firmly rooted in the thesis of Jon Stewart’s final monologue on The Daily Show, “Bullshit is everywhere”. This situation is a multi-generational phenomenon, a simple function of the incentives behind the attention economy and persuasion techniques. While we all have a public interest in a well-informed and compassionate society, there is an overwhelming profit available to creators in capturing our attention and selling it to others, in order to bias us towards some opinion or product. That is why commercial media continually expands, and has come to dominate how we understand our world.

What has now changed is widespread access to the internet, and we are starting to see its full effects on culture and society. In regards to how it affects our understanding of reality, it has both vastly simplified the process of researching facts, but also expanded and accelerated the reach of commercial media into our lives. We can debunk the lies like never before, if we have the time and do the work and know where to look. But the way that the internet has broken down distribution barriers for media, has also led to a competitive race to the bottom, with more desperate attempts to get our attention by new and old companies alike. So while it’s the same old game of attention and persuasion, we’re forced to spend more of our precious time weeding out bad information than ever before. It leaves us all with a deeper sense of unease.

What Trump did was to take advantage of both sides, our disillusionment with the news media and their desperate search for profits. He accelerated the rising distrust of the media by repeatedly attacking them, leading many to largely dismiss their criticism of him. But at the same time, his inflammatory commentary created such attention-grabbing content that media covered him endlessly for the advertising money. They did so by leaving him free to speak to the vast majority of the public for hours, making huge promises but also directing them how to exactly fact-check his opponent. He distracted from his own lies while showing the dishonest interplay between the media and politics, tainting his opponent. He left a lot of Americans feeling unsure of what to believe, while berating them with an avalanche of what they wanted to believe, without any policy or facts to consider.

But it is too easy to dismiss the campaign as an anomaly, and miss an important opportunity for change. The media has failed the public interest for years, and that’s at the core of our broken public sphere. Every kind of paid media campaign now exists, taking up your attention and working to persuade you, crowding out word-of-mouth movements that would more fairly represent the will of the people. As we live more of our lives within the attention economy, money is spent to buy up ever more of our time. In the long term, the public good cannot be served by this culturally overwhelming business model that exists primarily to mislead us.

The only real solution is to push back against commercial media culture by unselfishly supporting public media. We must have an aggressive and relentless pursuit of facts and the wide-ranging truth of human experience, in the best traditions of journalism and artistic endeavor, even when it challenges our interests or assumptions. Funded by everyone at the level their means allows, with content available to everyone for free, would make this model viable for every creator. A society-wide refusal to accept the current path we are on, along with the potential of new technology, now makes this alternative possible. It must be embraced by creators and citizens alike, and seen at some level, as a civic responsibility. That’s what we really need.