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The age of attention politics Deciding what to notice has become a moral choice

There's a lot going on here. Pablo Monsalve/VIEW press/Getty Images


May 13, 2022   7 mins

A couple of decades ago, I spent a week trying to commute on the London Underground without looking at the adverts in tunnels or on the carriages.

At the time a committed anti-capitalist, I experienced the ever more intrusive presence of advertising in the built environment as an unacceptable invasion. It felt like being tapped on the shoulder every three seconds by annoying canvassers while enjoying a quiet ciggie break.

So I set out to see if it was possible to ignore them. It was, it turned out, difficult: advertisers spend a great deal of money on being attention-grabbing, and it took a huge mental effort to tune out all that expensive effort to snag my awareness.

The “attention economy” was first theorised by the economist Herbert Simon in 1971: he called attention to the “bottleneck of human thought” and argued that in a world where this was a scarce resource, the smart money focused on grabbing a slice of it. After all, you can have the best product in the world but if no one has noticed you exist, you’ll still sink without trace. An immense amount of lucrative time and effort goes into the arms race for attention, and the results — not just on the Tube — are often eye-watering.

If it was difficult to swim against the commercial messaging tide two decades ago, it’s even harder now. When I did my Tube experiment, averting my eyes from the tsunami of paid-for messaging became exhausting after a few days. After a while, it was easier just to give in and swim on the tide of people trying to tell me what to buy. And today, the experiment would be harder still, with adverts covering every available surface and sometimes moving as well.

Over the same period, too, something equivalent has happened to the whole media universe. A vast commercial and political industry has developed with the aim of grabbing the punter’s attention and persuading us to buy, say or think something or other. The boundary between PR, journalism and propaganda is blurry to say the least, and flourishes atop an immense ecosystem of opinion-havers. And there’s no outside to it, short of moving to an uninhabited island with no internet access and never talking to anyone.

As a result, we don’t just have an attention economy. We also have an attention politics: a byproduct of the explosion of content that came with the transition to digital culture. In that politics, what gets noticed isn’t just a bottleneck on the way to commercial success; it’s also the gateway to political power.

In the new attention politics, older information ideals curl up and die. For the liberal framework for thinking about communication dates back to a point before the internet, when information was relatively scarce, and could be suppressed. In that context, liberals wanted to resist such suppression, arguing that “free speech”, would enable a collective search for objective truth via a “marketplace of ideas”.

Along with this came the belief that free information and lively debate carries us all toward objectively agreed truths, while religious faith and moral principles should be as much as possible a private matter. Contemporary defenders of this gestalt gather at Quillette and other such “classical liberal” outlets, ever ready to mount a defence of free speech as a bulwark against bad ideas, or the importance of debate to the scientific method.

Now, though, we all have free speech. In a digital environment, you can’t really suppress it. Ban someone, and they’ll just pop up elsewhere (or in the case of Donald Trump, start their own social media platform). Not unrelatedly, what we have is no longer a scarcity of information but a superabundance.

The problem is, you can’t really have a functioning society where anyone can say anything — or at least it won’t function for long. So a great deal of soft social effort goes into constraining free speech, while still permitting speech to be (at least nominally) free. We can all say what we like; the battleground is now what gets noticed, and by whom.

What does or doesn’t make the public eye is managed by a stifling social consensus that governs what gets liked, shared or referenced; what should be boosted by algorithms; and what should make it into the respectable press. Even the original Luke Skywalker, Mark Hamill, has fallen foul of this, after committing the dastardly crime of publicly noticing a Tweet by JK Rowling.

At the same time, too, “facts” have also become visibly unstable. In some cases, they vary dramatically according to local political conditions: for example, according to US officials, “gender affirmation” for children is officially “suicide-prevention care”. Meanwhile, officials in the UK and Sweden are rowing swiftly in the opposite direction.

And even where the facts themselves are not disputed, they aren’t really the main event any more. Instead, they’re data points for curated narratives. “NJ woman who forced daughter she fathered into child porn sentenced to 25 years in prison” is, on its own, just a story; but added to a curated list of related stories such as this one, it looks like a pattern of criminality worthy of notice — or of being deliberately ignored.

This sort of attention politics, the manipulation of narratives, sounds a death knell for the liberal ideal of politically neutral individuals or institutions. For confronted with an excess of competing and contradictory messaging, most sensible people don’t want to spend all their time working out what’s real. And when attention is scarce, political power accrues to those who are trusted to curate.

Most visibly, legacy media outlets now play this role: filtering the chaos of possible stories for a selection that fits (or at least doesn’t jar too sharply with) the readership’s worldview. But the facts, or stories, or data points we curate add up, cumulatively, to moral choices. If I notice the vulnerability of males who identify as women within all-male prisons, while (deliberately or not) ignoring stories that point to the vulnerability of women to males who claim to identify as women within all-female prisons, this adds up to a statement about what (or who) I think is important.

This variation in what’s emphasised (or mentioned at all) is easy to see across the national press: try toggling between New York Times universe and that of the New York Post, or between the Guardian and the Telegraph. You don’t need a media studies degree to infer the differences in moral framework that drive this differential noticing. And in any case, this isn’t an abstract game for media studies nerds. Our moral choices have real-world consequences.

Which set of “facts” is accepted by officials as true, about the right way to care for gender dysphoric children, will have significant medical consequences for youth in different jurisdictions. Or consider recent news that the state of New York is proposing to legislate for prisoners to be “presumptively placed” in accordance with their “self-attested gender identity unless the person opts out of such placement”. Set that against the list of crime reports above, and the decision to notice or not notice the link between the male sex and sex-offending adds up to a political choice that — as others have noticed — places real women at risk.

And this is where the politics of noticing grows more contentious. For the general public aren’t mere passive bystanders. Noticing subcultures have swiftly emerged, sometimes sharply at odds with the official ones, and in which an effective curator can have real-world political impact. For example, the “Libs of TikTok” Twitter account is credited with having transformed US education debates — simply by collating video statements made by progressive teachers.

In turn, this has spawned a whole meta-industry of NGOs whose remit is to stop unofficial noticers getting out of hand. Recent years have seen a boom in “fact-checking” organisations, who aim to extend the governance of noticing out into the internet badlands, often funded by immensely wealthy philanthropists — many of whom have well-documented political agendas.

This looks variously like an attempt to defend truth from manipulation by bad actors, or else covert censorship riddled with obvious bias. But the internet abounds with people who have assembled truly outlandish narratives from their preferred data points, such as in the QAnon conspiracy. And “misinformation” isn’t just a self-serving elite story: bot farms are routinely used in information warfare, to give the appearance of mass support to overseas messaging operations.

It should come as no surprise, then, that even the US Government is now an overt player in the politics of noticing. Last week, Joe Biden launched a “Disinformation Governance Board” whose job it is to tell the rest of the English-speaking world what is or isn’t real on the internet. Predictably, though, the reaction to this body was cynical. And no wonder: for Biden’s intervention does no more to address the loss of facts, objectivity and truth-seeking driven by information superabundance, than obviously biased “fact-checking” bodies funded by progressive philanthropists.

But no amount of such “governance” will stop people noticing when narratives are uplifted, deprecated, or transformed from “disinformation” to accepted fact — or prevent them wondering about the context for such shifts.

Many Americans noticed, for example, when the insalubrious contents of a laptop belonging to then-Presidential candidate Joe Biden’s son Hunter went from “Russian disinformation” to “authenticated by the Washington Post” in the time it took his father to beat Donald Trump at the polling booth. We’ll never know if burying that story swung the election. But it probably helped: an intuition that is, for many, just one more data point in the pattern of “neutrality” and “objectivity” serving as mere fig-leaves for partisan manoeuvring.

It’s common now to complain about the other side being guilty of “post-truth” politics, or to blame variously “woke tyranny” or “Right-wing authoritarianism” for the sense that truth has been replaced by something dismayingly slippery and chronically biased. But it’s a mistake to imagine that this is all the fault of whoever you consider your political enemies.

Free speech, objectivity, facts and the “marketplace of ideas” really are hopelessly compromised. But what killed them wasn’t Those Bad People Over There; it was the internet. It gave us too much information, and with it came attention politics. Now even the most die-hard defenders of political neutrality might as well lean into their own biases, because even if they don’t people will still notice them.

What we don’t know yet is how far it’s possible to go in forcing public assent to narratives that are flagrantly untrue. That’s ultimately a question of how completely a given elite is able to control the public sphere, in a hyper-mediated culture, if a critical mass of ordinary people doesn’t want to play ball. In any case, I suspect we’re on track to find out.


Mary Harrington is a contributing editor at UnHerd.

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Jonathan Nash
Jonathan Nash
2 years ago

I think this is a very good article, which chimes with something which I’ve been thinking about for a few months now: public discourse over the past twenty or so years has broken free of any mooring in fact or sense of proportion, and is buffetted by the PR operations of competing interest groups, and media organisations whose one and only interest is landing the next “scoop” which will pull in eyeballs and therefore revenue. As Mary says, its exhausting for us, the poor bloody infantry.

Frances An
Frances An
2 years ago

Harrington points out ways that parties can silence speech by rendering it incomprehensible noise in an online universe floundering in information. The result is viewers left at the mercy of those who are best able to manipulate the psychology and politics of attention. What an insightful combination of ideas that cognitive and political scientists have mentioned individually, but rarely fitted in such a neat, logical way. This is why Harrington is one of my ‘always click’ authors on UnHerd!

Former Guardian Reader
Former Guardian Reader
2 years ago

A few weeks ago the Mail on Sunday published a report about Labour deputy leader Angela Rayner. It alleged that she had been crossing and uncrossing her legs in Parliament in order to distract Prime Minister Boris Johnson. This story was the subject of a lot of coverage and discussion and the Speaker of the House of Commons requested a meeting with the editor of the Mail on Sunday and Angela Rayner was interviewed about the story on daytime ITV. You may be familiar with the story.
In January 2022 an investigation by the Mirror found that an official report commissioned by the Greater Manchester Combined Authority had found that Oldham Council and Greater Manchester Police had covered up serious failings in the way they dealt with a 12-year-old girl. The girl was subjected to 20 sex attacks by eight men in one night which included 15 rapes. Those attacks began after the girl was picked up by two men outside a police station where she had gone to report an earlier sexual assault but was dismissed by the desk clerk as a time waster. Only one man was convicted of any of the offences committed that night and a teacher was also convicted of raping the girl, an allegation the authorities previously dismissed as attention seeking by the girl. The Mirror reported that the unpublished report stated that “the responses of both [Oldham] council and Greater Manchester Police in replying to complaints made by [the victim] are disappointing”, that “both agencies consistently denied they failed in their duties to her” and that “these denials create an impression that both agencies were more concerned with covering up their failures than acknowledging the harm”.
The 12-year-old girl was attacked in 2006, nine years before Angela Rayner was elected as MP for Ashton-under-Lyne which includes council wards in Oldham. You may not be familiar with the story of what happened to the 12-year-old from Oldham and the report into how she and others were failed (which has not been published because “further significant evidence has been brought forward”) because some people pay a lot of attention to a story about someone saying bad things about a female politician and pay no attention to lots of stories about underage girls being raped by lots of men under the noses of the police and social workers.

ARNAUD ALMARIC
ARNAUD ALMARIC
2 years ago

Besides the child, were there any Anglo-Saxons involved in this barbarism?

Former Guardian Reader
Former Guardian Reader
2 years ago
Reply to  ARNAUD ALMARIC

It is a good question and in this case there was. The rape that the 12-year-old girl from Oldham had originally tried to report to the authorities was committed by a teacher called Paul Waites who has now been convicted of serious sexual offences on three occasions and has been given a life sentence.
When the 12-year-old girl from Oldham left the police station after being dismissed as a time waster she was then abused by eight men but only one of them has ever been identified (Shakil Chowdhury who was convicted of six counts of rape in 2007 and jailed for six years).
In 2012 at the age of 18 the victim waived her right to anonymity and called for an inquiry into child sexual exploitation in the wake of the Rochdale convictions. I only just found that out but I doubt many people have heard of Samantha Roberts (now known as Samantha Walker-Roberts) and her campaign because it hasn’t received much attention outside the local press in Oldham. Compare the attention given to her case or any of the so-called “grooming gang” trials with the attention given to the Ghislaine Maxwell trial.

ARNAUD ALMARIC
ARNAUD ALMARIC
2 years ago

Thank you, most interesting.

Jeremy Bray
Jeremy Bray
2 years ago

One of the best articles Mary H has written. I had to smile at the image of Mary earnestly trying to avoid adverts on the tube as a contribution to the anti-capitalist struggle. It is true that we only have a limited amount of time to research the truth of any particular issue so inevitably tend to go with the view of those whose biases we trust most.

Michael J
Michael J
2 years ago

This is why the NPC and “I support the current thing” memes have such resonance. The purveyors of the message have such control over the curating of information that everyone seems to be singing off the same hymn sheet. Very good article.

Last edited 2 years ago by Michael J
AC Harper
AC Harper
2 years ago

An excellent article about how we have got to where we are now. Yet most people ‘cope’ by placing their attention with a particular source. Whether that’s the main stream media, social media groups, blogs, or special interest newsletters.
Now this may sometimes result in people attending to things that are not factually true, but it also means that untruths put out by organisations will not receive the full attention they desire.
Despite the fear of overload I support legal Free Speech. It may generate competing narratives but eventually a generally truthful conclusion will emerge, although it may take years. The alternative is constrained speech, constrained by those in control, and truthful conclusions may never emerge.

Giles Toman
Giles Toman
2 years ago

Let people say what they want, I do not see why this is true:
“The problem is, you can’t really have a functioning society where anyone can say anything — or at least it won’t function for long.”
My life continues to function much as it did in pre-internet days just with easier home delivery shopping.
It is possible to ingore unwanted “babble” and just, you know, live your life.
No need to stop people, even fools, from yammering all they like.

Steve Murray
Steve Murray
2 years ago
Reply to  Giles Toman

This is so true. My version of Mary’s advert avoidance is facilitated by technology. Whilst watching tv, I either pre-record programmes of (potential) interest and skip through the ads at x6 speed; or pause anything of interest I stumble across for about 10 minutes whilst making a cup of coffee then press play and skip through the ads that way. I’ve managed to watch tv without seeing a single advert for quite some time now!

The feeling of empowerment – of having beaten the ad noise – is wonderful.

Derrick Hand
Derrick Hand
2 years ago

The internet has thrown humanity into the middle of an ocean of information and humanity longs to return to that tiny safe harbor that the mainstream media told us was reality. This article basically says (and I agree) that people in the main are cattle, that is, they are easily lead. Making choices and decisions is a timed exercise. It is easier to simply ascribe to a culture of ideas than think them through, ergo religion, political parties, etc. When you realize that the overwhelming majority of people don’t care about your conclusions nor will they have any significant impact on your world you wonder, what’s the point. Is the smartest man on the planet Warren Buffett, serious, hard working, money manipulator or Jimmy Buffet, who has sang and played his way through life and made a half a billion dollars in the process. I don’t hear either of them agonizing over the grand scheme of things.
It has amused the gods to make men followers but to download and install a “bull shit” detector that requires no skill at logic. That makes it easier to embrace an idea without overly considering the ill effects it may cause, such as the right to abortion and gender confusion in children, etc.
The author concludes “What we don’t know yet is how far it’s possible to go in forcing public assent to narratives that are flagrantly untrue.” Actually we do. The patently and flagrantly false narrative that humans are all “equal” that is embraced by the West is demonstrably false. We are not equal in the eyes of God, nor the eyes of the state, nor the courts, nor the eyes of each other. Pick any metric of your choice and you don’t have to bore down very deep to find the lie. If we were all equal there wouldn’t be any issues of inequality. We are in fact all individuals, born to different opportunities, in different cultures with different traits, health issues, capabilities and desires. What we have are people with greater persuasive, manipulative, skills persuading and manipulating the rest of us with notions like equality. So this false narrative of equality has totally consumed modern man and has devolved into “Woke” madness and could be said to be at the heart of all our problems today. We should rethink it and consider how we can expand the middle class by taking advantage of our differences. We can start by disregarding the mainstream media.

Last edited 2 years ago by Derrick Hand
Andrew Fisher
Andrew Fisher
2 years ago
Reply to  Derrick Hand

You are rather literal minded about equality.

The dominant Christian beliefs of the West posit that human beings ARE fundamentally equal in the sight of God. We are all granted a dignity as human beings. (This would have been a very alien thought to many societies, including the Ancient Romans). And this has repercussions in the later political equality that we have the same inalienable civic and political rights. This does not mean that we all necessarily run at the same speed, earn the same or even are equally intelligent.

Dustshoe Richinrut
Dustshoe Richinrut
2 years ago

“
 a stifling social consensus that governs what gets liked, shared or referenced; 
”

The 1997 The Truman Show movie is a good example, I think, of the corrupting power of advertising at entertainment’s expense. It’s when entertainment plays second fiddle to the posing and pouting that’s most evident in advertising. It’s astonishing how this change in attitudes has happened. Does the good cheer of The Muppet Show no longer matter? When the screen was bigger, the entertainment had had to be grander.

Lesley van Reenen
Lesley van Reenen
2 years ago

I have written a strongly worded letter to them!

Paul O
Paul O
2 years ago

Thanks Lesley. I hope they listen as it is starting to spoil the enjoyment of the articles and the often very well-written and thought provoking comments.

ARNAUD ALMARIC
ARNAUD ALMARIC
2 years ago

Sadly it won’t make any difference. The present “ fire and forget “ system is here to stay, complete with onerous censorship.
Better head for that beach of yours, and hope the Great White is snacking off Bondi.

ARNAUD ALMARIC
ARNAUD ALMARIC
2 years ago
Reply to  ARNAUD ALMARIC

Same here!

Ian Barton
Ian Barton
2 years ago

There aren’t many advantages to having a brain that’s constantly pre-occupied, because you fail to observe a lot of what is round you – but one obvious benefit seems to be that I virtually never notice advertising.
Being unable to multi-task has advantages.

Last edited 2 years ago by Ian Barton
Victoria Cooper
Victoria Cooper
2 years ago

A long winded way of saying we should seek to understand both sides of a story.

Andrew Fisher
Andrew Fisher
2 years ago

I think there is much more to it than that We are almost forced – or at least strongly encouraged – to go with some preferred narratives and not others. We psychologically have to make some sense of the information and propaganda bombardment. And – how do we judge or trust the supposedly ‘neutral’ arbiters? Taking a quick look at the often wildly discordant comments on UnHerd rather supports this reading.

Henry Haslam
Henry Haslam
2 years ago

We all – especially the young – have to develop our antennae for distinguishing what can be trusted and what cannot. If you want to be believed, it helps if you can refer back to something the reader knows already. It also helps if you can state where you got the information from in the first place.

Jon Hawksley
Jon Hawksley
2 years ago

“What we don’t know yet is how far it’s possible to go in forcing public assent to narratives that are flagrantly untrue.” Russian acceptance of Putin’s speeches suggests it can go a very long way indeed. What can be done? I would like to think that education can teach everyone to listen crtically and think for themselves but I fear the best we can hope for is such diversity in opinions that none gain enough momentum to do lasting damage.

ken wilsher
ken wilsher
2 years ago

All very good and frightening.
There is an enlightening article in the Washington Post today about Instagram. Instagram cannot keep you stuck in a tube train surrounded by ads, but they have insidious ways to keep you on-line and scrolling. Well worth reading the article if you can. The gist of it is that every tiny finger move or pause you make while scrolling/clicking is fed into an analyzer whose “aim” in life is to keep you scrolling and clicking. Perhaps even the people running Instagram do not really understand “the algorithm” but they can see that it is keeping you on-line and scrolling so the money from advertisers keeps coming in. Any move you even subconsciously make is recorded and will factor into what you are going to “find” next. In the WP article the writer found his feed becoming more and more strange. This is obviously a failure of the algorithm in its present form! I am sure someone – or some “thing” is working on improvements.
Our dangerous natural tendency to like people/organizations who hand out gifts seems to enable Facebook, Instagram etc. to keep providing legal brain rot without taking any responsibility. Well – why should they?

Michael Coleman
Michael Coleman
2 years ago

Interesting article but I think blaming just the internet is too simplistic
Disinformation was a serious problem before the internet – see the excellent Unherd piece https://unherd.com/thepost/the-new-york-timess-worst-pulitzer-prize-winners/ which describes numerous huge, past deceptions, mostly emanating from the world’s most prominent newspaper.
What was different last century was that there was a diversity of political worldviews of the information gate keepers. This diversity acted as a check or limit on MSM misinformation and also to keep the editorial leanings of these sources close to the mean population positions.
MSM sources have become increasingly biased/deceptive over time. Many of us know this and seeking out alternative information sources (on the internet) is as much a reaction to this need as is a genesis of the problem.

Andrew Holmes
Andrew Holmes
2 years ago

A neighbor of mine believes that the US government is deseminating an unspecified poison via aircraft contrails. I knew a lady convinced that fluoride in drinking water was a communist plot. I regularly read comments by individuals who haven’t grasped that the Trump-Russia Steele report was a political fraud. So what? Society hasn’t collapsed.

I know of no example of “Misinformation Governance Boards”, however named in the past, ever becoming anything other than a cloak disguising propaganda or outright censorship. Manifold and clear are the (non-slanderous) problems with untrammeled free speech. However, following Churchill on democracy, it beats all of the alternatives.

Russ W
Russ W
2 years ago

Mary, I’m worried about you.

  • The problem is, you can’t really have a functioning society where anyone can say anything — or at least it won’t function for long.

The reverse is true, you can’t have a functioning society where one person or dominant group gets to define what may and may not be said. There is a word for this, “totalitarianism.” You have read Orwell’s 1984, right?

  • Free speech, objectivity, facts and the “marketplace of ideas” really are hopelessly compromised.

No, they are not. Yes, many now reject objectivity and believe that “diversity, inclusion, and equity” will bring about a utopia. They are delusional. We must return to our classical liberal ways and stand up to these bullies or perish.

  • But what killed them wasn’t Those Bad People Over There; it was the internet. It gave us too much information, and with it came attention politics.

The internet is a symptom and an amplifier, the causes are multiple:

  1. Human corruption, greed
  2. Arrogance, that we are somehow “perfectible” if only everyone would think what they are told to think by the “experts”
  3. To completely abandon the enlightenment ethics and values and imperfect but functional grand narratives that helped create a reasonably stable western society. We’ve gone too far.
  4. The active subversion of western institutions of a laundered neo-Marxist “social justice” ideology funded by billionaires (see 1 and 2 and 3) aided by the west’s philosophical enemies. But it isn’t our enemies’ fault, we are doing it to ourselves.

I like your writing and you teach me things, thank you. My worry was sincere, we need your journalism. So, be hopeful. Have faith. Help us regain what has been lost!

Dawn McD
Dawn McD
2 years ago

The most difficult thing I do for myself now is consciously decide what to pay attention to. Anger helps; the feeling of being manipulated and having my time wasted by the Twitter crowd finally knotted up my gut enough to delete my account (and I’m not going back, even if Elon reigns supreme). I don’t want to be “uninformed,” whatever that means now, but even Unherd is part of the problem. Too many articles, not enough time. The muscle that gets the most exercise now is the one that decides what to click on and what to let go. It’s also good to set everything down and go outside occasionally. If you have a dog to go with you, even better.

Former Guardian Reader
Former Guardian Reader
2 years ago

Here’s another story which proves that Mary Harrington is right. In May 2020 a black man died in Minneapolis in the United States of America after being held down on the ground by a police officer. A passer-by filmed the man being held down and it was also recorded by a body-cam worn by a police officer. Following the man’s death there were protests in at least 2000 places in the USA and in at least 60 countries and some of those protests turned violent. The man’s death led to the revival of the gesture of “taking the knee”, particularly at sporting events. Three of the recurring features of the reaction to the man’s death were the repetition of a phrase the man used when he was being held down (“I can’t breathe”), chants of “No justice? No peace” and a call to “say his name”. The man’s name? George Floyd.
If a man were to die in similar circumstances on the streets of Britain you may expect it to be the subject of widespread coverage. You may expect it if the man being held down was recorded on a body-cam worm by the person holding him down who wasn’t even a police officer. You may expect it if the man being held down repeatedly said “I can’t breathe”. You may expect it if a coroner had ruled that the man who was held down had been unlawfully killed, policies had been disregarded and the force used was grossly excessive. You may expect it if no criminal charges had been brought against those who held the man down. Say his name.
Don’t you know his name? Don’t you know when he was held down? Don’t you know where he said “I can’t breathe”? What’s the man’s name?