Survival Guide for the Attention Economy

The election is less than two weeks away here in Germany, and people are starting to go crazy. Last-minute requests for additional TV duels, right-populist politicians employing refugees & one party capturing Facebook groups of another party are dominating the media. Good times.

An important factor in building political opinions and steering the public image of a party or a candidate is what we call the “Attention Economy”. If you’ve never heard that term before, you should read the very good article “This Is How Your Fear and Outrage Are Being Sold for Profit” by Tobias Rose-Stockwell before. And watch this excellent video essay from Evan Puschak:

To sum it up: In the attention economy, the time we spend with a certain thing can be seen as a currency. The time we are exposed to a certain opinion, person or brand increases the identification for that thing.

Now, this causes a potential danger when it comes to politics: If you spend more time with a political candidate or party, even if you disagree with them, the exposure and knowledge you have about them increases the likelihood that you will at some point make a decision based on them – in worst case vote for them. Politicians know that and try to get as much exposure as possible – sometimes with very controversial statements intended to provoke their opponents to interact with them, causing more exposure within their circles. And in the social media age, that is everyone of us.

If you know me a bit, you know that I never post any political views. I like to grant everyone their own views, even if those aren’t mine or I disagree with them. Mostly because this is how democracy works. What I don’t like though is when people get tricked into spreading political messages they do not agree with, being turned into unknowing multipliers. This way of abusing the attention economy is a dangerous thread for our democracy, and I want you to be aware of that.

How do I come to writing about this? A friend of mine shared a post from a conservative politician two weeks ago, who complained about English-speaking hipsters in Berlin. The politician couldn’t care less about what language you have to order your Flat White in Kreuzberg, but he is using this highly provocative subject to get his name out. My friend, although he disagrees with almost everything this politician stands for, found himself in the Flat-White-story and gave the politician exposure – like many others. Scary, isn’t it?

The question I’m trying to answer is: How can we still have a political discussion around the topics that strive us? How can we avoid giving people that we disagree with exposure? How can we own this discussion? Here is my political survival guide for the attention economy:

1. Look at the context

When you find a story that pulls your triggers, try to take a step back. Why do they post that story? Why do they make that statement? Usually, there is a good reason why provocative things come up at certain times. Is it election time? Are they trying to distract you from something?

The 1997 film “Wag the Dog” gives a very entertaining and conspirative version of how political distraction could work:

The movie shows another thing: Distraction isn’t a new thing that came up with social media, it’s been a political instrument that has been around for a long long time. Yet it became much easier in the times of Facebook and co. That is why it is so important to take notice of the context – if you know that, you can handle any kind of discussion much better.

2. Don’t Like or Comment

Whatever you do on social media, don’t like, heart, angry-face or comment on posts that come from people you don’t want to give exposure to. In the moment you interact with a post, the algorithm will rank it higher – every interaction counts. The likelihood of the post being displayed more prominently to their own audience will rise.

But not only that – in the moment you get on the post, it might be shown to your friends and contacts. You will become an unwilling multiplier.

This is not only Facebook-specific, it works very similarly in all feed-based media. Never interact with posts you disagree with!

3. Don’t share it!

That’s what they want – share their posts, share their thoughts, share their name. There is a populist Berlin-based politician who posted statements so provocative and stupid that she had to excuse later by having “slipped on the mouse”. Planned or not, this provocation was angrily shared by a lot of my friends – exhausting themselves of how stupid someone can be.

Out of a sudden, my own feed was filled with the name and face of that at the time fairly unknown populist politician. The story was picked up the media, helping her to get even more attention.

Even worse about sharing: it helps people to get backlinks to their own channels, turning your feed into a free ad-space. You don’t want that.

If you need to share a quote, take a screenshot instead. But even better, …

4. Don’t mention their name

… Don’t give them credit. The moment you repeat their name, they get a reference. That’s what they want.

You may have realized that I don’t mention any names here – instead, I’m describing the situations, making it harder to track down the people I don’t want to give credit to. In screenshots, you can pixelate their names, in a written text you can use descriptions or nicknames instead: “conservative politician”, “Trixi” or “Orange Duckface” – people will know who you are referring to.

5. Don’t be against it, be in favor of something else instead

The ultimate tip is to find an alternative. Don’t argue statements that you disagree with, instead emphasize those that you believe in. Positivity over negativity. Hold up your values, don’t react to theirs. This will make you much much happier, it will also put you in control of the situation.

By the way, this does not only work for political discussions, it works for all kind of controversies and sensationalism. Mention initiatives like Kleiner5 rather than arguing with populists. Check and share facts on Mimikama instead of spreading and commenting fake news. Focus on humanity instead of spreading terror news.

As a designer, I believe having a strong media competence is an important part of our political education. Knowing how to operate media in the age of the attention economy is crucial to stand in for the things that you believe – and not get instrumentalized by people you disagree with. Even more important:

Go Vote!

Johannes Ippen
About the Author

Johannes Ippen is a designer from Berlin, passionate about French punk rock, really strong espresso and writing about design. Follow him on Twitter for more of design-related essays. Full bio →