Attention at All Costs: The Lure of Conspiracy Theories and Their Tie to the Fake News Epidemic

According to Tristan Harris, former Google design ethicist, we are deeply entrenched in the attention economy and the competition for attention is intense. As such, tech companies are deploying thousands of engineers who are working hard to keep us glued to our smartphones, which ultimately control our life. It’s why we check our phones an average of 150 times a day and why advertisers now spend an estimated $31 billion on social media advertising each year (as of 2016). It’s why our children aged 8-12 now spend an average of 6 hours a day on entertainment media:

But as a marketer, I wonder if it’s really that simple? We all know that the goal of marketing a product or service is to capture attention, engagement, and leads, that ultimately converts to a sale. There are many ways of course to do this in the attention economy from email strategies, to content marketing, in person events, traditional advertising, influencer relations, social media marketing, and more. Are the tech companies really at fault for keeping us glued to our phones? According to an essay written by Harris:

The attention economy means that no matter what a technology company aims to create – an informative news site like the New York Times, a meditation app to help people meditate, a social network, or an addictive game – they win by getting people to spend time. What starts as an honest competition to make useful things that people spend time on, devolves into a race to the bottom of the brain stem to maximize the time we spend.

The Larger Issue: Attention at All Costs 

A bigger issue to me is the fact that we’re operating in a marketplace where attention is valued at nearly all costs. When attention is the goal, sensationalism wins. Fake news flatters. Outrageousness edges to the front and piques an interest. And the race to the bottom of the brain stem becomes a real problem, dumbing us down, closing us off to reason, narrowing our perspectives into the tiniest of fragments. When attention at all costs is the goal, the economy actually loses. According to Harris:

Companies sell users’ attention and personal information to the highest bidder, who uses it to manipulate thoughts and beliefs—be it about products or politics—with very little transparency. This critically undermines our free will and democracy. So many of our institutions depend on us having sovereign minds and sovereign ideas. It’s time to start rigorously questioning advertising’s business model, and reorganize the attention economy to align with public wellbeing.

In short, I agree with Harris that the narrative needs to change. The conversation needs to shift before it’s too late. But it also goes back to culture. In many ways our culture has been primed for the tipping point we’ve reached today. How will things change?

The Lure of Conspiracy Theories and Their Tie to the Fake News Epidemic

On a separate but related note, I recently got to thinking about all of the hoaxes circulating on the web meant to subvert truth and support various agendas. Following the recent chemical attack in Syria I noticed the trending hashtag #syriahoax, which was later tied to a pro-Assad regime push. This immediately reminded me of all the conspiracy theories that popped up surrounding 9/11, Sandy Hook, and the Boston Marathon bombing. Did you know that “Half of All Americans Believe 9 11 Conspiracy Theories” (Huffington Post)? Or that “In an age of ‘alternative facts’ a massacre of schoolchildren is called a hoax” (LA Times)? Wired Magazine also published an interesting article entitled “False flags, fake blood and Michelle Obama: A guide to Boston Marathon conspiracy theories.”

As such I recently had the pleasure of catching two short TED talks that addressed many of the above-referenced points. In the first, Deborah Lipstadt talks about the psychology and agenda of Holocaust deniers:

In the second talk, journalist Stephanie Busari talks about what happens when your attention is being directed to the “wrong” questions, the tough questions:

According to social and organizational psychologist Jan-Willem van Prooijen conspiracy theories particularly likely to flourish in times of collective uncertainty in society, particularly after high-profile incidents that imply a sudden change in society or a sudden change in reality in a threatening way.

Belief in conspiracy theories arises from a combination of anxiety, pessimism, and over reliance on using simple answers to explain complicated problems. And because — occasionally — there truly are conspiracies and bad actors trying to manipulate the world to their advantage, belief in these theories persists.

While this could turn into another discussion entirely (and perhaps already has!), the basic point is that attention at all costs fundamentally leads us down the wrong path, and the narrative/metrics/culture has to change. And it can start with marketers.

As marketing professionals on the front lines of the infowars, those who are behind the designs of customer experience, those mass influencing how people are actually spending their time on the web, defining the content that is consumed, it’s time to move past the lure of the bright, shiny object and start engaging customers in a way that resonates for the long-term, and in the right way. I think Tristan Harris is on the right track. You can learn more about his plight, Time Well Spent here.

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