Hello again everyone! I hope you are all having a lovely summer. I have spent a lot of time writing stories, listening to podcasts, and making increasingly complicated friendship bracelets (more on that later).
I regularly listen to about eight different podcasts, of which one of my favourites this summer has been ‘Talking Politics’. It’s from the Politics and International Studies department of Cambridge University, and floats all sorts of interesting theories and ideas about modern politics. I particularly like their academic, dispassionate analysis of the news – something that feels hard to find these days. And, as an added bonus, they aren’t afraid to admit they get their predictions wrong! Their post UK election special was particularly refreshing in that respect 😀
Their latest episode was in conversation with the winner of a competition to write an essay with the title: ‘Are digital technologies making politics impossible?’. Here is the link to listen to the episode in full – please do! It’s very interesting.
Some things that David Runciman (the host of the podcast) and James Williams (the winner of the competition) talked about struck me as important and interesting insights into the climate of the internet today, and how it affects politics. And in this blog post, I’m going to share with you the research I have done, inspired by and expanding upon the topics raised in the episode.
First of all; the internet. We use it all the time, and most of us, many, many times a day. Looked at in some ways, it is the most powerful equalizer of modern times. Anyone with access to a computer, a laptop, a smartphone, or even just a library, can search up any information they wish.
And information is in abundance. In fact, if you ask the question ‘how much information does the internet hold?’ the website Science Focus provides a pretty good answer:
Consider the sum total of data held by all the big online storage and service companies like Google, Amazon, Microsoft and Facebook. Estimates are that the big four store at least 1,200 petabytes between them. That is 1.2 million terabytes (one terabyte is 1,000 gigabytes). And that figure excludes other big providers like Dropbox, Barracuda and SugarSync, to say nothing of massive servers in industry and academia.
However huge that may sound, one should look at it as a starting point. The vast majority of sites on the internet have not been indexed by companies such as Google, and so the number does not include them. Also, this answer was given in 2013 – four years ago!
I’ve searched around for more recent answers, but none is as precise. The consensus is that the internet is this growing, uncontrolled mass of information that is practically unquantifiable and constantly in a state of flux. A bit like the universe, one website said.
And since we use the internet for its information so often, with what may seem like only benefit to ourselves, we may be fooled that it is ‘free’.
But its not! Everytime we search through Google, or find out information on a website, we are paying for it. You are even paying to read this blog post right now.
You are paying, not with money, but with your attention.
This theory, that our use of the internet is an exchange of your attention for my information, is called the ‘Attention Economy’. Here is the link to Wikipedia, where you can learn more:
And at first glance, this seems to be mutually beneficial. If my writing is interesting enough to be read, I will get read, and you will gain new information. It’s a neat little exchange, and the internet is the perfect marketplace for it.
But the more information that the internet holds, the less attention there is for each individual bit of information. So, if you think of it in ‘supply and demand’ terms; there is so much information readily available on the internet, that our limited attention is actually becoming valuable.
Now, having understood this exchange, the next step for companies or anyone interested in making a profit (whether that be money or other aims, such as winning elections) is to exploit this. The incentives go like this; grab peoples attention successfully, and it will lead on to profit.
This is very clear in internet marketing and advertising, where many advertisers follow the acronym AIDA: Attention, Interest, Desire, Action. As an example, consider this scenario:
I’m reading an article in the Guardian, when an advert for Nike shoes captures my attention. I like Nike shoes, and the advert has lots of bright colours and an enticing strapline, which makes me interested enough to be distracted from what I’m reading. I really like the particular shoes of the advert, and desire them enough to click on the ad, and maybe even complete the action of buying them.
Attention, of course, is the first and some might argue the most important of these steps.
And the best way to grab someone’s attention is, it seems to me, to provoke some sort of deep emotion in them. Surprise, perhaps, or outrage, or excitement, anger, happiness.
So, with internet content providers having the incentive to capture attention, one might hypothesise that information (or content) will start to appear which evokes these kinds of strong emotions.
And it has! The word ‘clickbait’ is one that will be familiar to many regular users of the internet. But when I dropped it casually into conversation with my parents, they were distinctly bemused by it, and the modern phenomenon that it emanates from.
(on the internet) content whose main purpose is to attract attention and encourage visitors to click on a link to a particular web page.
‘these recent reports of the show’s imminent demise are hyperbolic clickbait’.
Users of the website Youtube will also be familiar with the word. Youtube pays its contributors according to how many views each video gets (so views in the millions = very rich youtube stars). This has led to the rise of hyperbolic, factually dubious, video titles. For example:
SPOILER: She does not go blind, but does now have 1 million subscribers (and I am one of them!).
And for another example of clickbait, you might like to scroll up to the top of this webpage for the title of this post: ‘I know why Donald Trump won the US election.’ Is it hyperbolic? Yes. Is it factually dubious? Also yes. Will it attract more attention than a more accurate title, such as ‘The Attention Economy’? We’ll have to see.
But my title was not entirely based in fiction. Clickbait is the driving force behind fake news, which many believe to have had an impact on the election.
Fake news is everywhere; from Facebook and Twitter feeds to the bottom of many free-to-read news articles. This was at the bottom of a Daily Mail article this morning:
Donald Trump himself has also capitalised enormously off the Attention Economy. The vast majority of his tweets (and, it seems sometimes, almost every other word he says!) provoke strong emotions in millions of people. His extraordinary ability to grab attention should be admired; whether people agree with or are outraged by something he has said, they are still talking about him.
Some explosive – and much talked about – quotations of his include:
I’ve said that if Ivanka wasn’t my daughter, perhaps I’d be dating her.
[North Korean leader Kim Jong Un] is 27 years old. His father dies, took over a regime. So say what you want but that is not easy, especially at that age.
All of the women on The Apprentice flirted with me – consciously or unconsciously. That’s to be expected.
When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending the best. They’re not sending you, they’re sending people that have lots of problems and they’re bringing those problems with us. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bring crime. They’re rapists… And some, I assume, are good people.
I will build a great wall – and nobody builds walls better than me, believe me – and I’ll build them very inexpensively. I will build a great, great wall on our southern border, and I will make Mexico pay for that wall. Mark my words.
Trump was the most googled person in 88 countries in the world in 2016, according to Time (see link below). According to another study of internet searches in America by Eric Schulman, as part of a continuing review of the data around fame, he is also the most famous person in the world right now (link also below).
So, in conclusion, I do think that a major factor in the reason why Donald Trump won the election was due to his ability to capture people’s attention through the internet, and through essentially ‘gaming’ the Attention Economy. Who knows whether he has done this consciously or unconsciously, perhaps just living by the mantra, ‘there is no such thing as bad publicity’. But, as David Runciman of ‘Talking Politics’ says, he has ‘managed to monopolise the attention of the entire world’.
I’ve really enjoyed exploring this topic – I hope you have enjoyed reading it too! Any thoughts?