The Attention Economy defines “Attention” in economic terms as a scarce resource to be monetized. The more attention, the more gratification and money you get based on the number of likes, followers, clicks, and views you generate from the social media platforms you use daily. Unfortunately, the Attention Economy’s unrestrained nature has had an insidious impact on our lives and created a toxic culture of misinformation, lies, hate, and perpetual distraction.
Psychologist, Economist, and Nobel Laureate Herbert A. Simon coined the term. He described the Attention Economy as a bottleneck of human thought. Giant social media companies Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, and TikTok are taking full advantage. They dominate this marketplace, make billions, and do not care about its negative impact on society. It is all about the money. And every time you like, click, comment, post, or watch, you represent a transaction of Attention.
The tech giants have spent decades figuring out how to get you hooked on the Attention Economy with their free social media platforms, infinite scrolling, clever notification sounds, short videos, deep fakes, and, more recently, sophisticated AI algorithms designed to further stimulate a psychological response and dopamine release as a reward.
Companies like Meta work hard to keep all your Attention focused on their platforms (i.e., Facebook, Instagram, and now Threads) to collect, analyze, and sell your data and generate billions of advertising revenue. 2023 Social media advertising revenue is projected to hit $207 billion. We now spend almost three hours daily immersed in the Attention Economy. Our smartphone, a primary access point into this economy, is now the first thing you pick up in the morning and the last thing most people put down at night.
Not all attention on social media platforms is terrible. We can easily keep friends and family updated about our lives, post recipes and pictures of family vacations, find new communities to join, and connect with people across the globe on social media. Regular people have jumped into the attention business. An Instagram influencer needs approximately 5,000 followers to earn around a hundred thousand dollars annually, depending on the demographic they reach, and make more as the number of followers grows.
However, the bad far outweighs the good. The vast amounts of money flowing through the Attention Economy and the lack of laws to regulate it have created a toxic environment where bad actors thrive.
The biggest problem is that tech giants are shielded from litigation. Unfortunately, internet tech companies in the US have immunity from any liability concerning third-party content their users generate. Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act of 1996 was designed to give an infant tech industry room to grow without fear of being buried in lawsuits. However, tech companies are now the wealthiest companies in the world and no longer need blanket legal protection.
To restrain the Attention Economy, we need more effective tools. Alex Jones told his millions of Infowars followers across social media outlets that the 2012 Sandy Hook massacre of 26 people, mostly children 6 and 7 years old, was a hoax, no children died, and the parents were actors. There was little the parents could do to shut him up. In 2018, YouTube, Apple, Facebook banned Infowars from its platforms, but it took too long as their lawyers reviewed their service agreement’s rules on hate speech. Meanwhile, these horrific lies about slaughtered babies helped generate over $50 million annually in revenue for Inforwars.
It’s time to modify Section 230 and allow another path to pressure wealthy tech companies to take down harmful content and sue when they do not comply, making them more accountable and motivated to police their platform quicker.
However, our legislators can barely turn on their computers, let alone pass innovative laws to rein in our out-of-control social media. They focus more on how the Attention Economy can benefit them (i.e., fundraising, activating their base, lobbying dollars).
We should look to the European Union (EU), which is way ahead of the US regarding online regulation. The EU’s Digital Services Act (DCA) and Digital Marketing Act (DMA) represent landmark online legislation, which goes live in 2024. The DCA will require Big Tech firms to rid their platforms of harmful and false content quickly. It creates new user protections, including appeal mechanisms to the tech platforms, independent arbitrators, and courts. US lawmakers should craft laws that fit our legal norms, use courts to enforce content “takedown” rules and establish fast timelines and heavy penalties for non-compliance.
Victims of hate speech and misinformation with few tools to pressure tech companies have turned to high-profile defamation litigation to punish bad actors. The parents of murdered Sandy Hook children pursued hard-to-prove defamation litigation against Jones, which required proving malice (he knew it was a lie). It took years, but in 2022, the parents were awarded almost a billion dollars in damages. In another high-profile defamation case, Dominion Voting Systems was awarded $787 million in a settlement with Fox News in the voting machine company’s defamation lawsuit, representing another colossal win for truth. However, such litigation is very expensive and risky.
Content moderation in the Attention Economy is complicated because it involves Speech, and most people need help understanding what the Constitution says about Free Speech. The First Amendment states, “Congress shall make no law… abridging freedom of speech.” Therefore, when Facebook, a private company (not the government), makes rules about removing misinformation or harmful speech, It does not violate a person’s First Amendment right to free speech. If you do not like an online company’s content rules, boycott the service. Complicating matters further is when politicians describe lies and toxic speech as political speech, as Trump regularly does to justify continued lying, which is nonsense.
You cannot trust a significant portion of Attention Economy traffic. Much of it is misinformation and lies generated by click farms and fake accounts, by bad actors like conspiracy theorists, foreign powers, and even a former President. There is so much information coming at us it is exhausting trying to determine what is true and false. Unfortunately, misinformation travels and takes hold much faster than the truth. It is easier to believe lies when it confirms your worldview (i.e., confirmation bias). This is why the proliferation of election lies by Fox News and others was so damaging, leading many to embrace the lie.
The Attention Economy steals time away from doing productive tasks. This year, TikTok users worldwide will spend 23 hours and 28 minutes a month on social media platforms, a 19 percent increase year of year. I can see why, based on my own experience. The TikTok algorithm knows I love dogs and babies (I just became a grandpa), so it sends me many short videos of lovable dogs interacting with adorable babies. After thirty minutes of scrolling, I realize I need to disconnect. The experience did not bring me joy or sadness; it was just a passive distraction and a waste of time.
Lastly, the ugly side of Attention Economy has a leader. Its Sith Lord is the four-time indicted former President, Donald Trump. And we just entered the Attention Economy Olympics – a presidential election. Trump’s misinformation has normalized bad behavior on and offline and caused others to embrace the dark side. In his mind, there is no such thing as bad Attention (read the indictments), especially when he can fundraise off of it. Look for the billionaire’s postings with his mug shot asking for money, and the worst is yet to come.
Hugh Panero, a tech & media entrepreneur, was the founder & former CEO of XM Satellite Radio. He has worked with leading tech venture capital firms and was an adjunct media professor at George Washington University. He writes about tech and media for the Spy.