What does it take for activists to get your attention?

For major protests today, it is standard to have a media strategy. For example, there can be individuals assigned to media liaison. The location and timing of an action can be chosen with an eye toward media schedules. Some actions are designed specifically to attract media attention.

However, there are many factors that complicate activist efforts to reach the mass media. Major outlets choose what to report based on news values such as conflict, prominence and proximity. A politician will be quoted rather than an activist, and a scuffle at a rally will be reported rather than what the protest is actually about.

Activists can try to sidestep the mass media by using social media. Another option is simply to not worry so much about media coverage and focus on making actions meaningful for participants. After all, protesters are part of the audience.

There is lots of practical advice on how to send the protest message, and it is definitely worth understanding media dynamics and taking them into account. However, protesters will nearly always be at a disadvantage when trying to compete with dominant groups. A useful perspective for understanding this challenge is provided by Tim Wu in his engaging book “The Attention Merchants.”

Capturing attention

Wu tells the story of media in an original way, as a struggle to capture the attention of audiences. What you pay attention to is the foundation of your reality. It is what you think about, and it shapes your behavior. According to Wu, the history of media is an evolving effort by governments and corporations to capture the attention of audiences.

Wu starts with the first newspapers. They were sober, expensive and not widely read. Then a U.S. entrepreneur had the idea of running advertisements, lowering the price and increasing circulation by running stories of scandal. The result was hugely popular. More people read newspapers. Their attention was captured by lower quality reporting and then directed to ads.

This same pattern was repeated with each new media form. It’s hard to believe today that when radio was introduced in the United States in the 1920s, it was thought improper to broadcast ads that would be played in people’s homes, which were considered private domains. But then a popular program, Amos ’n’ Andy, began airing ads, breaking the barrier of politeness.

Governments also used media to their ends. The British and U.S. governments pioneered the use of propaganda during World War I to promote patriotism and recruitment into the army. The Nazis in Germany learned from this when developing their own propaganda.

However, it wasn’t only governments that learned from the success of World War I propaganda. Advertisers adopted some of the same techniques.

Wu tells of wave after wave of new attention-gathering media, including television, desktop computers, video games and smartphones. In every case, advertisers have shaped content and use, with the trend being to degrade the content to attract audiences and reduce costs. For example, it is expensive to produce quality television, and some producers came up with the idea of having unpaid actors. Reality TV was born, and it was a great hit.

From the point of view of activists, the dilemma is that nearly every media form is captured by advertisers, who are highly sophisticated in designing ways to entice viewers. Today, they have invaded the most intimate parts of people’s lives via the smartphone. When you use Google or browse the web, the ads follow. On many sites, there is “click-bait”: intriguing stories with headlines designed to increase the likelihood that you will click on them and read further, including the associated ads.

In this marketplace built around attention capture, activists operate at a severe disadvantage. They may be perceived as just one more group competing for attention, but without a multi-billion-dollar enterprise to back up their efforts. Media entrepreneurs and advertisers can hire the best psychology, media studies and marketing students to figure out ways to promote their interests. Their efforts are most effective when audiences are influenced without even thinking about it. Many ads are designed to sidestep rational assessment.

This picture would be relentlessly depressing except for one countervailing process. After a new media form captures widespread attention, usually there is a popular backlash as consumers instinctively resist the exploitation of their time and interest. So, periodically, there have been efforts to push back against saturation advertising. In the 1800s, billboards and other public advertising took over cities such as Paris. This eventually led to protests and to laws restricting such advertising.

Recent types of resistance are the use of ad blockers on smartphones and the popularity of Netflix, where viewers binge on several episodes or even entire series in marathon sittings without watching a single ad.

Activists are, for the most part, small players in the struggle for attention. They seldom can afford high-profile ads, and mass media coverage usually lacks an in-depth treatment of issues. Relying on social media means competing with vast numbers of other messages.

Another problem is that most people do not understand how they are influenced by media. They think ads influence other people, but not themselves.

What to do?

One response to this situation is to figure out ways for helping more people to become knowledgeable about the operation of the media and the activities of the attention merchants. Organizers could add segments on media dynamics to sessions on nonviolence training. But more is needed, beyond the ranks of activists.

More broadly, to make a difference in the long run, we need campaigns to educate media consumers about how they are being manipulated and having their attention sold to advertisers. Fostering a movement to run such campaigns is a huge challenge.

In the meantime, individuals can try to resist attention merchants on their own. However, collective action is more promising. Members of groups can support each other in turning off intrusive media inputs, installing blockers or refocusing attention on sources to achieve long-term goals.

How this might be done is a work in progress. So far, attention merchants have taken most of the initiatives, with audiences either welcoming or resisting their offerings. Activists usually try to compete for people’s attention, but do this at a severe disadvantage in skills and resources. This is why they should consider joining a struggle at the receiving end. The goal: developing people’s understanding of attention-capture techniques and building their capacity to resist and redirect their attention.

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