Whenever there is a crisis, or the hint of crisis, or even the imagination of crisis, headlines will rush to publish The End Of The World!
We saw it with North Korea. We saw it with Russia. And recently, we have seen it even with Syria.
United States To Attack Damascus! World War III! Run For The Hills!
Of course, none of that happened, and we are all still here.
The problem is partly because a great number of those reporting these really do see Doom around every corner. Especially when you’re in the business of…well…Doom.
Look at the headlines recently. How many saw Syria as the harbinger of The End? How many were proclaiming it? How many published and tweeted out every…single…detail because it was so…very…important?
It was also really good at getting you to click on their links, wasn’t it?
Some see Doom as a nice way to drive followers to their Twitter and Facebook pages. Or to their websites where nice ad revenue can be had.
I am not going to pat ourselves on the back because we didn’t Overreact ™ to the recent Syria hysteria. Honestly, we had some staff a few years ago who would have been screaming bloody murder to raise the Alert Code over it. That doesn’t mean the current staff is smarter or less prone to overreaction. It’s just different people looking at things a different way. Analysis in this field isn’t a science. It’s an art bordering on magic. So I don’t really begrudge those who popped the cork so to speak. But it devalues real GeoIntel analysis when everything is a crisis and the public loses faith. How can we ring the warning bell when so many people are ringing the bell unnecessarily?
And then there are those who thrive on the headlines. Again, those who drive an audience out of fear for the sake of audience numbers and profit. Shame on them.
To sum up all this, a gentleman named Tobias Rose-Stockwell wrote an article called This Is How Your Fear and Outrage Are Being Sold for Profit. Beautifully written, I would like to share it with you.
The story of how one metric has changed the way you see the world
One evening in late October 2014, a doctor checked his own pulse and stepped onto a subway car in New York City. He had just returned home from a brief stint volunteering overseas, and was heading to Brooklyn to meet some friends at a bowling alley. He was looking forward to this break — earlier that day he had gone for a run around the city, grabbed coffee on the High Line, and eaten at a local meatball shop. When he woke up the next day exhausted with a slight fever, he called his employer.
Within 24 hours, he would become the most most feared man in New York. His exact path through the city would be scrutinized by hundreds of people, the establishments he visited would be shuttered, and his friends and fiancée would be put into quarantine.
Dr. Craig Spencer had contracted Ebola while he was treating patients in Guinea with Doctors Without Borders. He was not contagious until long after he was put into quarantine. He followed protocol to the letter in reporting his symptoms and posed no threat to anyone around him while he was in public. He was a model patient — a fact readily shared by experts.
This did not stop a media explosion declaring an imminent apocalypse. A frenzy of clickbait and terrifying narratives emerged as every major news entity raced to capitalize on the collective Ebola panic.
The physical damage done by the disease itself was small. The hysteria, however — traveling instantly across the internet — shuttered schools, grounded flights, and terrified the nation.
Social Media exploded around the topic, reaching 6,000 tweets per second, leaving the CDC and public health officials scrambling to curtail the misinformation spreading in all directions. The fear traveled as widely as the stories reporting it. The emotional response — and the media attached to it — generated billions of impressions for the companies reporting on it.
Those billions were parlayed directly into advertising revenue. Before the hysteria had ended, millions of dollars worth of advertising real-estate attached to Ebola-related media had been bought and sold algorithmically to companies.
The terror was far more contagious than the virus itself, and had the perfect network through which to propagate — a digital ecosystem built to spread emotional fear far and wide.
I’m going to tell you a few things you probably already know
Every time you open your phone or your computer, your brain is walking onto a battleground. The aggressors are the architects of your digital world, and their weapons are the apps, news feeds, and notifications in your field of view every time you look at a screen.
They are all attempting to capture your most scarce resource — your attention — and take it hostage for money. Your captive attention is worth billions to them in advertising and subscription revenue.
To do this, they need to map the defensive lines of your brain — your willpower and desire to concentrate on other tasks — and figure out how to get through them.
You will lose this battle. You have already. The average person loses it dozens of times per day.
This might sound familiar: In an idle moment you open your phone to check the time. 19 minutes later you regain consciousness in a completely random corner of your digital world: a stranger’s photo stream, a surprising news article, a funny YouTube clip. You didn’t mean to do that. What just happened?
This is not your fault — it is by design.
The digital rabbit hole you just tumbled down is funded by advertising, aimed at you. Almost every “free” app or service you use depends on this surreptitious process of unconsciously turning your eyeballs into dollars, and they have built sophisticated methods of reliably doing it. You don’t pay money for using these platforms, but make no mistake, you are paying for them — with your time, your attention, and your perspective.
This is not a small, technical shift in the types of information you consume, the ads you see, or the apps you download.
This has actually changed how you see the world.