The Clickbait Candidate

By James Williams (@WilliamsJames_)
Note: This is a cross-post with Quillette magazine.

While ‘interrobang’ sounds like a technique Donald Trump might add to the Guantanamo Bay playbook, it in fact refers to a punctuation mark: a disused mashup of interrogation and exclamation that indicates shock, surprise, excitement, or disbelief. It looks like this: ‽ (a rectangle means your font doesn’t support the symbol). In view of how challenging it seems for anyone to articulate the fundamental weirdness of Trump’s proximity to the office of President of the United States, I propose that we resuscitate the interrobang, because our normal orthographic tools clearly are not up to the task.

Yet even more interrobang-able than the prospect of a Trump presidency is the fact that those opposing his candidacy seem to have almost no understanding of the media dynamics that have enabled it to rise and thrive. Trump is perhaps the most straightforward embodiment of the dynamics of the so-called ‘attention economy’—the pervasive, all-out war over our attention in which all of our media have now been conscripted—that the world has yet seen. He is one of the geniuses of our time in the art of attentional manipulation.

If we ever hope to have a societal conversation about the design ethics of the attention economy—especially the ways in which it incentivizes technology design to push certain buttons in our brains that are incompatible with the assumptions of democracy—now would be the time.

Trump’s cynical and dangerous candidacy should be prompting urgent late-night video conferences among leaders in the technology industry. They should be asking: How ethical, and ultimately sustainable, is the attention economy‽ Are we comfortable with the psychological world we have designed for society‽ Are we prepared for the character of the attention economy to become the character of the political realm‽

Because the truth is, these political effects are already upon us. This election, more than a contest between candidates or ideas, is a contest between cognitive styles: between attention and distraction, reflection and impulsivity, self-regulation and outrage. The dynamics of the attention economy uniquely underlie and enable Trump’s style. Whether or not we collectively reflect on, and fix, those dynamics is a far more consequential question than whether or not he becomes America’s next president.

In every age, the dominant techniques of attention management find themselves embodied in our political candidates. In the era of film and television, this meant that politicians had to become actors—but it also meant that some actors would become politicians. (I’ll leave it to you to decide which is worse.) People were flabbergasted that Ronald Reagan—the actor—could become president, until they weren’t anymore. Just as people were flabbergasted that Arnold Schwarzenegger—The Terminator‽—could become governor, until they weren’t anymore. Or that Minnesota would choose a professional wrestler as governor, or a comedian as a senator.

Today, though, the era of television is behind us. It is now that loose confederation of digital services aggregated under the lazy misnomer ‘social media’ that rudders our attentional ship. (44% of American adults now get their news from Facebook, and for young adults it is the number one source.) To the extent that the ‘news industry’ may still defensibly be described as such, it now largely functions as a filtering mechanism for, and extension of, these digital services. Furthermore, the disruption of traditional media business models, especially by digital media’s separation of content creation and publication, has forced news outlets to play by the rules of social media. This means they, too, must now dance for their dinner: they must sensationalize, bait, and entertain in order to survive.

It’s frequently pointed out that Trump is fond of criticizing ‘the media.’ This is not entirely true. He has never (to my knowledge) criticized the design of Twitter, Facebook, or any other platform whose dynamics he actually embodies. As a general rule, the ‘media’ that politicians criticize are rarely the media that actually matter.

A better name for ‘social media’ would be ‘impulsive media.’ The unprecedented abundance and instantaneity of information in the digital era has turned our world into a never-ending flow of novel attentional rewards. Yet transcending these limits of space and time—moving from information scarcity to abundance—does not mean our informational world has become limitless: it is still limited by our capacity to navigate it. Thus, we have now become the main limits; the constraints of our psychology now play the defining roles. A major implication of this is that we now spend much more of our finite willpower to maintain our previous levels of self-regulation. Too often, though, we find that we don’t have enough willpower saved up to spend to avoid distraction.

In the brave new cognitive world that results, then, innumerable packets of information come screaming across the sky (to remix Pynchon’s phrase)—all our candidates, comedians, memes, meeting notes, native advertisements, love letters, likes, posts, product placements, poems, exhortations, titillations, and cats—all competing on the same instant playing field, whose center is everywhere and boundary is nowhere, for the grand prize of our attention. And whichever one is best at pushing our buttons will win. We have many buttons.

In case you haven’t noticed, the internet has become an outrage machine. (Sidebar protip: whenever you see the phrase ‘the internet’ used agentively like this, mentally replace it with ‘we.’) As usual, The Onion has already scouted out this territory and returned with pitch-perfect intelligence: ‘Blogger Takes Few Moments Every Morning To Decide Whether To Feel Outraged, Incensed, Or Shocked By Day’s News.’ As this article expresses well, the problem with digitally-induced outrage is not so much its negative valence (some things do, after all, deserve outrage), but rather its tendency to feed wantonly on our impulsivities, thus crowding out our opportunities—and perhaps even our capacities—for reflection.

We seem to be producing around one big outrage cascade per week now. Here’s just one example. On July 1 of last year, a Minnesotan dentist hunting in Zimbabwe killed a well-known lion named Cecil. Cecil had a black fringe around his mane. His cause of death was an arrow, followed by—around forty hours later—a rifle round. Cecil was then decapitated and flown to Minnesota as trophy of a victorious hunt. It cost around $50,000 to kill Cecil. It may not have been legal.

Suddenly, the whole internet—sorry, we—rose up and roared. The memorial hashtag #CecilTheLion received 670,000 tweets in just twenty-four hours. Comedian Jimmy Kimmel called the dentist ‘the most hated man in America who never advertised Jell-O on television.’ Actress Mia Farrow tweeted the dentist’s address. Crowds appeared at his office to yell ‘Murderer! Terrorist!’ through megaphones and to display homemade signs suggesting that he ‘ROT IN HELL.’ Someone spray-painted ‘Lion Killer’ on his house. Someone else tore down his professional website. Still others, sitting god knows where in the world, spent hours falsifying one-star Yelp reviews of his dental practice. On Facebook, the thousand-plus-member group that emerged as the de facto mission control for Cecil’s revenge brigade was called ‘Shame Lion Killer Dr. Walter Palmer and River Bluff Dental.’

When children behave like this, we call it ‘cyberbullying.’ Yet when it’s a gaggle of outraged adults, their buttons pushed by the persuasive patterns of digital design, it becomes ‘justice,’ ‘karma,’ or ‘sweet, sweet revenge.’

Of course, it is none of those things. It is nothing more—and nothing less—than amplified mob rule, a digital Salem.

The problem is this: we enjoy being outraged. We respond to it as a reward. That’s because it is a reward. When we turn ourselves over to a new outrage cascade, life once again has that rush—of purpose, of moral clarity, of social solidarity—of meeting deep human needs that the regiment of day-to-day habit is increasingly powerless to fill. Furthermore, when you perform and broadcast your moral outrage, it gives you an opportunity to signal to others that you can be trusted, that you’re one of the good guys.

To be sure, outrage is not the only problematic button that our impulsive media environment manages to push. It may, however, be one of the most dangerous.

Although the term ‘clickbait’ is of recent coinage, it’s already been enshrined in the OED, where it’s defined as ‘content whose main purpose is to attract attention and encourage visitors to click on a link to a particular web page.’ You’ve undoubtedly encountered clickbait on the web even if you haven’t known its name. It’s marked by certain recognizable and rage-inducing headline patterns, as seen in, for example: ‘23 Things Parents Should Never Apologize For,’ ‘This One Surprising Phrase Will Make You Seem More Polite,’ or ‘This Baby Panda Showed Up At My Door. You Won’t Believe What Happened Next.’

Trump is very straightforwardly an embodiment of the dynamics of clickbait: he is the logical product (though not endpoint) in the political domain of a media environment designed to invite, and indeed incentivize, relentless competition for our attention. In fact, Trump benefits not only from the attention and outrage of his supporters, but also that of his opponents. So you already are, in a sense, ‘voting’ for Trump every time you click that link to see what zany antics he’s gotten himself into in today’s episode. (Yes, I am aware of the ironic implications of the previous sentence for this article as a whole—more on that shortly.)

When Thomas Paine wrote that ‘those who want to reap the benefits of this great nation must bear the fatigue of supporting it,’ he probably wasn’t imagining the sort of fatigue you incur when you have to repeatedly defend your country’s dignity at dinner parties because a leading candidate for its highest office turned a debate into a straw poll about dick sizes. Or held forth about a debate moderator’s menstruation. Or mocked a disabled reporter.

Yet the problem with Donald Trump is not ultimately Donald Trump. Like clickbait or outrage cascades, Donald Trump is merely the sort of informational packet our media environment is designed to select for. The real problem is the set of incentives that make it lucrative to select for the informational packet of Donald Trump in the first place—i.e., the incentives to design technologies that deliberately, wantonly, and indiscriminately appeal to our impulsivity and non-rational biases to steal our attention. And at the root of nearly all these problematic design incentives is advertising.

Trump and his supporters frequently tout the fact that he is not dependent on advertising for his success. It’s unclear why, in their reasoning, this should be a laudable thing. In any event, it does not matter because the claim is flatly untrue.

Trump is probably more dependent on advertising for his success than any other political candidate in history. To understand why, consider a comment Les Moonves, chairman and CEO of CBS, made about Trump’s candidacy back in February: ‘It may not be good for America, but it’s damn good for CBS.’ (CBS moderated the vice-presidential debate on October 4th.)

Trump’s outrageous antics are valuable to publishers because they drive yuge numbers of ‘eyeballs,’ which enable delivery of a yuge quantity of ad impressions, which ultimately bring in a yuge amount of money. In advertising-speak, we might say that Trump is a highly reliable source of ‘earned,’ rather than ‘paid,’ viral content. The fact that he plays the role of the bait, and not the hook, in this system makes him no less a part of it.

Of course, the incentive to maximally capture and hold people’s attention is not itself new. Elements of the so-called ‘attention economy’ have long existed in various forms throughout previous media such as radio and television. (In fact, going even further back, we find in the original use of the word ‘claptrap’ a nice eighteenth-century analogue of ‘clickbait.’)

However, what is new in this election is the way in which the new, digitally supercharged dynamics of the attention economy have finally crossed a threshold and become manifest in the political realm.

There’s a bumper-sticker slogan of unknown provenance that says, ‘If you’re not outraged, you’re not paying attention.’ An unstated assumption here is that what you’re paying attention to is the source of your outrage. However, in the attention economy, the truth is more clearly expressed by the phrase, “If you’re outraged, it’s probably because of how you’re paying attention.” Our critical task is to turn that how into a what: to make our informational environment the object of observation; to bring forward the background dynamics of the attention economy long enough to see and question and fix them.

Of course, this is very hard to do—for many reasons. We like to think of our media as ‘neutral.’ We still frame technology design ethics in terms of information management rather than attention management. There are no good societal mechanisms for reflecting on and guiding the media that operate in the background of our lives. Also, the new Rick and Morty episodes are coming out soon.

In fact, there is even a sense in which reflecting on the spectacle of Trump in the way I have here is entertaining. But we must not let ourselves be entertained. As Neil Postman wrote in his startlingly prescient 1985 book Amusing Ourselves to Death (which ought to be required reading for every American this election season), in information societies this is precisely where the deeper threats to freedom lie:

What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one. Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egoism. Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance. Orwell feared we would become a captive culture. Huxley feared we would become a trivial culture. … As Huxley remarked in Brave New World Revisited, the civil libertarians and rationalists who are ever on the alert to oppose tyranny ‘failed to take into account man’s almost infinite appetite for distractions.’ In 1984, Orwell added, people are controlled by inflicting pain. In Brave New World, they are controlled by inflicting pleasure. In short, Orwell feared that what we fear will ruin us. Huxley feared that what we desire will ruin us.

Our situation is not yet ruinous, but it is dangerously entertaining. Trump’s candidacy represents the ascendancy of a new level of Huxleyan threat into the realm of American politics. This is not good, as we were already ill-equipped to contend with, or even recognize, the old threats. Now, even more than in Postman’s time, the deeper threats to our freedom are far more Huxleyan than Orwellian in character. Yet here, at the outset of the digital era—when the emergence of technologies such as virtual reality, artificial intelligence, and the physical internet present us with unique opportunities to shape the moral character of our informational environment for generations to come—we’re making the same mistake Huxley spoke of: we’re failing to take into account ‘man’s almost infinite appetite for distractions.’

Yet—to return to the paradox I mentioned above—how can we reform the attention economy without also turning into clickbait ourselves? How can we critique and steer a medium, and manage its political externalities, from within that medium itself? Marshall McLuhan seemed to think the appropriate tool for this was parody. I wonder whether it is more than coincidence that, in the same year two of our greatest political parodists/satirists (Stephen Colbert and Jon Stewart) have stepped back, at least in these capacities, from the public stage, one of the two major presidential nominees is an entertaining reality TV personality whose campaign we’re still not even sure isn’t a joke‽

In any event, the phenomenon of Trump may be amusing, concerning, depressing—but one thing it should not be is surprising. Because he is a master of attention in our time—and in our current media environment, attention trumps everything.

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2 Responses to The Clickbait Candidate

  • Paul Treanor says:

    No, the 2016 US election is not a “contest between cognitive styles”, it is by American standards an unusually ideological contest. It is also notable that immigration has displaced the economy and national security as a prime voter concern. Without the populist reaction to the real-world demographic and cultural shifts, Donald Trump would not even be a candidate. As with similar populist revolts in Europe, the voters matter more than the candidate. They are an indication that part of the population has disengaged form mainstream politics, to a degree that threatens national cohesion.

    The outrage is there alright, but it would be wrong to dismiss it as trivial because it is now mainly expressed online. On the contrary, social media can indicate further contentious issues, which will have real electoral impact, probably as new populist revolts. This post by James Williams reflects a now-established tradition among media theorists, to seek explanations for social and political shifts in the media themselves. So be it, but there is no reason for the rest of us to follow the media theorists in this approach.

    • James Williams says:

      Hi Paul, thanks for taking the time to comment. Perhaps I’m watching a different election than you are, but I can’t recall any US election in my lifetime in which ideology has played a less important role than the present one.

      My point is not that the design of media explains the totality of the effects we’re seeing (which I certainly don’t dismiss as trivial – quite the opposite!), but that it is a major and largely unacknowledged cause of them.

      Whatever the extent of its influence, though, I see no reason to ignore media design as an explanatory force, as you suggest. It is obvious and uncontroversial that what Churchill said of physical architecture – ‘We shape our buildings, and afterwards, our buildings shape us’ – is true of our information architecture as well.

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