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War and the attention economy

Yemeni children play in the rubble of buildings destroyed in an air raid. In 2019, an estimated 24 million people—80% of the population—are in need of humanitarian assistance or protection.
©2019 European Union (photographer: Peter Biro)/Flickr

Across Sudan, thousands of people have been protesting a military coup that returned soldiers to the helm of Africa’s third largest country in October 2021. As the military summarily ousted the civilian leader of government, it was clear that the 2019 revolution – when a hybrid military and civilian regime seized power, ending the 30-year presidency of Omar al-Bashir – was incomplete.

This latest wave of protests has been largely peaceful but the response from the state has been violent: arbitrarily killing, detaining and disappearing civilians who have publicly supported the revolution.

Outside Sudan, attention towards the protest has waned considerably. In fact, Sudan joins Yemen, the Central African Republic, Cameroon, Afghanistan and countless other conflicts that are disappearing from the public consciousness because of our collective inability to sustain meaningful attention on them.

Certainly, the first two decades of the 21st century were characterized by an increase in global conflict, but there has also been a shift in the way stories about war are told. We are in a period of increased sensationalism and commodification of the news, and coverage is shaped by how well conflicts can be packaged for our attention. Beyond social media, the competition for attention in the news ecosystem overall is leaving many important stories untold or told poorly, and the ongoing resistance of the Sudanese people is just one of them.

We exist within an attention economy – our attention is a finite resource that has to be allocated to various things. There is always a tension between all the other things that must get done. Most people need to focus the bulk of their attention on surviving because of the hardships they navigate daily. The ability to think beyond this is both a marker of privilege and an obligation for those who have more time to allocate to events beyond their nose. That leaves us two options – either we invest in a reliable, transparent and consistent system of drip-feeding information to everyone, or we have the system that we have now which is predicated on competition and gaming the attention economy.

News is packaged as entertainment and focused on conflict narratives that can be neatly folded into easily digestible morsels. It’s about converting the attention of those who have the time into advertising revenue. But gaming the attention economy makes us vulnerable to the influence of money on journalism. In this era of cable news and social media, we are stuck in information wars precisely because power, in all its forms, has figured out how to play our attention, either through purchasing advertising or through propaganda by any other name.

This leaves us with the inhumane approach of making war ‘sexy’ – treating it like a video game, dehumanizing victims, valorizing strategies like transnational vigilantism that ultimately mean more people die. Yet the unfortunate reality is that most experiences of war are less full of fast-paced action – being unable to put food on the table, or walk safely to school or work, or soldiers wasting their lives waiting to attack or be attacked. We need to reset the attention economy. Supporting meaningful and accountable public interest journalism is one thing that can help the stories of places like Sudan get told properly.

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