The attention factory appeals to emotions to exploit our attention

Identifying the authors and purposes of content is not necessarily easy for media users. Algorithms are not designed to distinguish truth from fake news. According to Katja Valaskivi, our attention is at the heart of the matter.

When we browse social media, algorithms select and recommend content displayed to us on a range of factors. Content evokes emotions in us, so we react to it. By doing so, we give it our attention, which further increases its visibility. When journalistic media outlets also turn their focus to such phenomena, they become news, and often also topics of political discussion. This is how an ‘attention factory’ works.

“Our social reality is built upon the direction of our collective attention at any given time. These mechanisms are described using the concept of the attention factory,” says Professor Katja Valaskivi.

“An attention factory is a reversed tool: as we are using it, it uses us by collecting data on our actions and based on that data directing the media contents we encounter based on the data. All elements of the attention factory, from social media platforms to journalism, depend on the attention of users. For all media within the factory, attention is currency. Media technologies play a key role in the direction and management of that attention.”

The attention factory is powered by emotions

Different apparatus – media forms – operate in the attention factory, and they compete for our attention. Attention is measured by reactions, which are evoked by emotions.

“The feeling of outrage is effective: it takes hold of both like-minded people and those against the specific issue. Dis- and misinformation typical of right-wing extremism that violates human rights has become widespread thanks to algorithms, and Facebook has been shown for years to display to users primarily content that makes them click the angry emoji,” Valaskivi says.

Juxtapositions related to religious identities, such as the legal case of Finnish politician Päivi Räsänen, the dispute over the ordination of women or the gender-neutral Marriage Act, are all grist to the mill for the attention factory.

It is not just about technology, but also its uses, related business models in particular.

“Facebook or YouTube do not generate any profit without the attention of media users, nor does journalist media survive without attention. Even the publicly funded Finnish broadcasting company Yle strives to attract the attention of the public with the content it produces. Otherwise, it will lose its legitimacy.”

Who, what and why?

An attention factory also benefits from content confusion. It is not easy for media users to identify the producers of content and their purposes for producing it. A news article can be a parody, or an ostensibly scholarly publication may actually not be objectively produced, but just designed to support propaganda.

At the same time, content confusion boosts epistemic instability: the context of content and the motivations for producing it remain unclear, making it difficult to assess the reliability of information and eroding the trustworthiness of epistemic institutions.

“Epistemic instability, or the instability of knowledge, is a concept coined by media researcher Jaron Harambam. It describes well this decline in the power of authorities and the democratisation of knowledge production.”

Attention is power

In the case of Finnish and other small languages, the power of algorithms is weaker compared to more widely spoken languages. This highlights the importance of human agents, such as a person transferring content from, for example, Twitter to another media outlet.

“In Finland, we mainly hear echoes of what is happening in America or more broadly in international politics. When Donald Trump incited his supporters to attack the Capitol, wishes for the same to happen in Finland were expressed in Telegram groups that are recycling conspiracy theories. The phenomenon is also localised: in Finland, conspiracy theory narratives are attached to, for example, anti-EU attitudes.”

According to Valaskivi, the attention gained by conspiracy theories in Finland exceeds their actual scope. Finnish media outlets also became interested in the topic, as international media focused an enormous amount of attention on it during the coronavirus years and especially during the presidential campaign in the United States. At times, marginal social media phenomena swell up due to journalistic attention.

“Journalists may come across a discussion on Telegram where a demonstration is planned, and by writing about it in advance, they may boost the size of the demonstration itself, which will then be reported on again. This way, journalistic media ends up also producing the phenomena they are reporting.”

Journalism, science and truth

What happens to truth and genuine knowledge in the turbulent media environment?

Journalism is one of the apparatus in the attention factory. Journalists’ guidelines and self-regulation, potential sanctions included, increase the reliability of journalism, but journalism too depends on attention.

“Fact-checking is journalists’ solution to the spread of disinformation. But when such information is repeated in order to disprove it, you end up bolstering it. There are conflicting results for using fact-checking in the fight against dis- and misinformation.”

And knowledge is not necessarily an effective weapon against beliefs. Belief is a collective phenomenon, which a surrounding like-minded community is likely to strengthen, and it cannot be refuted with facts. Belief can be justified not only by intuition, channelling and experiential knowledge, but also by research-based knowledge.

“Since scholarly knowledge is considered to be the most reliable knowledge there is, claims based on conspiracy theories are often argued for using scientific facts,” Valaskivi says.

Can you resist the attention factory?

“All of us media users are workers at the attention factory. We are toiling away for the benefit of the factory and spreading its products through our own actions, whether it be belief in conspiracy theories or the intent to tell others about an interesting phenomenon,” Valaskivi says.

The same workers can, if they so wish, change the workings of the attention factory. In recent years, attention has been increasingly paid to unintended consequences of social media, such as the spread of misinformation, disinformation and hate speech. At the same time, efforts have been initiated to advance the regulation of tech giants by means of legislation. For the time being, however, there are no quick solutions in sight.

“Media education, which is often offered as the remedy, plays a significant role, but it does not eliminate the structural problems associated with the attention factory,” Valaskivi notes.

More about Katja Valaskivi's research

Since the beginning of September 2022, Katja Valaskivi is full Professor in Religious Studies and Media Research. In addition, she leads the multidisciplinary and international HEREMES research hub, which investigates religions, belief systems and ideologies in a media-saturated society. She is also one of the directors of the Datafication research programme at the University of Helsinki’s Helsinki Institute for Social Sciences and Humanities (HSSH) and leads the Academy of Finland -funded research consortium on Mediatized Religious Populism (Merelpo).

Valaskivi has investigated conspiracy theories and their spread. An article on the circulation of conspiracy theories in the attention factory was recently published in the Popular Communication journal.

Special issue of Popular Communication on epistemic contestations (co-authored with David G. Robertson).