Journalism is Caught Between Attention and Surveillance, American Professor Says

What are social media bots and troll farms indications of? And what happens when broadcasters shift from offering appealing programs to the public, to using digital surveillance to pinpoint individuals?

Paul C. Adams
Siri Flatlandsmo

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Professor Paul C. Adams travels from University of Texas, Austin, to Bergen to share his latest findings at the Watching in the Media conference  on Tuesday, March 20.

For a long time, attention has been a commodity, Adams says. It has been bought and sold under the conventional models of broadcasting and mass media distribution. Each pair of eyes on a TV program and each pair of ears on a radio program indicated a potential customer (since the program can include advertisements) or a potential voter (if it is a political campaign or crisis that is catching people's attention). To gather people's attention, media used to throw out a wide net (the literal meaning of broadcasting) by offering appealing programming to the general public in the hope that an interested audience would grow.

- Now there is a growing surveillance industry which attempts to characterize and typify people in much more detailed ways than in the past.

- The purpose is to target narrow segments of the public, send them tailored products, and most importantly push their "hot buttons," Adams point out. What this implies is using pervasive, digital surveillance as a way to identify and manipulate not just an "audience" but a host of different fragments of society, each of which can be mobilized and motivated in a peculiar way. The more data one collects via digital surveillance the better one can target specific hot buttons and prompt each type of person to consume certain goods and/or engage in particular political actions.

Paul Adams is a Professor and Director of Urban Studies at the Department of Geography and the Environment at University of Texas at Austin, and a professor II of the ViSmedia project at the University of Bergen. He specializes in geography of communication, technologies, nationalismcritical geopolitics, and representations of space and place. In a previous study, he focused on the use of interactive maps in the news coverage of migrants in Europe.  His research has helped develop the subdiscipline geography of media and communication.

In his talk in the Aula on Tuesday, Adams will argue that journalism is caught at the intersection of two increasingly important economies: the attention economy and the surveillance economy. These economies involve investments of time, money, and energy with the purpose of perpetually fine-tuning the attention-catching process through digital surveillance techniques. He says it is tempting to justify such tactics in terms of giving audience members what they want and fostering a higher degree of participation in the curation and circulation of news.

- However, the surveillant attention economy raises ethical and political issues. These are indicated, for example, by social media bots, troll farms, phishing, online harassment and the erosion of collective identity and consensus, as well as by ominous political trends in the United States and in Europe.

The growth of interlinking attention economies and surveillance economies has to do with much more than just journalism, Adams reminds us, and news media cannot escape from these dynamics. His new research therefore attempts to understand the ethical implications of the surveillant attention economy for the news media, and more generally for societal processes defining what is true, real, and good.