Charlottesville and the battle for attention

“When you have attention, you have power," Michael Goldhaber told New York Times columnist Charlie Warzel, "...and some people will try and succeed in getting huge amounts of attention..."

A recent article in the New York Times about Michael Goldhaber, a theoretical physicist who warned about the dangers of the dominance of the internet in the mid-1980s, got me thinking: the extent to which the internet and social media has seized our attention, and generated so much attention for individuals and groups, is perhaps one of the most overlooked dynamics of what happened in Charlottesville in August of 2017. Indeed, the chaos that would lead to the tragedy was born online with a single Facebook post, and then inflamed with subsequent online "events" that drew the attention of, and generated attention for, obscure, mostly online groups and individuals who's own attention-grabbing ambitions were emboldened by perhaps the most attention-grabbing individual in American history.

“When you have attention, you have power," Michael Goldhaber told New York Times columnist Charlie Warzel, "...and some people will try and succeed in getting huge amounts of attention, and they would not use it in equal or positive ways.”

What A12 was, in many ways, was one of those online comment threads on some controversial subject that gets heated and out of control, taken over by trolls, with people firing insults at each other and trying to win their arguments, only it materialized into the real world. Not unlike the recent Capitol riot.

"It felt like an expression of a world in which everyone is desperately seeking their own audience and fracturing reality in the process," said Goldhaber about watching the recent Capitol riot. "I only see that accelerating.”

"Attention has always been currency, but as we’ve begun to live our lives increasingly online, it’s now THE currency," writes Warzel in his piece about Goldhaber. "Any discussion of power is now, ultimately, a conversation about attention and how we extract it, wield it, waste it, abuse it, sell it, lose it and profit from it."

"Even the recent GameStop stock rally and the Reddit social media fallout share this theme," Warzel writes, "...illustrating a universal truth about the attention economy: Those who can collectively commandeer enough attention can accumulate a staggering amount of power quickly. And it’s never been easier to do that than it is right now."

Harvard's NeimanLab recently analyzed 46,218 news transcripts and found that ideologically extreme politicians got more media airtime:

"Sticking out from the crowd can elicit attention from media outlets seeking to highlight controversy in order to attract viewers. Then there’s social media, which allows politicians to bypass reporters and editors. Rather than merely hoping reporters publish their quotes, representatives can tweet and post whatever they like, reaching large audiences of supporters and donors."

Indeed, even locally, attention-grabbers wield power over our community discourse like never before, whether its City Councilors with thousands of Facebook followers, activists who can generate TV news and newspaper coverage with a single social media post, freelance journalists with more Twitter followers than there are people in Charlottesville, or online mobs of citizens on Facebook, Reddit, or NextDoor. For traditional media these days, much of the work involves monitoring local activity online to mine for storylines.

While countless think pieces and continuing lines of thought and commentary have sought to interpret and define the meaning of the tragic events in Charlottesville, and most recently to compare it to what happened on January 6 in D.C., it's the sustained attention still given to "Charlottesville" that's become most striking. Charlottesville has been in the national news before -- think of the Rolling Stone Magazine article about an alleged rape at a UVA frat house, the ouster of former UVA president Teresa Sullivan, the search for Hannah Graham's murderer, or the discovery that DNA evidence had proven that Thomas Jefferson had fathered children with his slave and mistress, Sally Hemings, all of which received intense national media attention before becoming footnotes in local history. But three and half years later, a week doesn't go by during which "Charlottesville" isn't mentioned in some major news story or opinion piece, or referenced by some TV pundit, politician, or activist.

Recently, someone suggested The DTM change its cover image on Twitter, a wide shot of the crowd in the park on A12, because some people might be triggered by the image. I was happy to choose a different image, but unfortunately that won't do much to change what people still find when they do a Google Images search for Charlottesville [trigger warning].

You have to wonder. How long will Charlottesville continue to be known as #Charlottesville? The current president made it a rallying cry at the start of his campaign, trump apologists are still trying to whitewash the former presidents comments about it, and locally it still haunts our politics and community culture.

But maybe that's the point. Maybe that's the lesson here.

In the weeks and days leading up to A12, the Charlottesville community's approach, and the position taken by many local leaders, had been to deny the groups and individuals planning to attend the rally the attention they sought. Alternative events were planned, and people were told to stay home and avoid downtown Charlottesville. But what the community and local leaders didn't seem to understand at the time was that it was too late for that. That our community was truly in danger. That the hate-filled rally goers had seized the narrative and had all the attention, and like Trump's mob in DC on January 6th, were about to put a permanent stain on our history.

“When you have attention, you have power," as Goldhaber said. Well, Charlottesville, we've had attention for some time now, probably more than this community has ever had. The world is watching. The question is, what are we going to do with it?